Now, we all know that wine is not an aphrodisiac, but you've asked a would-be special friend round for a drink or meal, so a little pre-planning could pay dividends. Opening a bottle of champagne on a first date could be construed as unsubtle. So go for a New World sparkler. There's plenty of choice at under pounds 10 - from Australia's rich, champagne-like 1994 Seaview Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, pounds 8.49, which is widely available; South Africa's complex, mature 1993 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel, pounds 8.95, Tesco; or the neatly styled Scharffenberger, from the wooded Anderson Valley in California's romantic Mendocino, pounds 9.99, Asda. Now, where are those candles?
If there's a meal involved, go for something special, but not too wacky or ostentatious. Aim for a white, try a classy New World Chardonnay such as the seductively subtle but rich, butterscotchy 1995 Catena Chardonnay from Argentina, pounds 8.99, Safeway, or the stylishly toasty, Burgundian-style white from the Cape, the 1996 Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat Chardonnay Overberg, pounds 9.49, Waitrose. White burgundy is a more traditional, but coolly classic, choice. Try the 1995 Rully Blanc, Louis Jadot, pounds 9.49, Victoria Wine - a Cote Chalonnaise white Burgundy with delicately smoky oak, plenty of fruit and character. Or impress your guest with the finesse of the 1995 Chablis Premier Cru Les Lys, Ancien Domaine Auffray, pounds 9.99, Safeway.
For a special red, stick with New world and Valdivieso's excitingly complex Chilean Cabernet Franc Reserve, pounds 7.99, Fuller's, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, pounds 8.39, Safeway. This is a sumptuous red whose cedary aromatic overtones suggest Saint Emilion, but whose succulently fleshy blackcurrant fruit is more overtly New World. Alternatively, go for the full-throttle, voluptuous spice and blackberry flavours of an Australian shiraz such as the 1995 Normans Chais Clarendon Shiraz, pounds 9.99, Oddbins. Don't worry about a dessert wine. If it's reached that stage, your guest has probably gone home to watch Match of the Day. Clearly, it wasn't you.
Sunday lunch en famille
You've put it off and put it off, but now your parents and in-laws are coming round for Sunday lunch. Your parents-in-law turn up, kindly bringing with them the bottle of Budgens claret they've dutifully aged under the stairs for the past six years. You graciously accept the bottle, while tactfully removing it with the words, "Lovely, we'll keep this for a special occasion." Tradition demands you have a bottle of sherry on hand, or perhaps a Sancerre or Mosel Riesling. Hang tradition and keep the nutty Waitrose Dry Amontillado Jerezana, pounds 5.25, with its aged character, for yourself. You may need it.
At the risk of the other aged characters getting a little squiffy before lunch, break the ice - and prejudices - with a New World Riesling such as Tesco's zesty, lime-like Clare Valley Riesling, pounds 4.99, or the intense, petrolly 1996 Yarra Valley Hills Riesling, pounds 6.99, Oddbins. Alternatively, go for a southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blanc like the 1997 Winelands from Kym Milne, pounds 4.49, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up or Safeway's aromatic and zingy Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 3.99. A little too cheap? Then aim for one of New Zealand's pungently aromatic whites, such as Montana's juicy, gooseberry and capsicum-like 1996 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 7.49, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up.
With the Sunday roast, try a break from Bordeaux. Head instead for the southern Rhone and the spicy 1995 La Ramillade, Sablet, Cotes du Rhone Villages, pounds 6.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Or maybe an unusual Rhone alternative, such as Spain's voluptuously oaked, sweetly ripe 1995 Dominio de Valdepusa Syrah, from Marques de Grinon, pounds 8.49-pounds 8.99, Majestic, selected Tesco. Or surprise the traditionalists in the family with a mature, good-value Languedoc red, such as the outstanding 1993 Chateau La Voulte-Gasparets, Corbieres, pounds 5.45, Sainsbury's.
Drinks for 40
You're having around 40 for drinks and you're not prepared to risk ambush by Blue Nun or the poisoned chalice of a cheapskate home-made runner-bean wine. Allowing yourself up to pounds 150 on the wine, work on three-quarters of a bottle per person, and keep fingers crossed that enough guests are designated drivers/teetotallers or on the wagon, to opt for the thoughtfully provided orange juice or water. To get everyone in the mood, choose an affordable sparkling wine, allowing at least a couple of glasses for each guest. Get in a case and make sure you benefit from one of the discounts or Christmas specials on offer.
Cava is the best cheap and cheerful choice with Safeway's decent, lemony fizz down from pounds 5.29 to a generous pounds 3.99. Saumur's tart pungency, softened by the addition of sugar can sometimes do serious damage to your fillings, but with 20 per cent Chardonnay in the blend, Waitrose's Saumur Brut, pounds 5.99, is one of the most attractively honeyed, mouthfilling Chenin Blancs I've enjoyed for some time. If you're a fan of pink fizz, the superior Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs is a delicately pink-tinged California fizz with the expressive raspberryish fruitiness of Carneros Pinot Noir, pounds 9.99, Majestic (buy two save 20 per cent - pounds 7.99).
Your party white should be neither too assertively acidic or cloyingly sweet, but something enjoyable on its own or with a variety of finger foods. If you've blown most of the budget on fizz, so need to stay under pounds 3, your choice is limited. In which case, go for an Argentine white such as Asda's Argentine white, or a Hungarian - either Waitrose's 1996 Matra Springs Pinot Gris/Muscat, pounds 2.79 or Safeway's fragrant 1996 Irsai Oliver from Neszmely, pounds 2.99.
If you've been a little more thrifty with the fizz, you can afford to pamper your guests with the comparative luxury of a superior vin de pays from France or a New World Chardonnay like the 1996 La Palma Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, Oddbins (aka Casa Leona Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, Marks & Spencer), the cleanly refreshing, appley 1997 San Andres Chardonnay, Lontue Valley, pounds 3.99, Waitrose, or Safeway's Australian Chardonnay/Colombard, pounds 4.29, a refreshingly melon-like blend.
For more of a refreshing aperitif-style white, try a Cotes de Gascogne - the zingily citrusy 1996 Domaine du Tariquet, for instance, pounds 3.99, Thresher, a zestily grapefruity white Bordeaux in the mould of the 1996 Chateau La Tuque, pounds 3.99 (pounds 10 for three), Victoria Wine, or the nutty 1996 Catarratto/Chardonnay, Firriato, pounds 3.95, Waitrose.
Party reds should be juicy, glugging wines but with gentle tannin where the food demands some grip. You'll strike the right note with Chile, Argentina, South Africa or, if it has to be under pounds 3, a southern French vin de pays such as Sainsbury's Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Pays d'Oc, pounds 2.99. Among suitable quaffers from South America, try the 1996 La Palma Merlot, pounds 3.99, Oddbins (aka Casa Leona Merlot, Marks & Spencer) and the juicy 1997 Luis Felipe Edwards Pupilla Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 3.99, Oddbins, Majestic or from Argentina, Picajuan Peak Sangiovese, pounds 3.49, Tesco, or Marques de Grinon's Tempranillo Mendoza, pounds 3.99, Majestic. Where the food needs a slightly firmer finish, aim for a cherry-fruity Italian red with a bit of nip and bite such as the 1996 Barbera d'Asti from Tabarin leardi, pounds 4.75, Victoria Wine or the robustly spicy 1994 Chateau St James, Corbieres, pounds 4.99, Majestic (buy two save pounds 1.20 - pounds 4.39).
There's always one guest, of course, possibly me, actually, who outstays his or her welcome. For the most adhesive of guests, it's time to bring out the bag-in-box Liebraumilch or last year's Beaujolais nouveau, or why not get out that Budgens claret stashed away for a special occasion. The only problem is that the guest who doesn't know when to leave is the one guest who probably enjoys the bag-in-box or antique nouveau. In which case, revert to plan B: your reservation at the Happy Eater awaits.
House White and Red
Some day, when I grow up, I dream of having my own wine-dedicated fridge with an assortment of chilled white wines for any occasion. Until then, I'll continue to make do with a couple of dry white wines in the fridge on tap. For neighbours dropping by, my palatably snappy dry white would be the zestily grapefruity 1996 Hungarian Sopron Sauvignon Blanc from Neszmely, pounds 3.29, Asda, or, for a softer, more floral style, the aromatically fruity 1997 Nanya Vineyard Chenin/ Gewurztraminer, pounds 3.89.
For lazing around and listening to the gossip, I'm more inclined to Chardonnay, simply because, face facts, Chardonnay is suitably popular, undemanding and enjoyable.
I've already praised Concha y Toro's elegant Chablis-like Trio 1996 Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, but it's a favourite, so I'll stick with it, along with the full-flavoured 1996 Casillero del Diablo Chardonnnay, pounds 4.99, Victoria Wine, and the refreshingly melon-like 1997 Santa Carolina, pounds 4.49, Oddbins. And just to be different, I'll also go with Charles Back's intensely flavoured, pear-like 1997 Fairview Barrel-Fermented Chenin Blanc, pounds 4.99, Waitrose. I said a couple but no apologies for sticking in a bottle of good, cheap champagne, Tesco's Blanc de Blancs, pounds 13.99, from Duval-Leroy, for self-pampering moments.
For my house red, I want something juicy and moreish, which is drinkable on its own, or with feet up in front of the telly and snack in hand, a wine with a bit of grip to it. Sainsbury's Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 4.85 is a mature, softly fruity cabernet with extremely mellow fruit and well-interpreted oak from BRL-Hardy. With its vibrant, cherryish fruitiness, I could drink more of the juicy, cherryish 1996 Valle de Vistalba Barbera from Argentina, pounds 4.49, Oddbins, or the blackcurranty Valdivieso Malbee, pounds 4.49, Fuller's, than is good for me. But then, red wine is good for you, officially, so I can be healthy and virtuous at the same time. So the theory goes.Reuse content