FOOD & DRINK / A perfect opening for the festive season: Anthony Rose chooses some classic wines to wrap up, or crack open, for Christmas

Christmas is a time for giving - and opening - a special bottle, probably something traditional, a tried and tested French or Italian perhaps, which not only feels fitting for the occasion but is also a safe choice. Ideally that bottle will have a story attached that will appeal to the imagination as much as to the palate.

Start with a bang with the 1985 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1985 ( pounds 45.95, Wine Rack; seven bottles for the price of six). This top-of-the-range brand is named after Madame Clicquot, the most famous of all Champagne's widows, who ran the company from 1805 until 1866. Made with grapes from 100 per cent grand cru vineyards owned by Veuve Clicquot, it is a blend of 34 per cent chardonnay and 66 per cent pinot noir from the excellent 1985 vintage.

With its classy, biscuit-like character, its velvety mousse of pinhead bubbles and flavours, La Grande Dame is a great champagne and one of the few prestige cuvees to justify its high price.

Lovers of French wines will be very much at home with northern Rhone reds made from the syrah grape: the delectably plump and blackberry fruity 1991 Crozes-Hermitage from Alain Graillot ( pounds 10.75, Yapp Brothers, Mere, Wiltshire; 0747 860423), the mini Hermitage style 1991 Domaine Barret, Crozes Hermitage ( pounds 6.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up), or the classy, intensely spicy syrah, 1990 Cote Rotie from Domaine Clusel-Roch ( pounds 17.50, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10 and W8; 071-376 4767).

For more adventurous syrah lovers, there is the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where plantings of syrah are growing as rapidly as those of the traditional carignan grape are diminishing. The 1991 Terroir de Tuchan ( pounds 7.49, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up) is an up-market fitou made by the Mont Tauch co-operative from 60 per cent syrah blended with 40 per cent carignan. The heavy-duty, Italianate bottle is over the top, and the oak somewhat obtrusive, but with its rich, smoky syrah fruitiness and Mediterranean spice, this is the perfect winter red.

For this year's Christmas dinner, I am considering Chateau Lascombes, which would also make a welcome present. One of the great chateaux of Bordeaux, classified as a second growth in the 1855 classification of bordeaux, it was owned by the late Alexis Lichine, who always regretted having sold it cheaply to Bass Charrington in 1971. Nevertheless, with the talented Rene Vannetelle as winemaker, the wine has got better and better. At seven years old, the 1986 Chateau Lascombes, Margaux ( pounds 18.49, Augustus Barnett), is a densely fruity and muscular youngster which will remain at its peak well into the next millennium, but will make a wonderful claret this year (just be sure to decant at least four hours before the meal, so as to tenderise it).

Claret itself is a young wine in the context of the ancient craft of making gloriously rich, crystallised wines from dried grapes. The process of concentrating the juices in this way to create flavour and complexity is one at which the Italians excel. Vin santo, once the holy wine of the pre-revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church, is made from the juice of ripe malvasia and trebbiano grapes. These are first dried on bamboo racks under the rafters of ventilated stone barns. They are then pressed, the juice is added to the leftover black sludge from earlier fermentations, called madre (mother), and is left to ferment slowly in sealed oak casks for up to five years. Because of the labour-intensive, long processes involved, genuine vin santo is no snip.

lsole e Olena vin santo ( pounds 12.95, half, Barnes Wine, London SW13; 081-878 8643) is rich gold in colour with nutty, sherry-like tones and a slight burnt-toffee edge to the piercing, unctuous flavours of liquid dried fruits. Taste it on dunked Italian biscuits for maximum effect after a meal.

The more ordinary, coffee-tinged, sherry-like 1984 Brolio vin santo (pounds 4.99, half-bottle, Majestic), would be more suitable as an aperitif.

The red Recioto della Valpolicella is a classic from Veneto, its name is derived from the word recie which, in local dialect, means ears, a reference to the ripest bunches or parts of bunches on the vine. The best bunches, mostly of the corvina grape, are selected for harvesting early and dried in lofts on racks known as arelle.

When the raisined bunches are fermented dry, the wine is known as amarone, from amaro, meaning bitter, and it does indeed have a faint bitter twist allied to rich sweetness, like black chocolate and damson plums. Genuine amarone is a rarity and, as such, does not come cheap. The 1986 Amarone Classico, Recioto della Valpolicella, Zenato, (pounds 9.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up), is powerful and richly fruit-cake-like, a wine for dreamy Boxing Day afternoons.

Again, for those prepared to venture farther, Australia, too, has its classics, the liqueur muscats and tokays from Ned Kelly country in north-east Victoria. These rich, sweet, treacle-toffee and raisin wines date from an era when the Australian wine industry was far more geared to the production of fortified wines. As well as muscats, the diminishing range of fortified styles include fino and amontillado sherries and tawny and vintage ports of exceptionally high quality.

Stored in oak barrels under corrugated iron roofs, while natural heat and cold work their madeira-style magic, liqueur muscat remains one of Australia's true vinous treasures. Try Stanton & Killeen, (pounds 5.29 a half-bottle, Asda), or Yalumba's equally sticky, raisin-like Show Reserve Rutherglen Muscat (pounds 6.98 a half-bottle, Bottoms Up, Wine Rack, Thresher, Victoria Wine) with Christmas pudding.

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