FOOD & DRINK: Bordeaux and burgundy for a traditional Christmas

On Wine: Start planning your festive drinking with our three-part guide to great-value wines

FOR MANY wine-lovers, Christmas means back to basics, a chance to dust off a classy bordeaux or luxurious red burgundy squirrelled away for the occasion. For younger wine- drinkers who've been weaned on the New World wines, tradition can be a dirty word. But it needn't be. Nor do traditionalists need to limit their horizons. Compared to a decade ago, we're spoilt for choice. So let's turn l'embarras du choix to our advantage and enjoy the quality, whether of Chilean cabernet or bordeaux, New Zealand pinot noir or burgundy.

Looking at the diversity of wine styles gives me the chance to take several bites at the festive cherry. This week I'm putting the emphasis on traditional values, selecting from the rounds of autumn tastings a variety of classic bordeaux and juicy red burgundy. Next week, I'll pick out a handful of mouth-watering sweet wines, both white and red. The week after, I'll be recommending some of the exciting and innovative New World answers to the French classics.

Will we all be trading up? Perhaps, but value remains as important a consideration as quality. Did I say value? So often claret, or red bordeaux as it now likes to call itself, doesn't stack up against its New World counterparts based on the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. The secret is to avoid cheap own-labels and brand names and be prepared to pay a little more.

Right-bank bordeaux

First up are a handful of luscious, full-bodied, St Emilion and Pomerol look-alikes based on the merlot grape of the right bank of the Dordogne river. In a minor key, 1996 Chateau Lauduc (pounds 6.99, Waitrose) is a voluptuously fruity example of the type with a light cedary touch to it, while the 1996 Chateau d'Auigulhe, Comtes de Neipperg, Cotes de Castillon (pounds 7.99, Waitrose) is closer to St Emilion, with the soft and juicy merlot grape creating a succulently fruity, bright claret with a well-proportioned touch of vanilla-tinged oak and voluptuous fruit flavours.

In similar style, the 1996 Chateau Hostens Picant Sainte Foy Bordeaux (pounds 7.99, Fuller's) is a stylish young chateau red, while from the same fine vintage, the 1996 Chateau Sergant Lalande de Pomerol (pounds 8.99, Fuller's) is a shade richer, a distinctive mini-Pomerol with rich merlot-based fruitiness. From Castillon again, the 1997 Vieux Chateau Champs de Mars, Cotes de Castillon (pounds 8.99, Majestic - pounds 8.09 if you buy six bottles) is a spicily oaked, juicily ripe right-bank red.

Left-bank bordeaux

Switching to the classic, cabernet-based left bank, this time of the Garonne, bargain-hunters will want to snap up the richly concentrated, oak-spicy 1997 Chateau Haut Canteloup Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc (pounds 7.99, Asda - normally pounds 9.99).

The 1997 Chateau Ludon Pomies Agassac (pounds 9.89 - pounds 8.99 buy six bottles) is the value-for- money Haut-Medoc at Majestic, while the rich, chocolatey and nicely maturing 1995 Chateau Le Crock, St Estephe, (pounds 16.49 - pounds 14.84 buy six bottles) promises satisfying drinking. Unwins too has a beauty from this nicely evolving vintage in the elegant, full-flavoured 1995 Chateau La Tour de By (pounds 11.90).

At Oddbins, the sumptuously fruity and intense 1996 Chateau Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Medoc, (pounds 17.49) is still youthful but just starting to drink beautifully.

Red burgundy

The pinot noir grape of red burgundy is always more elusive, wonderful when it works but infuriatingly unreliable, and often a better proposition at a specialist wine merchant. Asda has decently slashed the price of its light, attractively strawberryish 1997 Hautes Cotes de Beaune, Antoine de Peyrache (pounds 4.99), and Safeway has a respectable, more animal specimen in its 1996 Bourgogne Pinot Noir Reserve de la Famille (pounds 6.99). A fine example of succulent, cherryish pinot noir with a gamey edge, the 1992 Chateau de Rully, Cote Chalonnaise (pounds 12.99, Unwins) also demands to be drunk now.

On a more seriously hedonistic note, the 1996 Chassagne-Montrachet, Henri Germain (pounds 13.90, Tanners of Shrewsbury, 01743 234500) is a youthful pinot noir with fragrant raspberry and violet scents and intensely flavoured with raspberry and mulberry. Oddbins is offering Vincent Girardin's pure, concentrated, loganberry-like 1997 Santenay 1er cru Baron de la Charriere (pounds 15.99) in its Fine Wine stores, while Unwins has also unearthed a superb Girardin with wonderful fruit clarity: the delicious strawberry and raspberry-flavoured 1997 Volnay 1er cru Clos des Chenes (pounds 29.49). Superb too, the 1996 Chateau de Monthelie, Monthelie 1er cru Sur la Velle, Eric de Suremain (pounds 23, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1, 0171-493 8721), a modern red burgundy with undertones of new oak spice and wild red-berry fruitiness.

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