With the conviction of a man with a product to shift in a hurry, Georges Duboeuf, leading negociant, says: 'I can state confidently that 1993 is an excellent vintage . . . an exceptional vintage.' The great man's optimism is not shared by some wine buyers. Sainsbury's team, for instance, claim they had to taste their way through a vast array of weak and dilute samples before alighting on this year's choice: Georges Duboeuf's - usually reliable, it has to be said.
Now that nouveau is no longer the main attraction, the wine trade is having to work extra hard to tempt customers into the shops in the run-up to Christmas. A temporary helping hand may come on 30 November from the Budget. Not wanting to be cast as Scrooge, the Paymaster General has promised that any increase in duty - and the wine trade is bracing itself for the worst - will not be implemented until New Year's Day. There will be no such period of grace, however, for VAT, which, if it rises to 19 per cent, as some predict, will be imposed immediately.
Despite the last-minute December rush, more wine is generally sold in November than any other month, with the last quarter accounting for nearly two-fifths of the year's wine sales. Independent mail- order merchants like customers to get orders in early enough to allow them to be processed and the wines delivered in good time for Christmas. Already this month there has been a good response to the trade's tempting pre-Christmas offers.
The specially selected cases - with free delivery on some deals - make buying in this way an easy and practical option: combine any 12 from the 27 wines on offer in Adnams' New Zealand offer, for instance (The Crown, High Street, Southwold, Suffolk; telephone 0502 724222, for details), or go for the Kiwi Sample Case, pounds 112, the highlights of which are two classy claret types - the 1990 Cabernet Merlot from Cloudy Bay and Te Mata's Coleraine - and the piercingly gooseberryish, trophy-winning 1992 Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay's 1991 Chardonnay, and a superbly honeyed 1992 Chenin Blanc from James Millton's organic vineyards.
Still in New Zealand, Lay & Wheeler (6 Culver Street, Colchester; 0206 764446) is offering Alan Scott's intensely aromatic, exotically gooseberry-and-grapefruit 1993 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc at a reduced price of pounds 7.85. Peter Michael's gold-medal-winning 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, Les Pavots, from California, is down to pounds 11.95 (normal price pounds 16.45) for November and December only. Great modern barolo from Aldo Conterno and Aldo Vajra rubs shoulders with unpretentious petit chateau claret such as the 1989 Chateau la Verriere, pounds 5.45 (normally pounds 5.95), a rustic, St Emilion-style treat.
New releases, reduced in price, include a voluptuous and spicy 1991 Crozes-Hermitage, pounds 7.16 (normally pounds 7.65), from Bernard Chave, and a succulent, fruity beaujolais in Tete's 1992 Julienas, Domaine du Clos du Fief, pounds 5.99 (normally pounds 6.54).
John Armit is the wine merchant who revived Corney & Barrow's fortunes in the early Eighties. Now going it alone, he is offering a personal selection of price-trimmed wines for Christmas (John Armit Wines, 5 Royalty Studios, 105 Lancaster Road, London W11 1QF; 071-727 6846). The offer starts humbly enough with two value-for-money Languedoc reds. The first, the 1992 Cuvee des Fleurs, pounds 43 a case (list price pounds 48, pounds 45 at Adnams), is the same wine as Figaro, one of the Wine Challenge's reds of the year. The second is the 1992 Domaines Virginie Syrah, pounds 49 (list price pounds 54), a spicy, superior party wine with a tangy southern bite.
Chateauneuf du Pape devotees will enjoy the powerfully intense 1991 Domaine Font de Michelle, pounds 120 a case (list price pounds 135), stealing a bottle or two for Christmas and laying the rest down. White burgundy is an Armit speciality, and both Olivier Leflaive's seductively new-oaked 1992 Mercurey, pounds 99 (normally pounds 108), and Domaine Guy Roulot's outstandingly concentrated 1991 Meursault Les Luchets, pounds 240 (list price pounds 270), are quite exceptional.
Back in the high street, 'customers are strongly influenced as to what is on Christmas promotion', says Alastair Llewellyn-Smith at Fullers. The name of the game this Christmas is massive promotions and multibuys, carefully targeted to enable customers to drink better than usual via tempting offer prices.
Nothing is more traditional at this time of year than claret. Safeway leads the charge with pounds 3 off every bottle in its offer. This makes bargains of three wines in particular: a wickedly drinkable, vanilla-flavoured 1991 Chateau Beychevelle and a perfumed, juicy 1987 Carruades de Lafite, now both pounds 9.99, and the supple, sweetly oaked 1990 Les Trois Moulins de Cantemerle, down to pounds 5.49.
Majestic Wine Warehouses, too, has a useful red bordeaux offer, from petit chateau claret such as the old-faithful, old-fashioned 1989 Chateau Meaume, pounds 4.49 (from pounds 4.99), to the smooth-textured, coffee-bean-flavoured 1990 Chateau de Louviere, pounds 7.99, and the fragrantly grand 1989 Reserve du General, pounds 13.99, second wine of Chateau Palmer.
From claret to another traditional Christmas drink: vintage port. Majestic is offering Warre's magnificent 1977 at a knock-down pounds 19.99, beating even the pounds 22.99 at Oddbins - which cheerfully points out that it cost pounds 36.50 two years ago. Oddbins also has a clutch of youthful bin-end port bargains including the fine 1983 Smith Woodhouse, pounds 13.49, a highly scented 1983 Dow, pounds 15.99, the exquisitely raisined 1983 Fonseca, and the 1985 Graham, pounds 17.99, a gloriously seductive port to lay down.
With a remarkable German wine offer, Victoria Wine has put the seal on silly-season prices. Starting last Monday, prices were slashed on no fewer than 19 German wines by up to pounds 3. First through the floor is the off-dry, grapefruity 1988 Dexheimer Doktor Scheurebe Kabinett, down from pounds 4.49 to pounds 2.99. The delicate, lime-and-green-apple 1988 Falkensteiner Hofberg Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel is a not-to-be-missed snip, down by pounds 1.50 to pounds 3.89, while the powerful lime, toast and honey character of the 1988 Munsterer Pittersberg Riesling Kabinett, pounds 5.49 (normally pounds 6.49), makes this Nahe riesling a bargain. Lastly, pounds 2 off the 1988 Niederhauser Hermannsholle Riesling Spatlese, pounds 6.29, is as good an excuse as any for trying this rich, quince-flavoured white.