Five Smart Tips for Buying Christmas Wine

Don’t leave your festive season wine buying to the last minute. 

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wine-buying-tips-christmas

Don’t leave your festive season wine buying to the last minute. 

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1. Start 20 years ago

As climate change climbs the political agenda, one Chinese proverb has been doing the rounds: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” That sentiment applies equally to wine. If you were clever enough to snap up plenty of 2001 Bordeaux, more understated in both style and price than the flashy appeal of 2000, then pat yourself quietly on the back.

Two decades on, 2001 is now widely regarded as a source of some elegant, charming wines, many of which will be drinking beautifully now. Understandably the conditions required for great sweet wine are rather different to dry reds, so it’s worth remembering that 2001 was a seriously good year for Sauternes.

If you weren’t in a position to be laying down fine wine 20 years ago, then take heart from the second half of that proverb and make a start right now. Christmas 2041 will come around sooner than you think, and you’ll be able to reap the benefit of this forward planning.

2021 Burgundy might be a canny place to start. Production volumes have been slashed by the weather, but early reports suggest the top producers have made very appealing wines. Allocations will certainly be tight on release and prices high, but both could still look fairly friendly in comparison to trying to secure the same special bottle in 20 years’ time.

wine-old

Wine tastes better with age. 

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2. Head for the specialists

If your own cellar isn’t able to furnish suitable Christmas treats then the next best option is to pay a visit to a specialist wine merchant. Yes, many supermarkets these days have large, broad, wallet-friendly ranges, but in many countries few have a genuinely strong fine wine section and even fewer can offer mature bottles.

You don’t have to pretend to be an expert, but do walk in with a realistic idea of budget. A good merchant should be able to recommend a wine that fits palate, occasion and wallet. As well as being well stocked and well informed, the staff in these specialist retailers often burst with infectious enthusiasm for their product. If you’re really struggling to make a decision then just try asking what they’ll be drinking on Christmas day.

Although it’s tempting to turn to the supermarkets for cheaper party supplies, a good wine merchant shouldn’t just be about fine wines. Many also offer strong value and interesting options at lower – albeit almost certainly not the lowest – price points.

Look out in particular for a retailer’s own label range. These wines often come from respected producers but, even more importantly, by putting their own name on the label, the merchant is very much hanging their reputation on the quality inside that bottle.

wine-specialist

A good merchant should be able to recommend a wine that fits palate, occasion and wallet.

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3. Go large

Nothing says party like a magnum. The contents may or may not be particularly special, but just the very presence of a large format bottle exudes a spirit of generosity and special occasion.

On a purely practical note, magnums immediately cut in half the fiddly business of opening endless bottles for a thirsty crowd. Meanwhile if you’re treating everyone to an older vintage then it’s reassuring to remember that a magnum’s smaller surface area to volume ratio means the wine will tend to evolve more slowly, prolonging its pleasure potential.

If you don’t have a particularly large crowd to entertain then it’s still well worth reaching for a larger format. So many great wines taste even better the following day, but with a 750ml bottle the restraint required to benefit from this extra aeration can prove too demanding. In short, think big.

wine-bottle-size-magnum

The very presence of a large format bottle exudes a spirit of generosity and special occasion.

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4. Consider auctions

Caveat emptor, or “buyer beware” is the overriding rule here. That said, if you’re looking for a special festive bottle, especially a mature rarity, then it’s certainly possible to pick up some treats at auction.

A few guidelines will help avoid disappointment: first of all, buy through a reputable auctioneer. That doesn’t necessarily just mean the biggest houses, whose premiums may well wipe out any bargains on the hammer price. Small, regional auction firms will often be asked to handle cellar sales from local country houses.

What’s more, without so much energetic international marketing exposure there may well be the chance to pick up an excellent deal. Meanwhile the internet has revolutionised wine auctions just as it has almost every other corner of our lives, so look out for companies with a purely online business model, whose lower overheads may well offer more favourable premiums. Some spirit specialist auction sites also regularly list serious wines, especially Champagne and Port, so it’s worth browsing in this direction too.

As for the wine itself, be wary of listings where storage or provenance are uncertain. That grand cru burgundy stewed beside granny’s radiator for 30 years may not be the treat its label suggests. The auction brochure should help here, but another useful clue to the quality inside your bottle is to check the ullage, or gap between cork and wine. This will widen gradually over time through evaporation, but poor storage conditions – either too warm or too dry – are likely to accelerate the process, increasing the risk of oxidation.

It’s not unusual or unacceptable for the level of a 30-40 year old wine to have slipped to mid-shoulder on the bottle, but anything below that should be treated with particular caution. Finally, be wary of an 11-bottle lot. The chances are someone broached a case and didn’t like what they tasted.

wine-auction

You can buy fine & rare wines at wine auction. 

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5. Think outside the box

If those early birds have snapped up the best Chablis, then don’t feel compelled to settle for the more mediocre examples that pad out so many supermarket shelves. There’s no shortage of exciting Chardonnay from other corners of the world, including many examples that offer a similarly racy, mineral-flecked character to France’s famous classic.

Cooler climate regions are your best hunting ground for this style: think Tasmania, Adelaide Hills or even England, several corners of which share that same Kimmeridgian rock that underpins Chablis.

If it’s simply a delicious Christmas oyster or smoked salmon match you’re after, then allow yourself to look beyond Chardonnay. Try the classic Bordeaux white blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, a specialism that Australia’s Margaret River has also made its own.

People can feel particularly trapped by tradition when it comes to the centrepiece Christmas red. Yes, this is a fine occasion to decant serious, mature claret, but there are plenty of other special wines that go well with roast turkey, goose or rib of beef.

So many other corners of the world now produce smart, age-worthy Bordeaux blends that you could put on the table with pride: Stellenbosch, Napa and Aconcagua to name just a few. You might even – whisper it – prefer a different style of wine altogether.

Good cru Beaujolais matures beautifully, is a fraction of the cost of its Burgundian counterparts, and there’s the added satisfaction of flying the flag for an underdog, whose reputation is still marred by the spectre of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Then there’s Rioja, such an easy-going food companion, but its qualities overshadowed by mass market success. This is the time to upgrade to one of the region’s more serious offerings, which age as gracefully as any Bordeaux. And if your family rebel at this departure from tradition, then indulge their lack of imagination while pouring yourself a Christmas present with more personal appeal.

white-wine

Think outside the box and be creative with wine pairings. 

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