RICHARD EHRLICH'S beverage REPORT

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S the way I see it. The last thing most people want to do when they're Christmas shopping is to flit from one wine supplier to another, artfully choosing the perfect partner for every morsel of the festive meal. Aperitif from Corney & Barrow, claret from Wine Rack, dessert wine from Oddbins - do you have time for this? I sure don't. There's simply far too much to do at this time of year, especially since you're bound to realise at 5.55pm on Christmas Eve that you've completely forgotten to buy presents for Uncle Crab and Aunt Nebula.

If convenience ranks high on lists of booze-buying priorities, the household budget will give it a good run for its money. We're not going to be thinking, "What do I feel like drinking?" but "What can I afford to drink?" We'll be wondering how those hard-earned shekels will best be deployed in the pursuit of vinous pleasure. With these two assumptions in mind, I scanned catalogues, assembled wine-stained tasting notes, and got in touch with wine-buyers at some of the major multiples. My self-imposed brief: to assemble a set of lists for "shopping by numbers" from supermarkets. The requirements: three bottles to drink with the traditional Christmas meal of a starter, turkey or goose, and Christmas pudding. The price variables: flexible, but one set had to be in the lower ranges while the other could afford to scale the heights of luxury - within reason. The brief held certain perils. One drinker's cheap wine is another drinker's once-a-year treat. At Christ-mas especially, the normal habits don't apply. As a rule of thumb, I aimed to get the lower-priced threesome in at pounds 20 or less, and the posh version for not much more than pounds 30 if pos-sible. Here are the results, with a few comments of my own.

TESCO

Like all the other supermarkets, Tesco has put together a special list of Christmas drinks. User-friendly and informative, it highlights the bottles that offer good value at every price level and which make for seasonally suitable drinking. Tesco is pushing its own-label wines this year, and my selection echoes its choice.

BARGAIN TRIO: Tesco Australian Sparkling Chardonnay 1992 (pounds 6.99); Magleiri McLaren Vale Shiraz 1994 (pounds 6.99); Tesco Special Reserve Port (pounds 6.49), a gorgeous bottle at an exceptional price.

LUXURY TRIO: Tesco Vintage Champagne, Brut Premier Cru 1985 (pounds l9.99), mature, toasty and well priced; Roxburgh Chardonnay, Rose-mount Estate 1993 (pounds 16.99) or Chateau Cantemerle 1992/3 (pounds 10.99); its Special Reserve Port (as above) or Dow's Crusted Port 1991 (pounds 11.99).

MARKS & SPENCER

These recommendations are my own, based on latest tastings. M&S has been doing some shrewd buying in the New World of late - this is reflected here.

BARGAIN TRIO: The lovely Bluff Hill Brut (pounds 6.99), from New Zealand; for turkey, McLaren Vale 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 5.99); for goose or red meat, M&S Mendoza Malbec 1992 from Argentina (pounds 5.50); Christ- mas pudding wine, Muscat de Rivesaltes (pounds 4.99).

LUXURY TRIO: M&S St Gall Vintage Champagne, 1990 (special offer pounds 17.99); Moulin de Duhart 1990 (pounds 12.99); M&S 10-Year-Old Port (special offer pounds 8.99).

SAFEWAY

Safeway classifies its wines not only by style but by quality: bronze for everyday, silver for "superiority" and "distinctive flavours", gold for special occasions. More helpful still, they've reduced prices on some very good wines for Christmas. The second red in the first category is a real dozy, 14.5 per cent alcohol but remarkably refined in spite of it. Prices are low at Safeway, especially with the Christmas reductions, so even the luxury trio is pretty cheap.

BARGAIN TRIO: Safeway Chablis, Cuvee Dom Yvon Pautre 1995 (Silver, special offer pounds 5.99), Chateau des Gemeaux 1992 (Silver, special offer pounds 5.49) or a wild Australian red, Hardy's Bankside Shiraz 1994 (Silver, pounds 5.99); Dom Brial Muscat de Rivesaltes 1995 (Silver, pounds 3.99/37.5cl).

LUXURY TRIO: Sancerre "Les Bonnes Bouches" 1995, Henri Bourgeois (Gold, special offer pounds 6.99); Moulin de Duhart 1993, the second wine of a classed growth Pauillac (Gold, special offer pounds 8.99); Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso Muy Viejo sherry (pounds 7.99/37.5cl). Having spent relatively little on your basic trio, you might consider a bottle of Safeway's own "Albert Etienne" vintage champagne. I haven't tasted the current vintage but loved the earlier ones. The 1990 is just pounds 14.99 and it's indicative of Safeway's confidence that it makes it a Gold while Bollinger (pounds 23.99) is just silver.

WAITROSE

Long one of the best supermarkets for wine, this chain continues to buy imaginatively. And its new idea of an "Inner Cellar" - essentially for fine, more expensive wines - is a good one. Its latest list includes recommendations from its wine-buyers, and I've chosen one from each.

BARGAIN TRIO: Krone Borealis Brut (pounds 6.99) which is from South Africa; the fine Australian Saltram Mamre Brook Chardonnay 1995 (pounds 6.95); followed by Cockburn's Special Reserve Port (pounds 7.99).

LUXURY TRIO: Waitrose Brut Champagne (pounds 12.95); Beaune Teurons 1993 (pounds l6.95); Dow's Crusted Port (pounds 11.99) for the Stilton, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise (pounds 4.49/37.5cl) for the Christmas pudding.

SAINSBURY'S

When briefing JS I asked for three sets of bottles: one at pounds 15 or under, one at around pounds 20 to pounds 25, and one where the sky was the limit. Senior manager Robin Tapper said the exercise was "like setting a drug addict loose in Boots", which means, I think, that he enjoyed the exercise. He admits with refreshing, but unsurprising, candour that the luxury trio is the one he likes best. His threesomes:

BARGAIN TRIO: JS Chilean Chardonnay (pounds 4.29); JS Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve '92 (pounds 3.69); Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 1994/1995 (pounds 3.49/37.5cl).

MID-PRICE TRIO

JS Champagne Blanc de Blancs (pounds 10.99 special offer); Chateau Mayne-Figeac 1993 (pounds 8.95), a superb mid-price claret from a dodgy vintage; JS South African Sauvignon Blanc Reserve Selection 1995/96 (pounds 4.75).

LUXURY TRIO: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc if you could get it, but failing that a "close run" New Zealand alternative: Grove Mill Sauvignon Blanc (pounds 7.95); Beaune 1er Cru Clos de la Feguine 1992, Dom Jacques Prieur (pounds 17.95); Fonseca 1982 Vintage Port (pounds 17.95).

Incidentally, to any of these trials I would happily append the JS Speyside Malt (pounds 17.43.) or Single Malt Irish Whisky (pounds 12.43), both delicious at good-value prices.

ANOTHER approach to the buying-by-numbers problem: special mixed cases from a specialist. Numerous firms offer the service, and they can offer good value, while saving you the trouble of having to choose for yourself. If you have a favourite you should get in touch (soon) and find out what they've got. Haynes Hanson & Clark (0171 259 0102 or 01451 870808) has an appetising selection this year, though you will have to order by tomorrow to ensure delivery for Christmas.

My pick for the big meal would be their Dinner Party Half Dozen (pounds 45.20 including delivery), which is made up of a single bottle each of fizz and port, plus a pair of two French wines, white and red. The red is the consistently admirable Chateau du Grand Moulas, Cotes-du-Rhone 1995. It`s a very good, fuss-free package for the Christmas meal.

Finally, for the pet-lover who's planning to pamper pooch or pussy. Safeway is selling Christmas Dinner Dog Food made with turkey chipolatas; and a Purrfect Christmas Gift Pack for moggie - cat collar plus a tin of Turkey with Cranberry Sauce cat food.

Extensive tastings have persuaded me that the dog food needs a well-carbonated fizz such as Perrier (a slice of lemon is optional) while the sharper flavours of the cat food really need a basic, creamy still water such as Evian (ice, no lemon). Merry Christmas, ye cosseted quadruped!

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