Get the Christmas spirit and refresh your guests; Don't get yourself into a kerfuffle when it comes to choosing the 'refreshments' around the festive period. I'm here to help... I hope!
FIND that Christmas is all about the start, the middle and the end.
It all begins - in some instances in July - when the first pressies are purchased and continues relentlessly to the 24th.
This middle bit tends to be a day of overexcitement, overindulgence and over too quickly. While the end is that Boxing Day malaise when the final remnants of the giant bird are eventually put to the culinary sword in the form of cold meats, huge sandwichs and the ubiquitous curry.
This time of year is ripe for a bit of spoiling with thoughts of luxury and loveliness, so you're maybe spending a little more on your bottle of choice but if you cut down on the quantity then the budget shouldn't necessarily spiral out of control.
Also, if like us it's a huge struggle to think of a fresh gift idea for your loved one, then why not buy a really nice bottle you have both hunted down - always good fun - and enjoy it together? Please don't be tempted into buying those crazy, brightly-coloured liqueurs that will end up languishing in the back of the cupboard - buy good staple drinks instead.
THE DRINKS CABINET A bit of thought into putting together a nice range of spirits will give you and your guests plenty of options.
Concentrate on the basics with a good vodka, a couple of cracking gins - a spirit that is having a bit of a zeitgeist moment - a couple of whiskies, malt and blended, and an array of rums, white for mojitos, dark for cuba libres and maybe a sipping rum.
The latter is my weapon of choice at the moment. Not just the fantastic Caribbean varieties Appleton, Mount Gay and Havana Club, but the awesome rums from Central and South America including Diplimatico Reserva Exclusiva from Venezuela, El Dorado (12, 15 and 18-years-old) from Guyana and Ron Zacapa from Guatemala.
I was also sent a cheeky little pair of MATUGGA GOLDEN and SPICED, with its roots firmly in East Africa. The former is a luxuriously textured and super-smooth sipping rim, while the latter carries a warming ginger note with a little sweet cinnamon tone to its mid-palate.
Don't mess about with the gins as there's an enormous range out there and it's worth spending a little extra on your juniper-laden spirit of choice. Look to Sipsmith, Plymouth Dry or Tanqueray, and your gin and tonic will be the envy of the neighbours.
For more aromatic varieties, how about the cucumber-toned Martin Miller, the berryful Brockmans, the perfumed, elegant Spanish SIDERIT (PS39.95, Ultracomida.co.uk) or a cheeky Warner Edwards? Your brandy does not have to be restricted to Cognac and Armangac or even, dare I say it, to France. I have to say I was a bit surprised by this year's winner of the World Brandy Awards, the extravagantly bottled TORRES JAIME 1 (around PS60, Dylans Wine Merchants, Hailsham Cellars, vintagemarque.com) ... until I tasted it.
This is a super-supple spirit with a dried fruit and spice character that has the smoothest of finishes. Just the thing for a contemplative moment when surrounded by the seasonal lunacy.
Add to the mix fortified wines such as sherry, port and Madeira, which are perfectly suited to all things warming and cwtchy. It may be pushing it a bit to go for a crisp chilled manzanilla or fino sherry, but you're certainly in the right area with a richer AMONTILLADO or PALO CORTADO. Top producers such as EMILIO LUSTAU, HIDALGO or BODEGAS DELGARDO ZULETA will always deliver - it's what they've been doing for hundreds of years - and Spanish specialists such as Ultracomida.co.uk will certainly have the range. For a sweeter option, pop a Pedro Ximenez in the basket and you've got a liquid Christmas cake - trust me, you'll never go back.
Port should always be a winter staple, bringing together the warming quality of the most robust red wine coupled with touch of fortification (extra welly). This beautiful wine will suit all purses, from a lively LBV (late-bottled vintage) for about a tenner - look to top producers like TAYLORS, GRAHAMS and DOWS - all the way up to an incredible vintage like a TAYLORS 1992 (PS200, Fine Wines Direct Ltd, Cardiff), rare as hen's teeth and regarded by wine critics as one of the finest in the world.
For sweet Madeira, look no further than BLANDY'S ALVADA 5 YEAR OLD (RRP PS16 50cl, Waitrose, Cambridge Wine Merchants and Fortnum and Mason), an intoxicating blend of rich nutty tone with a punch of prune sweetness, and a little luxurious chocolate note tempered by a lively acidic Seville orange peel lift through the finish. A lovely drop.
SPARKLING For all things fizzy there is a dizzying array of wines on offer, from the favourite of ladies who lunch - Prosecco - and that traditional Spanish sparkling wine Cava, to the poshest of them all, Champagne.
Check out the deals at the moment, and remember that a good nonvintage Champagne will bottle age if it's kept in the dark and out of fluctuating temperatures - like its going to last past the New Year!
Talking of deals, I had a rather smashing glass of HENRIOT BRUT SOUVERAIN CHAMPAGNE a couple of weeks back and found the bouquet of sweet brioche and creamy persistent stone fruit in the mouth truly seductive. You can pay PS35 if you get it from Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason or Spirited Wines, but our friends at Fines Wines Direct on Penarth Road, Cardiff, have grabbed a load of cases and are selling it for PS19.99... bargain!
WHITES Finding versatile white wines can be a bit tricky. Much as I like them, isn't it time we moved away from the ubiquitous New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which would struggle with the breadth of flavours on a Christmas table? Richer whites are more my thing at this time of year and a white Burgundy certainly fits the bill. A good-value fresh example is the LOUIS JADOT MACON BLANC VILLAGES 2014 (RRP PS10.25, Asda, Budgens & many independents). Staying in the south of Burgundy, the DOMAINE FERRETT POUILLY-FUISSE 2013 (RRP 26.90, Planet of the Grapes, Vino Wines, Taurus Wines, Aitken Wines & other independents) has the sun on its back, with exotic white fruit showing a creamy texture from elegant and restrained oak aging. The mouthfeel of the wine shows balance and power in equal measure, making this a great addition to any Christmas table.
Moving up the region to Chablis, the SIMONNET-FEBVRE CHABLIS 2014 (PS14.99, Campbell Moore, Hailsham Cellars, directwines.co.uk) has soft melon fruit and touches of wet stone on the nose. In the mouth, some weight from the apricot fruit certainly gets the juices flowing in this well-made Burgundian favourite. The LOUIS LATOUR MONTAGNY PREMIER CRU 'LA GRANDE ROCHE' 2013 (RRP PS17, Wine Rack, Bablake Wines) has delicate white peach and pear aromas on the nose, with structured minerality to the rich apple and lemon citrus lick on the palate.
Looking to New World chardonnay, the WENTE 'RIVA RANCH' SINGLE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY 2013 (PS15.49, Hailsham Cellars, winedirect.co.uk, Vagabond wine & other independents) from the Monterey region in California shows an intoxicating bouquet of the ripest white peach and fresh pineapple aromas. In the mouth, the tropical tone continues, but the time in oak barrels gives the fruit a buttery element, adding texture and volume.
As an alternative to chardonnay but a similar style, how about a barrel-aged white Rioja? Either the VINA REAL BARREL-FERMENTED RIOJA BLANCO (RRP PS11.05, Majestic) or the MARQUES DE CACERES ANTEA BARREL-AGED WHITE 2013 RIOJA (PS9.99, Fine Wines Direct Ltd, Cardiff), which combine the mouth-filling quality of bright peach and pear fruit, with a sweet spicy intervention from time in oak adding finesse and amplification to the texture of these excellentvalue Spanish whites.
PINOT NOIR Traditionally the home of this prissy little grape is Burgundy in the centre of France, where it is treated with enormous reverence. It can be a bit of a minefield as you need to do homework on producers, but there are some negociants you can rely on like LOUIS LATOUR and LOUIS JADOT, the latter producing a very interesting Burgundian hybrid by combining pinot with that staple of Beaujolais to the south of Burgundy, the gamay grape. The LOUIS JADOT GAMAY-PINOT NOIR 2013 COTEAUX BOURGUIGNON (RRP PS14, Gwyn Llyn Wines, Gwynedd & Partridges os Sloane Street Ltd) has lively red fruits on the nose - plums and cherries abound. An invigorating mouthfeel with zingy acidity and soft tannins makes this a fine food partner.
Moving to Chile, the ERRAZURIZ 'WILD FERMENT' PINOT NOIR 2014 (RRP PS14.35, Majestic& Booths) shows more delicate smoke on the nose than previous vintages. Deep cherry fruit, full and forthright, carries enough weight for a table laden with treats. The ERRAZURIZ 'ESTATE SERIES' PINOT NOIR 2014 (RRP PS10.25, Majestic) is a little lighter in tone but still has that characterful fruit throughout. Whereas the ERRAZURIZ 'ACONCAGUA COSTA' PINOT NOIR 2011 (RRP PS17.99, Cheers Wine Merchants, Swansea, Harrods & Oxford Wine Company) has the rich, smoky, funky fruit of the 'wild ferment', but as if delivered on a velvet cushion. The nose has the forest floor aroma of natural unfussed-with elegant Burgundian pinots. Wild strawberry fruit has a crisp attack but then mellows in the glass to an elegant conclusion.
RED RIOJA There have to be a few Riojas included in the Christmas round-up, as it's such a good all-rounder. Go for a trusted Bodega such as CUNE, MUGA or MARQUES DE CACERES and you won't go far wrong. If you want to trade up, go for a RESERVA or even a GRAN RESERVA. Starting at the lighter end, the VINA REAL, CRIANZA 2011 (RRP PS11.05, Vinolois, Lea & Sanderman & Ann Et Vin), from the CUNE stable, uses tempranillo, garnacha and mazuelo and has crunchy red fruits showing a youthful character. Moving up a couple of notches, the VINA REAL, GRAN RESERVA 2009 (RRP PS28.85, Majestic) is as smooth as the inside leg of a teenage mink. Warming vanilla spice frames and bolsters the ripe red fruits in this elegant, balanced little beauty.
BODEGAS ALEJANDRO FERNANDEZ Another region in Spain synonymous with super reds is Ribera Del Duero, which includes that iconic wine of Alejandro Fernandez - PESQUERA. Wine merchants Fine Wines Direct Ltd, in Cardiff, have a comprehensive range of wines from this great producer. You can go full-throttle and plump for the PESQUERA, TINTO RESERVA 2011 (PS29.99). Even though this wine utilises the same variety as Rioja, tempranillo, it shows a much darker fruit at its heart and loads of powerful structured tannins. Or the CONDADO DE HAZA, CRIANZA 2011 (PS14.99), which has a softer underbelly and plenty of sweet spice throughout. If you follow Alejandro Fernandez out to his other wineries, you can find some fantastic-value reds from La Mancha in the form of EL VINCULO (PS9.99), a big powerful liquorice-spiced wine which would warm the cockles of the coldest heart, while the DEHESA LA GRANJA (PS9.99), from his outpost in Zamora, has a traditional quality about it, showing a creamy texture to the rich fruit.
OTHER REDS You can, of course, hit the Bordeaux and find a wonderful array of wines that show all kinds of facets. The smooth merlot or a feisty cabernet sauvignon are suitable for all budgets, from Bordeaux Superieur to the Grand Crus Chateaux that command rather eye-watering prices.
A Spanish take on a Grand Cru Bordeaux is the TORRES MAS LA PLANA .Around PS40, Waitrose, Dylans Wine Merchants, Swansea, Tanners, Amazon.co.uk & other independents). Made from 100% cabernet, this has the most abundant blackcurrant fruit with strident tannins and lots of tertiary characters such as chocolate and warming clove spice. How Christmassy is that? For something a little different, the ABBOTS & DELAUNAY 'ALTO STRATUS' 2013 (PS16.99, www,averys.com) has a very deep colour in the glass and a defined spice character to the black fruit bouquet. In the mouth the spice comes to the fore, with a zippy acidity that makes this warming wine ideal with winter food. It shows a full savoury character on the finish, making it the ideal partner to a thumping roast.
As an alternative to chardonnay but a similar style, how about a barrel-aged white Rioja?
Let's get the party started