It doesn't seem that long ago that I first visited The Sampler and tried out its pioneering dispenser, the Enomatic. For next to no cost, you could taste a range of wines by sticking your Oyster-style card in a machine which dispensed a tasting glassful of the wine in question. It was such a no-brainer that many other excellent wine merchants followed suit, among them Vagabond Wines at Fulham Broadway, Bottle Apostle in north London and the extraordinary new temple to fine wine, Hedonism Wines in Mayfair.
So successful has the idea been that the Sampler opened a second flagship store in South Kensington. Both stores include a fine and rare wine dispenser, which is how, shortly before Christmas, I got a taste of heaven from, among others, a powerful 1999 De Vogüé Musigny Grand Cru, bottle cost £900, a monumental 1986 Château Mouton Rothschild, £645, and, most extraordinary of all, an ethereal 1955 Château Lafite, £1,100, and a fragrant 1991 Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin, Chave, £1,495.
One of the functions of the Enomatic may be to offer a tantalising glimpse of greatness, but its main purpose is to help you try-before-you-buy. So I road-tested a few other wines with Christmas reds in mind and picked out a magnificent 1998 Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona Vigna di Pianrosso Brunello di Montalcino, £50, a deliciously rich yet lively sour cherry sangiovese, and a 2009 Moorooduc Estate Robinson Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, £28.90, whose mint chocolate-tinged mulberry and cherry fruit quality is etched with freshness.
Every town should have a Sampler but for those that don't, I have a few more red Christmas treasures up my sleeve, starting at the cheerful end with Bodegas Salentein's pure, damsony 2011 The Exquisite Collection Uco Valley Malbec, £5.99, Aldi, and moving on to Catherine Delaunay's vivid 2010 Les Jamelles Reserve Mourvèdre, £5.49, down from £6.99, The Co-operative, and the assured cabernet, shiraz and tannat blend of Luigi Bosca's 2010 Testimonio Reserve Blend, £7.99, down from £10.99, Majestic, which punches above its weight for blackberry and blackcurrant fruit purity.
If you don't have all your higher end reds organised, let me suggest the 2009 Lacoste Borie, £19.99, Tesco, for a classic Christmas claret, with plump cassis fruit underpinned by polished chocolatey oak , or a classic Rioja counterpart in the 2004 CUNE Imperial Rioja Reserva, £14.99-£20, The Co-operative, The Wine Society, its black fruits starting to soften and develop gamey maturity. Also from Spain, in this case Priorat, Fortnums have cleverly persuaded the charismatic Alvaro Palacios to make their 2011 Fortnum's Priorat, £15.50, or £13.18, mixed case, a tobacco-spicy damson grenache/carignan blend. Merry Christmas!