Party drinks: How to find the best bargain bottles

A vicious price war on wines and spirits is good news if you're stocking up for Christmas. Jamie Merrill finds out what's on offer.

Three years ago it was lobster, last year it was champagne and now it looks as though spirits and wines are the latest weapons in the supermarkets' arsenal to attract the Christmas trade. Bottles of top-selling drinks including Baileys, Smirnoff vodka and Gordon's gin are being cut in price by up to half in some stores. And with the big grocers struggling – even the behemoth that is Tesco has seen its sales fall in the past three months – prices of champagne, red and white wines are also being slashed in an effort to keep the tills ringing.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the supermarkets are struggling when the latest figures from trade magazine The Grocer show that the cost of the average basket of festive essentials – including turkey and trimmings – has risen nearly 20 per cent since last year.

Thankfully, when it comes to Christmas drinks, the story is very different. Asda, the country's second largest chain, is leading the way, according to research by the magazine, with the best value drinks promotions, including merlot for £4 and sauvignon blanc for £6.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury's is running a 33 per cent promotion on many wines, including its popular Christmas Taste the Difference Rioja Blanco (£5.99 down from £8.99) until 10 January. Tesco is offering 50 wines at half price or less and the other big players are offering similar discounts on many wines.

"There's no doubt that people are looking for a bargain and there are some really good deals around," says Andrew Bird, head of trading in grocery and drinks at Marks & Spencer. "All our research shows that people don't want to compromise Christmas down to austerity levels so are making their luxuries budget stretch that little bit further by shopping around for the best deals."

Bird recommends being a little more adventurous with your wine selection to find a genuinely good-quality bargain for your Christmas feast. "Previously people just bought claret or burgundy to go with their turkey, but we're seeing more of our customers look out of their comfort zones for a good deal."

He recommends Barolo Villa Peironte 2007 – previously only known by wine aficionados and now half price at Marks & Spencer (£10) – as a good Italian red, or an elegant pinot noir (look out for Tasmanian and New Zealand wines) as a cheaper alternative to a burgundy.

Champagne sales at the upmarket chain, Bird says, are up 27 per cent on last year as customers look to "indulge despite the downturn". And it's not just Marks & Spencer offering fizz on the cheap, as last year's champagne war flares up again. "There's a plethora of supermarket champagne offers in the run-up to the Christmas," says Anthony Rose, The Independent's wine critic. "Most notable is £5 off the Oudinot range at Marks & Spencer, but a £5 saving on the Tesco Finest Premier Cru Champagne bringing it to £14.99 is a great value offer. And at £29.59 instead of £36.99, Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV Champagne at Waitrose makes a mouthwatering prospect."

Be quick, though, as many offers only run for a short time or have limited stock. If you fail at Mark & Spencer, Tesco or Waitrose, there is always Asda's Pierre Darcys which is on offer for £10 (down from £23.98) and Sainsbury's Blanc de Blancs NV Champagne at £13.99, which Rose also recommends.

If spirits are your thing a bottle of Gordon's gin (70cl) will set you back just £12 at Tesco (usually £15.59), while two bottles of Smirnoff Red Label (1l) will cost you £26 at Sainsbury's, though a smaller bottle costs only £12 and might seem more sensible come Boxing Day morning.

For something a little different, budget chain Aldi is offering International Wine & Spirit Competition Gold winner Oliver Cromwell 1599 Gin for £9.29. It beat off the likes of Hendrick's gin so is worth a try at a knock-down price.

For sweeter tastes, Baileys Irish Cream is down to £10 at Morrisons and both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are predicting a boom in flavoured spirits (Chase Marmalade Vodka is £31.95 at Waitrose) and elderflower liqueurs. Ask for a taster first, though, if you are buying more than one bottle. You'd be surprised how many hard-pressed supermarket managers eager for a sale will let you taste a tipple first. After all, there's nothing worse than being left with a bottle of sickly spirit once the festive novelty has worn off.

With Scotch whisky exports booming and the increasingly wealthy (and thirsty) consumers of China and Brazil guzzling down stock, some industry insiders have warned that supplies of single malt are in danger of running low. Nobody appears to have told the supermarkets, though, who are still offering big discounts on a wee dram. Many single malts are now on offer for as little as £15 or £20 a bottle. But be careful, as always with supermarket deals there is a catch.

Last month, Aldi announced to great fanfare that it was offering a 40-year-old-single malt for an "unbelievable" £49.99. Sounded great, but the chain store had a mere 3,000 bottles in stock and many whisky aficionados have questioned its quality. While Sainsbury's recently offered Aberlour 10-year-old for a "bargain" price of £20, which was still more expensive than Asda's regular price of £15.

To make sure you get a good deal, remember to keep an eye on the cost per unit or litre figures (usually found in small print next to the price on the shelf) and don't forget to look down to the bottom shelf for some of the best deals.

What's in store offers to look out for

Sainbury's

Blanc de Blancs NV Champagne is on offer at £13.99

Marks & Spencer

Barolo Villa Peironte 2007 is half price at just £10

Aldi

Award-winning gin Oliver Cromwell 1599 is £9.29 at the bargain chain

Marks & Spencer

There's £5 off the Oudinot range of champagnes

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