Like monks and other creatures of habit, many of us will stick or revert to the classic wines of France this Christmas. Fair dos. If you're lucky enough to own a cellar, it could be the moment to parade the Krug or that 1982 Bordeaux chateau you've been brooding and clucking over for the past decade. Call me mean, but I'm not convinced that the so-called classics always do go best with turkey or goose and all the trimmings. And if the relatives are descending en masse, are you really sure you'll feel like lavishing your precious Chateau Vraiment Tres Cher on Aunt Agatha and Jocasta's pimply new boyfriend Rudolph? For a family occasion when a wide range of palates may need to be pacified, my prescription for a peace- and-goodwill-to-all Christmas is to branch out to southern Europe and the New World for their riper, smoother and fruitier flavours.
One sop to the classics if you need to satisfy last-minute requirements for an affordable everyday claret is the 1997 Claret Lot 278 (pounds 3.49, Majestic - buy 12, save pounds 6 - pounds 2.99), a light, grassy-scented little glugger that makes few demands on the palate and even fewer on the pocket. Why not be a little more adventurous though? Travel to the arid, sun-warmed hill country of Basilicata, where the Aglianico, Sangiovese and Montepulciano blend that makes up the brambly robust fruit of the 1997 Basilicata Rosso (pounds 2.99, Majestic) is almost given away. Or head for Portugal, where the 1997 Terra Boa Tinto (pounds 3.49, Oddbins, E H Booth, Victoria Wine) is a well put together tinto whose exuberant damsony juiciness has the bite to sink its teeth into finger foods of most descriptions.
Reds pounds 4 to pounds 7
The New World, particularly Chile, is currently the best place to look for mouth-fillingly fruity claret alternatives at around pounds 5. South Africa's Pinotage is another suitably warming red variety and the 1998 Fairview Pinotage (normally pounds 5.99 but pounds 4.99 until 2 January, Sainsbury's) offers an appealing glimpse of the Cape's near-native grape. Made by sometime goatherd/cheesemaker Charles Back, this is a supple, well-turned-out red with mulberry-like flavours and enough tannin to pit itself against honey- roast hams and cold meats of that ilk.
Rhone-styles at Christmas have the winter-warming edge needed when it's warm inside and deep and crisp and even out. From Argentina, the Isla Negra Syrah (pounds 4.99, Oddbins) takes as its model the northern Rhone grape and moulds it into a full-flavoured red with underlying peppery notes and a succulent whack of blackberry fruit. The 1997 Laraghy's Grenache/Shiraz (pounds 5.99, Tesco) is Australia's answer to the southern Rhone valley with oak imbuing this Cotes du Rhone-style Aussie red with a peppery quality and appealing spicy fruitiness made in a powerful, easy-to-glug style.
In the New World, Bordeaux-style, the 1996 Santa Rita Reserva Merlot (pounds 5.99, Victoria Wine, Majestic) is a polished Saint-Emilion-style red whose ripe fruitiness is Christmas-wrapped in a cocoon of plush tannins and the spiciness of American oak. On the flip side of the coin, the 1996 Abadia Retuerta Rivola, Sardon de Duero (pounds 6.99, Victoria Wine Cellars) is an old-world red but made in an ultra- modern style. This Spanish tinto successfully combines the Tempranillo grape with Cabernet Sauvignon, rounding out the suave plum and blackberry-like fruit flavours with a leavening of spicy oak.
Reds for pounds 7 plus
I wouldn't waste too much effort searching for a pounds 10 red Burgundy when you can plump for something altogether richer and fuller-flavoured from Australia. The 1997 Yarra Valley Hills Pinot Noir (pounds 9.99, Oddbins) is a smoky-scented red from Victoria's little Burgundy, the Yarra Valley, adding the insult (if you're a Burgundian, that is) of the delicious red berry fruit flavours of the Pinot Noir grape to the injury of lashings of toasty oak. Lovers of traditional Rioja meanwhile should relish the 1987 Conde de la Salceda Gran Reserva Rioja (pounds 11.99, Asda) a lived-in, leather-upholstered sofa of a mature Spanish grape.
If the classics are de rigueur, aim for the 1997 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Clos Saint Michel (pounds 8.99, Waitrose) a mouthful of supple-textured, spicy fruit with milled pepper undertones.
I wouldn't seek to alienate you all by pooh-poohing claret because there are one or two little gems about. Nowhere near as bland as its name suggests, for instance, the 1995 Chateau Plaisance, Montagne Saint-Emilion (pounds 8.99, Somerfield) is in fact an appealing, modern Bordeaux rouge from one of the few really good vintages of the 1990s (to date), scented with vanilla from new oak casks and exhibiting a sweetly ripe core of Merlot-based fruitiness. It's a little early to be drinking red Bordeaux from the other excellent good vintage of the 1990s, but when it's made in as accessible a style as the 1996 Chateau Arnauld, Haut-Medoc (pounds 10.99, Oddbins) the succulence and fresh cassis fruitiness of this beguiling red makes it too good to refuse.
Claret is cheese to Coonawarra's chalk, the limestone soils from which the 1994 Rouge Homme Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 8.99, Waitrose) springs. The typical Coonawarra style here offers a parcel of smoky oak complemented by opulently ripe blackcurrant fruitiness and given a robust twist by Lindemans' accomplished winemaker Paul Gordon. Alternatively, treat yourself to the class, concentration and cedary fragrance of Western Australia's super-intense 1995 Chateau Xanadu Cabernet Reserve (pounds 19.99, Majestic - buy any six Australian wines, save 10 per cent - pounds 17.99), a classic Bordeaux-style blend with sufficient backbone to make it worth stashing a few bottles under the futon
If like me, you're an occasional port lover rather than a true aficionado, you'll still want to get in as good a bottle as the budget allows. Vintage port is traditional but the nutty, toffeed tones of tawny port, not to mention ease of handling (no decanting), makes it a delicious post-prandial sticky. Finishing on a rich note, Dow's 20-Year-Old Tawny (pounds 23.49, Safeway, Co-op, Victoria Wine) has beguiling coffee aromas tinged with compote of dried fruits and the burnt toffee flavour of creme brulee. If you lack the stamina to get through a whole bottle, Fonseca conveniently obliges with a 10-Year-Old Tawny Port (pounds 9.99, Victoria Wine) in a handy half-litre size, producing a wine without quite the intensity of the 20-year-old but nevertheless lots of fruit and coffee fudge flavours.
Port shippers are among the godlike few (Champagne houses are another) who reserve for themselves the decision of whether or not to declare a vintage year. Warre's did not declare in 1986, but put the best grapes from the Cavadinha estate into the Warre's 1986 Quinta da Cavadinha (pounds 19.99, widely available). The result is a hauntingly aromatic, rum 'n' raisin-soaked fruitcake of a vintage port with liquorice, clove and cachou undertones.
From the same vintage, Taylor's 1986 Quinta da Terra Feita (pounds 17.99, Victoria Wine, Sainsbury's, Majestic - buy two, save pounds 3.50 - pounds 16.24), is no less impressive, a clove, spice and pepper-infused red. Vintage ports need decanting, so stand for 24 hours (the bottle, that is), and, with a light behind the neck, carefully pour the wine into another vessel, trapping the gunge for Rudolph and pals.