Holiday shoppers will find lots of good cheer at their favorite wine shops this year. This will make choosing wines for holiday entertaining a snap, as terrific choices abound for every budget.

For many, if not most wine shoppers, the holidays provide an almost irresistible temptation to splurge a bit -- or maybe a lot -- above the usual wine budget. My advice is to give in. Let temptation sweep you away. With wines like those below, you won't regret it. Or at least you won't remember it (but do appoint a designated driver.)

In keeping with the ebullient urge, I recommend one other departure from custom. Don't save the Champagne for New Year's Eve. At your dinners and parties this year, start with the bubbly. More specifically, start with a Champagne that relies heavily on the white Chardonnay grape, rather than the more customary red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes. Because Chardonnay-based Champagnes are extra bright and racy, they supply the perfect start for a sparkling affair.


Taittinger Brut "La Francaise" Non-Vintage ($25-$35) Elegantly structured and delicately fruity, with distinctive, toasty notes, Taittinger Brut La Francaise is a Champagne of exceptional finesse. To achieve this style, Taittinger uses of a high proportion of Chardonnay grapes, about 40 percent, twice the amount used in most non-vintage brut cuvees. (Taittinger's James Bond level Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs -- $110 -- is 100 percent Chardonnay. The caliber of the just-released 1995 is enough to put a smile on Q's face.) For the record, Brut La Francaise has become my "house" Champagne and would be my car Champagne too, if I could retro-fit Bond's pop-up Champagne bucket to an Oldsmobile.

Duval-Leroy Blanc de Chardonnay 1996 ($35; France): Collectively, only 27 percent of the vineyards of Champagne are planted with Chardonnay, and it is the hardest variety to cultivate. This cuvee is 100 percent Chardonnay from 5 grands crus in the top Chardonnay region of Champagne, the Cote de Blancs: Avize, Cramant, Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly. Duval-Leroy comes closer to the ethereal, austere style of Krug's all Chardonnay Clos de Mesnil Blanc de Blanc ($200) than to the softer Taittinger Comtes de Champagne style. Even though Duval-Leroy is not yet as famous in America as it deserves to be, a $35 Blanc de Blancs Champagne that can be mentioned with such giants is well worth seeking out. (Duval-Leroy's Champagnes were recently re-introduced into the U.S. market. Contact Constantine Wines, 800-394- 8466/410-992-1400 for stores that carry the line. Imported nationally by Partners Wine, 504-314-9463; e-mail:


Beringer Vineyards 1999 Chardonnay Private Reserve Napa Valley ($29; California): Find me a $29 white Burgundy that offers anything close to the thrills of this superb, top of the line Chardonnay from veteran winemaker Ed Sbragia. It has everything {ndash} a great nose of Meursault-like oak and apple butter, mouth-filling fruit refreshed by racy acidity and a remarkably long, subtle finish of melon and lemon. As great, and indeed, superior to California Chardonnay as white Burgundy is at the top end, this luxurious, yet still reasonably affordable wine is precisely the type of Chardonnay in which California has an almost unbeatable advantage. Serve with buttery fish or cream sauces.


Beaulieu 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon "Rutherford" ($19-$25): The legendary Napa Valley winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff said, "It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet." Wait till you taste the wine just above this in the Beaulieu hierarchy, the sublime 1999 Georges de Latour Cabernet Private Reserve ($95, hopefully at someone else's expense) to see how the Rutherford benchland soil expresses its signature "Rutherford dust" flavors of black cherry, mineral and green/black peppercorn, with a hint of anise on the finish. However, at one-quarter the price, Beaulieu's 1999 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon captures about nine-tenths of Georges Latour's illustrious qualities. This is not surprising, as it is basically the overproduction of the Latour Reserve and comes from the same vineyards, in particular, the beating heart of Beaulieu, the original de Pins vineyard, used by Tchelistcheff to make the first Georges de Latour Reserve Cabernets in the 1930s. Although the tannins on the finish are still a bit chewy, as one would expect from a deep black/purple Cabernet that won't truly peak for another seven or eight years, this is a great time to snatch a taste of a splendid young wine, when the copious, youthful fruit masks the underlying structure. Now a caveat: Don't confuse this with the more ordinary Beaulieu "Napa Valley" and the far inferior Beaulieu "Coastal" Cabernet. The label says "Rutherford" in big letters. (Widely available, but as always, call the store first to verify stock.)

Saintsbury 2000 Pinot Noir "Carneros" ($22-$25; California); Saintsbury 2000/2001Pinot Noir Garnet ($17): Saintsbury makes first-rate Cote de Beaune-style Pinot Noir in the cool Carneros region of Napa, yet has retained its modest pricing policy despite its increasing fame. (If only more Cabernet Sauvignon specialists would follow its example.) I still feel that the "regular" Carneros bottling is worth the modest premium over the more fruit-forward Garnet bottling, but in 2000 and 2001 the Garnet has picked up weight and dimension, and the difference is not all that great. If the budget is at all a factor (e.g., for a large gathering), the Garnet is the way to go. Bottom line: Both are lovely, complex, Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs, so you can't go wrong. Note, like the comparison of Cabernet-based Bordeaux with Pinot Noir -based Burgundy, the Beaulieu, above, has more power, while the Saintsbury is silkier and softer. Both are complex, so the choice depends on the main course -- the Beaulieu calls for beef or lamb, while the Saintsbury is best matched with lighter meats, poultry or salmon. Note also that Saintsbury makes an excellent "Reserve" Pinot Noir, but at about $39, I would look to premiers crus from Volnay or Pommard.

Cave Cooperative de Tain L'Hermitage 2000 Crozes-Hermitage ($9-$12): Don't let the low price fool you -- this is a high-quality, textbook Northern Rhone Syrah. While it doesn't have the power of a true Hermitage, from the more carefully delimited region next door, nor the startling perfume of a Cote Rotie, from farther north in the Rhone, it will prove satisfying to both novices and connoisseurs. The color is a healthy ruby-purple, and syrah flavors are well-defined and layered, something that can rarely be said of California Syrah and Australian Shiraz (the same grape), which tend to be syrupy in this price range. (Wines Limited)