If any wine epitomizes French savoir-faire, it is Margaux. While the wines of Margaux are neither the most powerful nor the most full-flavored red Bordeaux, they make up in finesse and elegance what they lack in sheer dimension. Most of all, their trademark perfume of violets, cherries and oriental spices has won them a place of honor among the legendary red wines of the world. Margaux is never cheap, but if you wish to grace the holiday table with finest the world has to offer, Margaux is an apt place to start.

Margaux's glamour starts with Chateau Margaux itself, the only Bordeaux estate so prominent that it lends its name to an entire commune. In keeping with their aristocratic image, Margaux labels tend to resemble engraved invitations to a royal ball, sporting gold script against a pure white backgrounds, or various combinations of gilt and black.

But the key to the greatness of Margaux lies not in its labels, but in its soil. The layer of gravel in Margaux is widely acknowledged to be the purest and quickest draining in the Medoc. Such poor soil cannot retain water or nutrients but yields wines with exceptional finesse and startlingly beautiful bouquets.

The following wines are listed in order of personal preference. The 1997s are proving to be an exceedingly consumer-friendly vintage, as they are ready to drink now, yet do have a modest aging potential of three to five years. Although 1996 is a far superior vintage, the wines are extremely closed now and have not been included for that reason. Supplies of the great 1995s are dwindling, but the wines continue to drink beautifully, if you can find them. Note that Bordeaux pricing is highly variable at every point in the supply chain, and the listed prices are only estimates.

Chateau du Tertre 1997 Margaux ($29): This little-known fifth growth has produced a smashing 1997. A glowing red-purple color leads into a bouquet marked by soft vanilla and violets. On the palate, the fruit is plump, smooth and mouth filling. While thoroughly enjoyable now, the wine will age gracefully over the next three to five years. Simply beautiful. (LVDH USA; call 410-521-3726)

Prieure-Lichine 1997 Margaux; Prieure-Lichine 1995 Margaux ($35-$40): The 1997 Prieure is a joy, with a bit more finesse than du Tertre at a slightly higher price. The bouquet is marked by toasty oak from new barrels, and the palate is a classic Margaux melange of bing cherries, cedar and violets. A small amount of 1995 Prieure-Lichine is also available. It shows the ripeness of great 1995 Bordeaux vintage, with low acidity and rounded tannins. (1997 from LVDH USA; call 410-521-3726; 1995 from Seagram/Washington Wholesale; call 202-832-5600)

Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux 1994 ($50-$60): This is the overproduction of Chateau Margaux, made from younger vines and lots deemed not quite suitable for the grand vin. While 1994 was a mediocre vintage generally, the selection at Chateau Margaux is so severe that even its second wine is a triumph. The 1995, not tasted, should be even better, and may be available in some outlets. (Seagram/Washington Wholesale; call 202-832-5600)

Chateau Valentin 1997 Margaux ($22); Chateau Valentin 1995 Margaux ($21): The 1997 Valentin is a charmer, with bright purple-red fruit flavors and a lovely Margaux nose. The 1995 is typically denser and darker, with lots of power underneath the ripe fruit. Without a lot of oak to mask the fruit, this is Margaux in its purest form. (1997 imported by LVDH USA; call 410-521-3726; 1995 stocked by Bacchus; call 410-633-0400)

Chateau Monbrison 1997 Margaux ($32); Chateau Monbrison 1995 Margaux ($30): One of the more age-worthy '97s, the Monbrison can be drunk now with pleasure, but really deserves another year or two in the cellar to reach full potential. The supple 1995 is ready now and has much charm. (1997 imported by LVDH USA; call 410-521-3726; 1995 stocked by Bacchus; call 410-633-0400)

Chateau Galiane Margaux 1997 ($29): This very pretty wine offers a cedar and spice nose and smooth supple fruit. For those seeking to make a spectacular impression on their guests, this ready-to-drink Margaux is also available in 3-liter ($140-$150) and 5-liter ($175-$200) bottles, just in time for holiday libations. (World Shippers and Importers; call 410-267-9708; large bottles in stock at Pearsons on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest D.C.; call 202-333-6666)

Chateau Cantenac Brown Margaux 1997 ($39): Always denser and earthier than most other Margaux chateaux, Cantenac Brown has made an excellent 1997 that is drinking well now, but also has the potential for aging nicely during the next four to five years. Comes alive with steak maison d'hotel and pommes frites. (William J. Deutsch; call 914-251-9463)

Chateau Moulin du Tricot 1997 Margaux ($23): If you can wait a few years, this deeply colored, rather rustic Margaux will prove quite a bargain. When the tannins melt away with time, you'll be rewarded with a delicious mouthful of red berry and cedar fruit. (LVDH USA; call 410-521-3726)

Questions or comments for wine columnist Ben Giliberti may be addressed to washpostwine@netzero.net.