Please be advised that I am not recommending Cha~teau St. Nicholas. I haven't tasted this White Christmas Cuve'e but am convinced that no self-respecting Santa Claus would push a blend of chenin blanc and white zinfandel. (The Santa on this label looks as if he has been deeply into the slivovitz and probably couldn't pass a Breathalyzer test.)
No, I offer this festive look at yuletide marketing as a simple vision of Christmas present. Last year, I had a little sport with the many Christmas catalogues offering glittery and mostly useless wine wares to mail-order shoppers. To my horror, some people took those remarks seriously. One fellow even bought a pair of port tongs, which, he says, are great for retrieving wieners from campfires.
This year, I will strive to be a bit more practical, if not quite serious. One of the pleasures of Christmas, after all, is its lack of seriousness, whether pertaining to affairs of state or to the hidden nuances in all things bottled.
Christmas is the best time to drink rose' champagne, for instance. Salmon- and peach-colored sparkling wines are often less interesting -- certainly less serious -- than the clear variety. But they lend an irrational touch of gaiety to even the most dutiful yuletide gatherings. Imagine sipping sparkling rose' while opening presents. There are several good brut rose's, most of them on sale this time of year. Charbaut's costs about $20 and has a beautiful label to boot; the Bruno Paillard is a few dollars less.
One gift might be a nifty corkscrew from Screwpull (about $11), the best I know -- quick, sure and effective for both young and old corks. Screwpull also makes a device for cutting the foil from the bottle's neck, for $4. Now, you may think a foil cutter ranks somewhere below port tongs on the list of life's necessities, but it makes a fine stocking present, and it works.
Another bizarre-looking wine accouterment, the Vacu-vin, costs an impressive $15 and consists of two rubber stoppers and a plastic plunger. It's worth the inflation because Vacu-vin will pump air out of an opened bottle and thus preserve the freshness of the unfinished wine -- the perfect solution for anyone who wants to drink less than a bottle of wine but can't bear throwing away what's left. Whites will last for almost a week after being Vacu-vined, provided the air is pumped out immediately. Reds will still be fresh after three or four days.
There might be two new books under the tree, both about France and both from Simon and Schuster, for very different readers. One -- for the ambulatory fan of French vineyards -- is Hugh Johnson and Hubrecht Duijker's The Wine Atlas of France and Traveler's Guide to the Vineyards ($35), with serviceable information and good maps. The other book, more ambitious, is Robert Parker's The Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence ($22.95) -- an encyclopedic and heartfelt look at one of the great wine-producing regions.
Now let's get to the gift wines -- always decorative shapes to put a ribbon around. The beauty of red wine as a Christmas gift, quite aside from its appropriate color, is that it is guaranteed to give true pleasure -- as opposed to, say, an electric razor.
If you have about $30 to spend, give a bottle of Inglenook's '83 Reunion -- a beautiful cabernet sauvignon (with 6 percent merlot) that blends the fruits of three historic Napa vineyards in a big, complex wine. It should show well into the next century.
Don't think that Christmas belongs just to cabernet. For $30, you could give the '77 reserve brunello from Costanti, a small producer in Italy's most expensive wine region. This brunello is ready to drink and beautifully suits a Christmas roast with Yorkshire pudding.
Port may be the quintessential Christmas drink, combining tradition, color and the sweetness of fortified wine. You can't imagine, until you've tried it, the pleasure of sipping port and eating walnuts or Stilton cheese with English water biscuits and crisp stalks of celery.
Good vintage port is expensive and usually not ready to drink for 15 or 20 years. Two compromises are Warre's '74 late-bottled vintage port, only $17 and ready to be opened, and Yalumba's Galway pipe port ($13) from the Barossa Valley, Australia. The Warre's needs decanting, the Yalumba does not.
All we need now is something in which to dip the Christmas cookies. Vin santo, the fortified wine from Italy, is the best choice. Traditionally, vin santo is made by hanging grapes in the kitchen to dry and acquire an appealing smokiness before pressing, but most of that authenticity stays in Italy.
Dry vin santo makes a good aperitif, but for cookie-dipping a touch of sweetness is in order. Strozzi exports a vin santo for about $9 that is not exactly sweet but will suffice for dipping almond cookies -- known variously as croccanti, ricciarella and other names -- but any ol' Christmas cookie will taste better dripping with this final glorious indulgence. ::