FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on festive wines

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The Independent Culture
WHEN visions of sugarplums dance on to your plate, not to mention a wodge of stodgy Christmas pudding, the wine to drink is Muscat. Sweet wines from the Muscat grape, whether rich and fortified or light and fizzy, go brilliantly with the flavours of Christmas pudding - and they are also the best match for mince pies and Christmas cake. The most complex Muscats come from Australia, and three of the most stunning are *****Brown Brothers Liqueur Muscat ( pounds 12.99 Majestic), ****Stanton & Killeen Rutherglen Liqueur Muscat ( pounds 5.99 per half, Asda) and ****Yalumba Museum Show Reserve Rutherglen Muscat ( pounds 6.89 per half, selected Tesco, pounds 6.95 Les Amis du Vin of London W1 and The Winery of London W9, pounds 6.99 Victoria Wine, Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up). These are very sweet, with flavours including muscovado sugar, nuts, figs, vanilla, malt and sweet muscat grapes. Of the fortified European ones, I prefer the Southern French to the Spanish, for their lighter, fresher character and purer flavours. The best value this Christmas are ***1992 Domaine Brial, Muscat de Rivesaltes ( pounds 3.49 per half, selected Safeway), very sweet and creamy, with lovely flavours of Muscat table grapes and lavender; and ***Mimosas Muscat de Rivesaltes ( pounds 5.69 Majestic), with the perfume of orange and lemon marmalade and flowers. Lightest of all are the fizzy and semi-fizzy Muscats of Asti in northern Italy. The slight fizz of the grapey, honeyed and deliciously fruity **Moscato d'Asti La Serra, Marchesi di Gresy ( pounds 3.99 Oddbins), has a wonderfully levitating effect on a heavy Christmas pudding.

FINE, sweet wines made from botrytis-affected grapes are expensive, given the tiny yields in the few favoured parts of the world where this benign fungus grows. So it's worth leaping upon the brilliantly priced ****1986 Chateau de Malle, Sauternes ( pounds 9.49 per full bottle in December, then pounds 9.95, or pounds 5.99 per half, Davisons), lovely, soft and creamy sweet wine, with pungent honey and apricot flavours. Also delicious and more typically priced are ****1990 Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne, Sauternes ( pounds 7.75 per half, Waitrose), rich and creamy, with lovely honeyed fruit, and ****1990 Chateau Mayne des Carmes, Sauternes ( pounds 7.99 per half, selected Sainsbury's), honeyed, lemony and oaky, enjoyable now, but a good present for someone with a few years' patience to wait for greater complexity. Not quite as exciting but still good at half the price, try the pungent, honeyed, melony ***1989 Chateau de Berbec, Premieres Cote de Bordeaux ( pounds 3.49 per half, selected Safeway). Austrian sweet wines sometimes lack complexity, but ****1991 Seewinkler Impressionen Ausbruch, Neusiedlersee, Austria ( pounds 6.99 per half, selected Safeway) has lovely, complex flavours of honey, lavender and grapes. And, despite the unromantic name, ***1988 Botricised Late Harvest White, Joao Pires ( pounds 5.25 per half, Safeway) is an excellent, honeyed, pungent and tangy sweet wine from Portugal.

SOME of the best value Champagne around this Christmas is at Sainsbury's. The ****Sainsbury's Vintage 1988 Blanc de Blancs ( pounds 13.95) is lovely, light, elegant Champagne, floral, lemony and malty. It's delicious now, but would improve if you hoarded it for a year or two. Also excellent is the creamy, flavourful ***Sainsbury's Champagne Extra Dry ( pounds 9.95 until Jan 3, then pounds 11.95). (The rose is unimpressive.) Asda has a subtle, complex ****De Venoge Blanc de Noirs ( pounds 15.49). At Marks & Spencer there's an excellent, soft and creamy ***Veuve de Medts Brut Premier Cru ( pounds 12.99) with lovely milk chocolatey and malty flavours. Oddbins has a lovely, soft, malty ***Bonnet Carte Blanch ( pounds 13.49) - better than the vintage Bonnet. But the fine fizz find of the moment at Oddbins is not from Champagne, but from Australia's coolest outpost, Tasmania. ***Jansz Brut Cuvee ( pounds 11.99) tastes just like a very good, elegant Champagne, rich but lean, chocolatey and malty. (Oddbins offers seven bottles of fizz or Champagne for the price of six).

FOR a budget fizz, you can't do better than the fruity, toasty Australian ***Lonsdale Ridge Brut Reserve ( pounds 4.25 Bibendum). These are my other favourites: **Le Grand Pavilion de Boschendal, Cuvee Brut Blanc de Blancs, South Africa ( pounds 5.99 until January 1, then pounds 6.49 Safeway), crisp and malty; **Safeway Cremant de Bourgogne Brut ( pounds 6.79), soft, savoury and slightly honeyed; and **Cremant de Bourgogne, Cave de Lugny ( pounds 6.49 Waitrose), yeasty, slightly chocolatey and not quite dry.

*****superb, ****complex and exciting, ***excellent, **very good