Food & Drink: The ice is right for a drink of kings

BEVERAGE REPORT: More news from the festive drinks front, plus a medicinal liqueur brought to you by royal appointment
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK I GAVE my Christmas offering of "Buying by Numbers", in which some of the major national multiples selected wines at three different price levels (up to pounds 20, pounds 20 to pounds 30, and over pounds 30) to accompany the Christmas meal. Now it's the turn of the littler guys, starting with the London-based Fuller's. Their buyer, Roger Higgs, has put together his own lists with the usual specs. NB: the Seaview and Brossault are on multi-buy special offers. NB also: Dom Perignon is cheaper here than at most shops. NB most of all: Eileen Hardy Shiraz is an astounding wine.

Budget: Seaview Brut, pounds 6.49; Concha y Toro Explorer Pinot Noir 1997, pounds 4.99; Moscato d'Asti Amaldics, pounds 3.99. Mid-Price: Champagne Brossault Brut NV, pounds 12.99; La Rural Pinot Blanc 1998, Argentina, pounds 3.99; Chateau Leuziere Cuvee les Escarboucles 1996, Pic St Loup, pounds 6.99; Lindemans Botrytis Riesling, pounds 5.99/37.5cl. Top-End: Dom Perignon 1990, pounds 55.99; Tyrells Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay, pounds 16.99; Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1995, pounds 27.99; Coteaux du Layon Chaume 1996, Domaine des Forges, pounds 8.99.

Elsewhere on the Christmas front, I remain a firm believer in the beauties of Riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys of Australia. But I also hear that the 1998 vintage was not a great success for those wines. Australian wine writer Phillip White (who asks to be described as "the most outspoken, Bacchus-fearing son of a bitch writing and broadcasting on wine in this greasy sweat tank they call the Antipodes") believes that too many growers have pushed yields to meet rising demand, and that the resulting wines are "more phenolic and tend to be coarser".

Even if the picture isn't quite as bleak as Mr White makes out, it's worth buying the 1996 and 1997 while stocks last. The Australian Wine Club (0800 716 893) remains the best source, and has assembled an Oz Clarke Wine Guide Case, three bottles each of four wines named by the eloquent Mr C as Wines of the Year in the most recent edition of his annual buying guide. The case includes the still-youthful 1997 St Hallett Eden Valley Riesling, as well as two top Shiraz (Water Wheel and Chapel Hill) and the lovely 1996 Tim Adams Semillon. If you were thinking of buying someone a Christmas hamper (never a good idea), consider one of these cases instead. The mixed version is pounds 92.88, the whites alone pounds 89.88. Either way, it's a saving of pounds 12.

Australian Riesling fans can also take pleasure in a more widely available bottle, Peter Lehmann 1997 Riesling, Eden Valley. This is a smoothly citrussy, eminently pleasing drink ,with an equally pleasing price: pounds 5.49 for 75cl. It's available from Oddbins, and worth picking up as an aperitif or a companion for smoked fish.

Off the wine front, here's something you'll regard as either absurd or sensible. Petty, Wood & Co has started selling ice cubes. Yes, ice cubes. The water for this product, called Scotch Rocks, comes from Caithness Spring in the Highlands and is packaged (after filtration and sterilisation) in disposable plastic. The four-cube trays come in packs of 10 and sell for pounds 2.49 from off- licences, some supermarkets, and independents.

Absurd or enlightened? To investigate, I made myself a Martini with Scotch Rocks. I live in a hard-water area, and I really noticed that the flavour of the drink was purer than usual - and its appearance was unsullied by mineral deposits. Just to be sure, on finishing that one I made another (what selfless pursuit of truth!) using cubes from the tap. There was an edge of mineral flavour that had not been present in the first drink. I was won over.

So now you've got the cubes and want something to put them in? Spirit- lovers seeking Christmas cheer should consider the following. One, Woodford Reserve Bourbon from the Labrot Distillery, established 1812. This is a hefty slug of alcohol at 45.2 per cent, but what you notice is the round, smoky-oak vanilla flavours and caramel/honey/butterscotch sweetness. Wonderful, bracing stuff; pounds 22.99 from selected Unwins and Oddbins, and some specialists. Two, and totally off the wall: The King's Ginger Liqueur, exclusive to Berry Bros & Rudd (0171 396 9669). Berry Bros concocted this extraordinary drink as a medicinal chill-guard for King Edward VII, and it has all the spicy warmth of the rhizomem, and a handsome showing of 41 alcohol ABV. They're selling it at pounds 12.95 per 50cl (from pounds 13.75), and if the weather stays as cold as it is at the moment of writing, you'll warm to it.