So, at last, the “holiday season” is upon us. Every year after the 1st of January the western consciousness begins its inexorable march towards the next Christmas period. One waits with bated breath and slowly building excitement as one holiday passes the other and indulgence and consumption come back into fashion.
With the Christmas holidays beginning in mid-November, this gives one approximately 5 weeks to plan what you plan to drink for Christmas, drink that in the intervening period, then rush out and buy more just in time for your favorite creepy uncle to finish his first glass.
There is frankly no such thing as “Christmas” wine beyond matching something appropriate with a Christmas pudding (think fortified wines – Port, Madera etc). So when buying your Christmas wine, the very first question you need to ask yourself, is what are you looking for? What style, what grape, what nation, what region, and what price? If your answer is, “I just want wine”, or “what are those things?” then it’s off to the supermarket for you! Though, you probably shouldn’t be allowed to buy wine.
An average supermarket is, amusingly, actually one of the trickier places to buy wine. It is essentially an exercise in sifting through the mountains of undrinkable, alcoholic cesspit water and finding something nice. What people often fail, miraculously, to understand is that you can’t just buy any bottle of wine. When you buy a bottle that costs you say, £5, the actual cost going into producing the wine itself is tiny (roughly 87p), so the final product is predictably poor. However, these wines are perfect for mulled wine as they are cheap and plentiful.
As a benchmark, you should never buy a bottle of wine under £10 in a supermarket. Even £10 is a bit low, however, at that point the ratio of costs on the wine itself versus the bottling and marketing, begins to rise sharply (about £3.74 on the wine). You should also avoid wine that is on discount, it’s often discounted at the actual price it should retail, meaning the quality of the wine is lower than you are being lead to believe by the price.
Choice is also heavily dependent on which supermarket you are shopping in. Waitrose and similarly high end shops are pretty decent in quality and offer a range of wines, some being fairly nice. Tesco and Sainsbury have similarly sized wine departments but are quite frankly much lower in quality. M&S is very hit-and-mass; your author has had some great wines, and some pretty bad wines, from them.
Do yourself a favor this Christmas and upgrade, if you are willing to start spending around £20 is a bottle shop.
Bottle shops come in many forms, and offer many varied wines. Oddbins is reliable if at times a little unimaginative. The cheapest wine is always on the bottom, and usually starts at £8 or £9 pounds, and can easily go up towards several hundred pounds depending on the bottle. (Usually mid-range Bordeaux or vintage Champagne). Oddbins also offers a diverse selection of different nations and regions within those nations (i.e, if you want a wine from the US, there is a much wider selection than Echo Falls). Nicolas is a similar type of chain, though it specifically focuses on French wines, and are typically more expensive. However, you can get quite a number of large-format bottles there not found in many other similar stores. Magnums of Bordeaux, Burgundies, Champagnes, and so on. They are owned by Spirited Wines, so you can buy their ranges online (in the Christmas spirit I would suggest getting a Magnum of Champagne Deutz at £78.20)
My personal favorite at this range is Lea & Sandeman, which is typically slightly more expensive than Oddbins or Nicolas but offers a much greater diversity in products, from higher quality producers. Unfortunately, there are only four of these stores and they are all in West and South-West London, so unless you happen to be taking a stroll through Kensington, you probably won’t encounter one. That said, if you are traveling to London for or before Christmas, I highly recommend stopping by one of these shops.
For the genuine Christmas experience, though, the best options in town are Fortnum & Mason and Hedonism. Here one can find wines not only worth having over your Christmas eve dinner table but also as a present.
On selection alone, Hedonism might well be unparalleled around the world. It has every wine you have and have not heard of and nearly as many spirits. Your author could write (and probably will) an entire article on this shop alone, but suffice to say the wine sold there is of very high quality. Want a bottle of some £30 Chianti? By all means! Want to spend £45,000 on a methuselah of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild? Right this way sir.
Although Hedonism can and does (without shame) cater to the well-heeled of the world, there are many wines at any price point. Hedonism is very much worth the extra expense at Christmas.
Fortnum & Mason, while it has a much smaller wine selection than Hedonism, offers some fantastic gems at a reasonable price without sacrificing quality. While it doesn’t quite have the modern, almost “Silicon-Valley meets wine” feel of Hedonism, it is none the less sleek and sophisticated (a product of renovations in the last several years).
One of my favorite things about F&M is their Champaign selection. This ranges from standard (F&M brand, Moet et Chandon, etc…) to small grower Champagnes like Jacques Selosse. It’s certainly much smaller than the selection at Hedonism, but it also will cost you much less. One of my personal favorites to pair with food is Jacquesson 738 (£45), a high quality grower champagne.
If nothing else, F&M doesn’t do half measured when it comes to Christmas charm. Frank Sinatra’s rendition of the Christmas Waltz and seemingly endless decorations make for a fantastic shopping experience.
Whatever ones choice this year, have a merry Christmas, and drink wine.