Richard Ehrlich's Beverage Report: It's never too late

What, you still haven't organised your Christmas drinking? Time for urgent action
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The Independent Culture
FIVE DAYS to go and still shopping for alcohol? Don't have a cow, man, as the immortal Bart would say. I've got all the answers here.

Just kidding! Christmas drinks-shopping is more difficult than ever, for the simple reason that there's so much around and the choice is so damnably varied. What follows is nothing more than a few select bottles for the main stages of the Christmas meal that I feel pretty certain you will like. If I could tell you all the good things there are out there, I would let you know. Space forbids it. Sorry.

To start: Champagne. Remember the shortage that was predicted (often by charlatans) in the run-up to the millennium? Ha. There's an ocean of it out there, and most retailers are offering generous discounts on your favourite examples. I propose that you buy a bottle of a good vintage rather than an NV. The premium is small, and few offer such fantastic value as the recently released Billecart-Salmon 1990 (Oddbins and elsewhere, around pounds 30). B-S is one of the greatest of the grandes marques, and they reckon that their 1990 is the best they have ever made. Without having tasted them all, I can say that this is a stupendously fine wine.

The main course: claret or its equivalents will top most people's lists, but why not consider Syrah instead? Option number one: Domaine de L'Hortus 1996. Explosively powerful fruit from an exceptional estate in the Languedoc, marvellous fragrance, keen edge of spice and pepper on the palate, the whole beautifully integrated. Worth more than it costs, which is around pounds 12 from Swig (0171 431 4412). Number two: Pikes Shiraz 1995, Clare Valley. That rare thing, an understated Australian Shiraz, with elegance and soft tannins; pounds 9.95 (or pounds 9.11 by the case) from Lea & Sandeman (0171 376 4767). Number three: Cotes de Soleil 1996, Jade Mountain. The confusingly bilingual name is that of a small Napa winery which grows its grapes on hilly sites and uses them to make Rhone-style reds of tremendous depth and distinction. This one's an equal blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Cabernet, and it's a glorious drink. Sold by Morris & Verdin (0171 357 8866) at pounds 13, or pounds 11.70 by the case.

With Christmas pudding, if you eat it: a tawny port. As ever, I find the pickings rich if you buy from the well-known, quality-conscious houses such as Taylor, Warre, Dow's, Graham's, Churchill, Fonseca. If you're willing to search outside those famous names, look out for the ancient house of Ferreira. My favourite among their range is the subtle, nutty Duque de Braganca 20-year-old Tawny (pounds 26-something a bottle; telephone 0161 477 1171 for stockist information). Or, in just about every style of port, keep your eyes peeled for the name Ramos-Pinto, which deserves to be much more widely recognised than it is.

To finish: if you still have room, a good glass of malt. As always, the most interesting range in the high street will be found chez Oddbins, which is offering a pounds 10 price-cut if you buy two bottles from a dozen old favourites. I'm more taken, however, by some new additions to their line of unusual bottlings. And my choice for finishing the festive meal is a profoundly rich Lagavulin 1979, Pedro Ximenez Cask (pounds 37.49). PX is the treacly grape used for sweetness in sherry blends, and it leaves that lush legacy in this truly beautiful whisky.

For something even more unusual in the malty line, consider the products of "independent bottlers". These bods taste individual casks at the distilleries, select the ones they like, and bottle them (usually without filtration) at cask strength. I've recently made the acquaintance of the Adelphi Distillery, run by Jamie Walker with tasting advice from Charles MacLean, and fell in love with several of their bottles. The one to end a meal is a nutty, smoky, toffee-rich Highland Park 1988 (pounds 44), of which there are just 614 bottles. You'll find it at Fortnum & Mason and elsewhere; ring 0131 226 6670 for full stockist information.

And finally, a few items to read while you're drinking. First, a new magazine called Whisky (pounds 3.95, six issues a year, edited by Charles MacLean). Nothing but the brown stuff between these pages - comment, distillery tours, and detailed evaluations of new products from Michael Jackson and Jim Murray. Second, a new edition of Robert Parker's mammoth Bordeaux (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 35). Detailed information and vintages evaluated up to 1997. Third, the magisterial Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson, ed. (OUP, pounds 35). This is theoretically a reference work, but once you get started you'll have trouble putting it down. A book that will probably be surpassed only by future editions of itself; I'm planning to read the whole thing over Christmas. See you when I'm finished.

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