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Friday, Dec. 11, 2009

BY THE GLASS

Make merry with top festive wines

Let us take the confusion out of choosing the best wines to enjoy in the party season


In case you haven't noticed, it's the season to be jolly. If you aren't yet decking the halls with sprigs of holly here's just the thing to get you in the spirit: a Christmas wine guide, which will take you from pre-Christmas party to post-Christmas stupor in four easy stages.

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Partying with wine

Before you get stuck into the unbridled gluttony of the Christmas feast, there's the annual round of parties to attend. Whether you're hosting or bringing a bottle, the key is to strike the right balance between economy and good taste. You're not going to make any friends if you're the one who bought the ¥700 bottle of paint thinner from the convenience store, but you also don't want to fritter away your budget on finer wine when all that is really required is something that slips down easily without leaving a noxious after-taste.

Top of our Christmas party wine list is Mapu Merlot 2008 (¥898 at Life Supermarket). This one seems almost too cheap, but wines from South America are very competitively priced these days and for my money Chile consistently comes top in terms of quality. Add to that the fact that this winery is owned by the prestigious French wine-house Baron Philippe de Rothschild and you've got a recipe for success. Scents of plump ripe fruit fill the nose with flavors of ripe strawberries dominating on the palate combined with pleasant gloopy licorice.

If you're looking to liven up the party with something a bit unusual then try Le Petit Jaboulet Blanc Viognier 2008 (¥1,500 at Mikuni Wine). Good Viognier in this price range is hard to come by, but this one tastes as if you've really splashed out. Musky with the enticing scents of buttercups it dissolves luxuriously on the palate. Another wine in a lower price range that delivers well for a difficult grape is Cycles Gladiator Pinot Noir 2008 (¥2,100 at Wine Market Party). Grown on California's foggy central coast, the notoriously fragile grape shows well here. The naughty label of a naked lady floating about with a bicycle recently got the wine banned in the conservative state of Alabama, making the bottle itself a great conversation starter.

Fizz to open presents to

A nice bit of fizz never goes amiss on a Christmas morning and it's just the thing to pep you up before ripping open gifts. If you chose wisely, even the most jaded of adults will regain some Christmas sparkle. Everyone, of course, responds well to the big brand Champagnes like Taittinger, Moet or Bollinger, but for me to recommend these already renowned wines would be pointless.

Instead, I highly recommend Francois Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre NV Champagne (¥9,450, Wine Market Party). Not only is this the first organic Champagne, but it also has sumptuous flavors of honey with floral notes.

I'm a massive fan of Cava and was very impressed with Mont-Ferrant Cava Reserva Brut 2005 (¥2,500, Mikuni Wine). It's an exotic confection with wafts of Turkish delight that at first you want to nibble tentatively, before you wolf it down. Even cheaper still, but winner of a seal of approval at last year's Japan Wine Challenge, is Pinot Chardonnay Santero (¥1,280, Wine Market Party). The Pinot adds an attractive bite making it a lively blend. From the makers of Moet comes Chandon Green Point NV Brut (¥1,980, Wine Market Party). Grown in the cool climate of Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia, the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes display delicate flavors of peach and walnuts with a lovely buttery toasted finish. Lastly, another great buy is Carpene Malvolti Prosecco (¥1,530, Wine Market Party), which has great flavors of almonds and peaches with an elegant finish.

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Light whites and entrees

When it comes to wine to match with entrees, the same rule applies as when choosing the food: keep it light. You don't want to weigh down your palate with strong flavors and rich food before the main meal. My family traditionally tucks into slices of smoked salmon accompanied by a simple French baguette and spattered with refreshing lemon juice. The perfect partner to this is a Chardonnay, which has flavors robust enough to match the salmon.

I was surprised and excited to see that, after winning last year's trophy for Best New World Wine at the Japan Wine Challenge, bottles of Wignalls 2007 Chardonnay (¥3,381 at Nissin World) were still available. It's a fresh cool-climate Chardonnay with exotic fruits that work well with salmon. If you prefer a fuller-style Chardonnay then try Montes Alpha 2007 Chardonnay (¥1,890, Nissin World) from Chile. Melon and floral scents follow through in rich, slightly musky flavors.

If you've got deep pockets and are looking for something really refined to kick off your Christmas dinner, then look no further than a fabulous Meursault from Joseph Drouhin (¥7,500, Mikuni Wine). The 1998 vintage has a faint delicate aroma of marzipan that mingles in the palate with a wonderful fizz of sherbet.

Because I am a huge fan of this innovative winery and was blown away by this wine earlier in the year, my final recommendation for entrees is K Vintners' Viognier (¥4,200, Wine Market Party). It's got a sharper mineral quality that prepares the palate for a heavier wine but remains intriguing with fresh scents of peach blossom.

Big reds for turkey or game

You've limbered up your liver with lighter wines, so it's time to get stuck in to the big hitters. Here comes the magnum opus of the Christmas drinking experience: the serious reds that dramatically flow once the carving knife gets stuck into the meat. As Christmas is a time for extravagant indulgence, I've decided to include some pretty heftily priced wines for those of you who are prepared to throw caution to the wind in search of a real masterpiece. But, of course, there are also some more affordable delicious wines included.

My first wine was described as a "soft power" by the wine importer who introduced the vintage to me.

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Hermitage La Chapelle Rouge, Paul Jaboulet Aine 2003 (¥28,000, Mikuni wine) has a muted scent of cherries that slowly crescendos into a symphonic delight on the palate. Drifting back down to earth somewhat comes Chateau La Croix Du Casse 2005 Pomerol (¥7,000, Mikuni Wine). Again the scent of cherries but this time it's more strident and accompanied by the faintest magical hint of musty leaves, the oral equivalent to wandering into a mysterious forest glade. Overall, the succulent texture of this wine oozes with berries on the tongue.

It wouldn't be Christmas without a wine from Bordeaux, and Chateau Belloy 1998 (¥2,660, Wine Market Party) fits the bill. A clear color with slightly earthy hints, this leaves traces of rich currant cake on the nose, in which you can also detect a sharp hint of evergreen leaf. Strong alcohols are balanced out with elegant tannins; the grape blend is 60 percent Merlot and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.

Crossing over to the New World, I discovered Othello 2006 from Napa, California (¥3,500, Nissin World). This time Cabernet dominates at 90 percent with the rest of the blend being Merlot. There are good tannins in this interesting mix of heavy and light fruit where lively cherries are augmented by somber plum flavors.

Finally, a wine to knock your socks off — though this one is strictly for fans of spicy wine:

Montes Folly Syrah 2005 (¥6,750, Nissin World) from the Apalta Valley in Chile has a nice deep color and peppers that tickle the nose, while a whiplash of licorice adds to the spice in the mouth.

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Spoiled for choice: Wine Market Party in Ebisu, Tokyo, has a wide selection of wines and is open until 9 p.m. If you can't make it before closing, though, it also has an online store offering more than 1,000 wines. FELICITY HUGHES

If you're on a tight budget this Christmas but want your reds to taste superior, you ought to consider investing in a decanter. Younger wines, whose tannins have not yet softened, really benefit by being decanted. The flat-bottomed bottle allows more air to get to the wine, weakening the grip of the tannins and encouraging the aromas of the wine to develop. If your wine is more than 10 years old, decanting can also help remove some of the sediment that may have accumulated at the bottom of the bottle.

It doesn't matter whether you are splashing out on vintage wine or going for something a little more low budget, making an informed selection in the wine store and opening out the flavors with a decanter can work wonders for your Christmas cheer.

Life Supermarket (0120) 480 968; www.lifecorp.jp Mikuni Wine (03) 5542 3939; www.mikuniwine.co.jp Nissin World Delicatessen (03) 3583 4586; www.nissinham.co.jp Wine Market Party (03) 5424 2580; www.partywine.com


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