Food & Drink: Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter selects affordable wines for the party season

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The Independent Culture
SOBER as a tadpole, I'm just back from a party where I drank six glasses of steaming mulled wine. The red they used had contained 12 degrees of alcohol, but then they boiled it to infuse the spices. We may have breathed a little of the alcohol on the festive air, but there was certainly precious little left in the pan. They had boiled out a lot of the flavour, too. The secret of mulling is to make a concentrated infusion of the spices in a little boiling water, then heat up your wine to serving (but never boiling) temperature and add your spice concentrate. This is my favourite recipe: in a small pan with the lid on, boil three cups of water with a stick of cinnamon, six cloves, a quarter of a teaspoon grated nutmeg and a six-inch length of orange zest (pared with a sharp knife, minus the pith) for about 20 minutes until it reduces to about half the volume. Leave the spices in the liquid until just before you heat the wine, then strain through a sieve. Heat the wine to near boiling, and for each 75cl bottle of wine, stir in two to four rounded tablespoons of brown sugar to taste (three is about right for me) and half a cup spiced water. You can decorate it with small, whole oranges stuck with cloves. Full-bodied, low-tannin reds give best results.

PARTYING on a tight budget? You can still find wines way under pounds 3 a bottle that are scrumptious enough to serve unmulled to discriminating wine drinkers. Super-bargain among reds, reduced for Christmas, is oaky, strawberry-fruity Spanish *Casa Barco, Vino de Mesa ( pounds 1.99 Victoria Wine), or Portuguese **Ramada, Vinho de Mesa Tinto ( pounds 2.39 Waitrose), very gluggable, light and fruity with a hint of tannin. *1992 Ribera del Azuer, Valdepenas ( pounds 2.49 Kwik Save) is a superb value new-style Spanish red, with fresh, aromatic, plummy fruit. A snip among dry whites is *South East Australian Pelican Bay Semillon ( pounds 2.77 Kwik Save), amazing value, with very attractive, greengagey fruit. Morrisons are hard to beat for good quality, cut-price German wines: try the crisp, blackcurrant-leafy *1991 Flohnheimer Adelberg Kabinett, Johannes Egberts ( pounds 2.59 Morrisons) and tangy, honeyed *1992 Seafish Dry, Rheinhessen QbA ( pounds 2.69 Morrisons). Waitrose's perfumed ** 1992 Morio Muskat, St Ursula ( pounds 2.49 for Christmas, then pounds 2.99) is very good.

EVEN if your own tooth is dry, it's worth laying in a little German wine for visitors. Many of the scoops of the season are at Victoria Wine: ***1988 Falkensteiner Hofberg Riesling Kabinett, Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium ( pounds 3.89 until 4 January, then pounds 5.39, Victoria Wine) is brilliant value, honeyed, grapefruity and appley. Slightly sweeter, **1988 Deidesheimer Hergottsacker Riesling Spatlese, Schloss Bockelheim ( pounds 3.89 until 4 January, then pounds 5.39, Victoria Wine) has lovely flavours of lemon and beeswax. And budget best buy is *1988 Dexheimer Doktor Scheurebe Kabinett, Rheinfront ( pounds 2.99 until 4 January, then pounds 4.49, Victoria Wine), excellent value, grapefruity with a touch of sweetness. Morrisons' yummiest German is the lovely, crisp, honeyed **1991 Wehlener Kosterberg Kabinett, Ewald Pfeiffer ( pounds 3.59 Morrisons). Away from Germany, but still with a touch of sweetness, try the crisp, flowery **Hungarian Country Wine ( pounds 2.69 Sainsbury's), made by a New Zealander. or *Misty Morning Australian Dry White ( pounds 2.99 Majestic), crisp, not quite dry.

FEW wines under pounds 5 a bottle have flavours complex and classy enough to excite me to award three stars, but here are a few exceptions. ***Coldridge Estates Semillon Chardonnay, Australia ( pounds 2.99 Morrisons) is fairly full but crisp, with toasty, greengage and peach flavours. Lighter and more subtle, ***1992 Gyongyos Estate Chardonnay ( pounds 3 Safeway, Thresher, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack, Sainsbury's, pounds 3.35 Majestic, pounds 3.49 Fuller's), made by an Australian in Hungary, has fresh, pineappley, biscuity flavours. Up a bit in price, but still stunning value, try the ***1992 Chateau Haut Rian, Bordeaux ( pounds 3.99 Waitrose), delicious, ripe, gooseberry fruity with hints of pear, honey and greengage; or the lovely, ripe, really concentrated ***1993 Villa Montes Sauvignon Blanc, Cuvee Ryman ( pounds 3.99 Sainsbury's) with grassy and gooseberry flavours. For a stunning quality inexpensive red light enough to drink at a party without food I'd go for ***1992 Chais Baumiere Merlot ( pounds 3.99 Sainsbury's), lovely, soft and perfumed, with grassy, mushroom and raspberry flavours. For a celebratory meal, try the big, blackcurrant and raisin flavoured ***1989 Bulgarian Vintage Blend Oriachovitza Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ( pounds 2.99 Sainsbury's), or the mature ***1985 Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve ( pounds 2.99 Morrisons), rich and soft, with blackcurrant and hints of tobacco.

WHEN I wrote down all my best-scoring inexpensive party whites, an amazing proportion of them were well-made Chardonnays from the South of France, South Africa and (Antipodean-aided) Eastern Europe. You'd pay at least a couple of pounds more for the same quality Chardonnay from Burgundy. Sainsbury's hog my recommendations because they scored so highly. Here's a clutch I'd be proud to serve at my party: lovely, ripe, pineappley **1992 Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc, CIRA ( pounds 2.99 Sainsbury's); crisp, honeyed and rich **1992 Chapel Hill Hungarian Chardonnay ( pounds 2.99 Sainsbury's); **1992 Moldova Hincesti Chardonnay ( pounds 2.99 Sainsbury's) with lovely, ripe greengagey fruit: **1991 Chais Baumiere Chardonnay, Vin de Pays d'Oc ( pounds 3.59 Sainsbury's), pineapple-fruity and oaky; **1992 St Hilaire Chardonnay, Vin de Pays d'Oc ( pounds 3.99 Oddbins), intense, fresh and pineappley; **1992 Stellensbosch Chardonnay South Africa ( pounds 3.99 Marks & Spencer), subtly biscuity and very honeyed; and **1993 Danie de Wet Chardonnay sur Lie ( pounds 4.39 Safeway, pounds 4.49 Oddbins) tangy, honeyed, pineappley, and nearly worth three stars.

PARTY reds for sipping without substantial food need to be light and fruity, low on tannin and not too mature. Here are some of the best buys this Christmas: **1992 Alentejo ( pounds 2.99 Safeway), wonderful value, soft and cherry- and-plum fruity, with a whiff of smoke; **1991 Calitera Cabernet Merlot ( pounds 3.99 Davisons), yummy, blackcurranty, soft and creamy; *1992 Domaine Resclave Merlot, Vin de Pays d'Oc ( pounds 2.85 Kwik Save), bordering on two stars, delicious and wonderful value, really fruity, with raspberry and raisin flavours; *Domaine St Pierre, Vin de Pays de l'Herault ( pounds 3.29 Marks & Spencer), easy drinking, vibrantly cherry-fruity; *1991 Chateau du Bosc, Coteaux du Languedoc ( pounds 2.99 Co-op Leos), a soft, slightly peppery, slightly plummy Southern French red; *Tesco Merlot del Piave ( pounds 2.84), light, fresh and cherry-fruity; *Angoves Nanya Estate Grenache Pinot Noir ( pounds 2.99 Oddbins), lovely, easy drinking; *1992 Minervois ( pounds 2.99 Waitrose), strawberry-fruity, smoky and toffeed.

EASTERN Europe, if you choose carefully, can be an excellent source of fuller-bodied budget reds for drinking with food. Among my favourites are: **1992 Krazen Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Selection, Russe, Bulgaria ( pounds 3.29 selected Safeway), full and blackcurranty with some tannin; and a concentrated, savoury, blackcurranty **1988 Pinot Noir, Dealul Mare, Nicolae Demitru, Romania ( pounds 2.49 until 1 January, then pounds 2.99, Safeway). Choosing carefully again, there are full-bodied, fruity bargains from Spain and Portugal. For oak lovers, the fruity **Sainsbury's El Conde, Vino de Mesa ( pounds 2.75) is currently one of the best of inexpensive oaked Spanish reds; **1992 Casa de la Vina Cencibel, Valdepenas ( pounds 3.29 Safeway) is fresh and plummy-rich, with some tannin; **1989 Agramont Tempranillo/Cabernet, Navarra ( pounds 3.99 Safeway) rich and savoury, with concentrated blackcurrant fruit and some tannin. Or try a really characterful red from the port-producing mountains of Northern Portugal: **1992 Quinta de Lamelas, Quinta de la Rosa, Douro ( pounds 3.69 Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up) is full-bodied, smoky-herby and strawberry fruity. Affordable, characterful, fullish reds from the South of France include: **1990 Chateau Saint Louis la Perdrix, Costieres de Nimes ( pounds 3.99 Tesco), rich, raisiny, plummy and cherry fruity; **1992 Cotes du Ventoux, Chapoutier ( pounds 3.99 Majestic), velvety-textured, with fairly rich raspberry fruit and a hint of tannin; **1991 Domaine de Rivoyre Cabernet Sauvignon, Vin de Pays d'Oc ( pounds 3.99 Victoria Wine), oaky, with concentrated, young blackcurranty fruit; **1990 Chateau Moysson Bel Air, Bordeaux Rouge ( pounds 3.99 Sainsbury's), honeyed, grassy and fruity; and the mature, figgy **1990 Chateau St Maurice, Cotes du Rhone ( pounds 3.99 Waitrose), delicious and very smooth.

STAR RATING: * good; ** very good; *** excellent - stunning value at this price.