If my local supermarket's display is anything to go by, Christmas started some time in early September, just after the official end of the barbecue season (which wasn't much cop this year in any case). The sale of festive
gear seems to start earlier each year - and for good commercial reasons. The bottom line, as ever, is the bottom line. We all dig deep when it comes to Christmas, splashing out on gifts, food and drink.
But although we Brits are willing to spend more than average on our festive wines, that extra couple of quid per bottle brings out our inherent conservative streak, sending most of us scurrying for the security of Chablis, Bordeaux and
port. Nothing wrong with that, you may
think. And you'd be right - if it wasn't for the fact that this is an ideal time of year to get your customers interested in trying something a bit different, something that might encourage them to trade up over the course of the following year.
Take great auntie's cream sherry, for instance. To be more precise, take it , pour the rest of the bottle (which has probably been hanging around for years) down the sink and open a bottle of Bodegas Hidalgo's Pasada Pastrana (£10.99, Mentzendorff, 0207 840 3600) instead. The salty tang of this aged Manzanilla should whet appetites nicely, and it slips down really easily with nuts, olives and other pre-meal nibbles.
Of course, Champagne
helps to create a sense of occasion. This year, though, instead of advocating big brand s, why not take a look at growers' Champagnes instead? The variety of styles ensures there's always something to please palates as well as pockets. Furthermore, the limited availability of the wines only adds to their desirability. Marks & Spencer must think it's on to a good thing with growers' fizz
as it has introduced a number of the wines to its range, some online and some in stores (£20.83-£30). Check out the selection for inspiration.
Although the main event at the Christmas table is fairly predictable - roast turkey or goose tend to dominate - the first course is a looser arrangement. Everyone has their own family traditions, but seafood such as smoked salmon or oysters
is often used to get proceedings off to a luxurious start.
Chablis - the traditional option - is, admittedly, a bit of a treat with a plateful of oysters, but there's a whole world of dry whites that work just as well, often for half the price. You could, for instance, look to a classy Bourgogne Aligoté Les Temps Perdu 2006 from Clotilde Davenne (£7.50, Genesis Wines, 0207 963 9062). The grapes for this wine come from the chalky Burgundian soils that lie a bit further south than the vineyards of Chablis, giving the wine a similar racy minerality.
You'll also find a fair bit of minerality on the rich, weighty palate of Gran Sasso's Pecorino (£7.99, Majestic), an IGT wine from Terre di Chieti on Italy's eastern coast. Another seafood-friendly alternative comes in the shape of a Picpoul de Pinet 2006 from Domaine de Félines (£5.99, Waitrose). Down in the Languedoc, Picpoul is the wine of choice when you're tucking into a platter of the local oysters - that fresh, lemony acidity works incredibly well with the briny bivalves.
Another "local" wine that goes down a treat with shellfish is an Albariño, such as the 2006 from Fefiñanes (£11.50, Moreno Wines, 0208 960 7161). The wet, blustery Atlantic winds that blow in over north western Spain, where these whites come from, helps give them a zesty acidity that makes them ideal partners for all kinds of seafood. Albariño's wonderful citrussy aromatics make it a good match for lightly smoked salmon, too.
If you're looking for another aromatic grape that works brilliantly with smoked fish, try Austria's Grüner Veltliner. Grüner is one of those grapes that the wine trade loves, but hasn't yet caught on with a wider audience. Laurenz V's Singing Grüner Veltliner 2006 (£6.99) provides a bargain-basement introduction to the grape, but for the full effect, Weingut Geyerhof's Grüner Veltliner Steinleithn 2006 (£13.50, Genesis Wines, as above) is rich and potent, yet still elegant.
Another unusual suggestion would be Ktima Biblia Chora's Regional White 2006 (£10.99, Novum Wines). There's so much minerality in this Greek blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko that it's like licking a stone - but there's plenty of citrus and passion fruit in the mix to balance it out. Not only would this wine be terrific with smoked salmon, it would be rather special with the turkey too.
As would the Henschke Louis Semillon 2006 (£12.99, Waitrose) - South Australian Semillon tends to be a bit richer when young than the austere Hunter Valley versions, and although this wine will fatten up nicely as it ages, it's more than rich enough to do the job now.
Another left-field partner for either smoked salmon or turkey would be Anakena's ONA Viognier/Chardonnay/Riesling 2007 (£8.99, Oddbins). This unusual blend, from Chile's Rapel Valley, gets its rich peach and tropical fruit from the Viognier and Chardonnay, but it's balanced out by crisp acidity from its Riesling component.
Portugal's star is rising fast in the wine world. Covela's Colheita Seleccionada White 2004 (£14.50, Corney & Barrow, 0207 265 2430) should provide ample demonstration of the reasons behind the country's new-found popularity. It will also turn the blandest of turkeys into a real festive treat.
If you're looking for a red to go with your turkey, how about
a Chilean speciality? The Carmenère grape, once mistaken for Merlot, is becoming Chile's USP in much the same way as Malbec has carved a niche for itself in Argentina. When handled properly, it can make a very voluptuous wine, with lots of spice, dark chocolate and a savoury twist of soy. Try Concha & Toro's Terrunyo Carmenère 2005 (£9.99, Concha & Toro, 01865 338013) for size
- its tannins are reasonably soft, which means it won't ride roughshod over the delicate turkey meat.
Another red that would do the trick is Valle Reale's Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2004 (£10.99, Novum Wines) - it has similarly gentle, velvety tannins
to the Carmenère, along with lots of bright cherry fruit and juicy acidity.
I'm increasingly partial to Beaujolais - the region's come a long way since the days of thin, weedy Nouveau, and the best of the wines are truly wonderful partners for all kinds of food. I'd be very tempted to try Domaine du Calvaire de Roche Grès' Chiroubles 2004 (£8.20, Les Caves de Pyrène) - its gently floral red fruit should offset the turkey nicely.
The challenge posed by goose is different to that set by turkey - instead of a fairly bland bird that needs livening up, goose has rich, flavoursome meat whose main fault is that it can run to fat. This means you need some acidity to cut through the bird's richness.
When it comes to white, nothing does the trick quite like a Riesling - and I think, in this context, I'd prefer a rich dry Riesling to something off-dry. I'm a big fan of the rich green apple and lime flavours of Eden Valley's Mesh Riesling 2006 (£12.99, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 0207 609 4711), a joint venture from two of the region's biggest names - Polish Hill's Jeffrey Grosset and Yalumba's Robert Hill-Smith. If you want to stick to Europe, Trimbach's Riesling 2005 (£9.50, The Wine Society, 01438 737700) is always a banker.
As for reds, you can't go far wrong with a Pinot Noir. The trouble is, you need to take out a second mortgage for a really good Burgundy, so you might want to look elsewhere. Inspiration is at hand in the shape of Simmonet-Fébvre's crisp Irancy 2005 (£9.99, Waitrose). This relatively rare red comes from the Chablis region and is based on Pinot Noir, but has 5 per cent of the local grape, César, in the blend.
This is a wine full of juicy red fruit that will help balance out the fatty meat.
Another Pinot Noir, Scotchman's Hill Swan Bay Pinot Noir 2006 (£7.99, Majestic), is also pretty light-bodied. But its New World origins (it comes from Geelong in Victoria) show in the riper fruit and slightly gentler acidity. It's still got enough crispness to stand up to the goose, but has enough fruity softness to allow it to partner the turkey as well.
One of Greece's native red grapes, Xinomavro, could well be mistaken for Pinot Noir as it, too, has lots of zingy acidity and spicy red fruit. This makes it an equally suitable partner for your fatty, fleshy goose. Don't take my word for it - try Kir-Yianni's Ramnista 2003 (£11.49, Vickbar Wines, 0207 490 1000).
Those with a sweet tooth usually wind up their Christmas meal with a pudding, while those who prefer savoury tend to nibble on slices of Stilton. Luckily, the wines that will match the pudding best will also work brilliantly with the cheese.
Try the rich, figgy flavours of the Sigalas Vin Santo 2003 (£17.99 for 37.5cl, Vickbar Wines, see above) or the toffeed, nutty Henriques & Henriques 10 Year Old Malmsey Madeira (£12, Mentzendorff, as above). Another possibility would be a luscious, raisiny fortified Muscat from Australia - either the Rutherglen Estates Muscat NV (£8.99 for 37.5cl, Tesco) or Buller's Fine Old Muscat NV (£9.99, Majestic) should do the job nicely.
So, cheers, slainte, santé, salud, zum wohl, cin-cin - however you phrase it, a glass or two of any of these wines should make this a very merry Christmas .
As well as the discounts on various lines offered by most retailers, here are some of the seasonal promotions on offer this year.
Louis Jadot is packaging some of its wines in wooden boxes. The range of six boxes includes a magnum of Beaujolais Villages and two glasses (£45) and a twin-pack with one bottle of Chablis and one of Marsannay Rouge (£30). Only available at John Lewis.
Croft Port's Quinta da Roêda 1995 will be packaged in a wooden box for Threshers (£19.99).
is offering a Century of Port at Harrods and Fortnums
- £120 will buy you a box lined in red velvet that contains 37.5cl bottles of 10, 20, 30 and 40 Year Old tawny port.
Vistamar's Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah 2004 comes in a limited edition wooden gift box (£14.99, Discovery Wines, 0161 935 8243).
Marks & Spencer's gift packs include an organic cheese and wine selection containing a bottle of Rioja, Stilton, Cheddar, Somerset Brie and black pepper oatcakes (£19.99), and a mulled wine gift set (£19.50)
featuring a bottled of mulled wine, two wine mugs and four Swiss chocolate balls.
Château Lagrezette has commissioned a bespoke wood, linen and leather wine bag from Italian artist and designer Alessandro Esteri. The £135 gift pack also includes two tumblers.