Started holiday shopping yet? I'm a Dec. 23 man, myself. That guy cursing behind you in the three-kilometre lineup at Indigo last year? Me. This year, though, it's going to be different, certainly where adult beverages are concerned. At the bookstore, you can at least bide your time by reading three novels for free while waiting your turn in the queue, but liquor stores are another matter. Guards will drag you away in handcuffs for doing the reasonable thing and helping yourself to a nerve-settling mini of Jack Daniels.
As you read this, I'm at my local booze emporium, getting a jump on the late-December rush and hoarding the good stuff - not the pricey trophy labels for my gift list or the everyday, always available malbecs that might have been fine in April or September, but the decent mid-priced bottles that I'll be proud to pour for guests.
The festive season is a time to live larger than usual, isn't it? Why not consider spending a few bucks more than you do on your usual house wine? The nice thing about splurging for entertaining is that you get to enjoy the bottles, too. Here's a list of new releases that I think fit the bill nicely. They cover a broad range of styles and include soft-spoken European brands as well as fruit-forward crowd-pleasers from the New World. I'll offer more ideas in the coming weeks.
Mumm Brut Rosé (California)
PRICE: $29.95 in Ont.
From the big Champagne brand's Napa Valley outpost, this seductive pink bubbly is a standout. It starts out almost sweet, with a frothy mousse, then it dances on the tongue with candied cherry, citrus, minerals and before acidity kicks in for a bone-dry finish. Great as an aperitif or with a wide array of appetizers.
Domaine J. Laurens Les Graimenous Cremant de Limoux 2007 (France)
PRICE: $17.95 in Ont.
This bargain bubbly from southern France is bone-dry and lively, with green apple and stone-like flavours and pin-prick acidity on the finish. Try it with raw oysters or even a charcuterie platter.
Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay 2008 (France)
PRICE: $18.95 in Ont.
The big, quality French producer Jadot bottles dozens of offerings from a broad swath of vineyards in Burgundy, all under the same yellow-hued label. This, its most basic white, is a steal. Made entirely from chardonnay, it's medium full-bodied and creamy, with flavours that bring to mind tropical fruit slathered on buttered toast. There's even a hint of classic Burgundian mineral zip on the finish. Very versatile.
Taja Gran Reserva 2003 (Spain)
So much wine for the money in this red from the Jumilla district. Full-bodied and perfectly evolved for a seven-year-old wine, it offers up ripe, slightly prune- and cherry-like fruit, with undercurrents of coffee and tobacco, lifted by just the right amount of acidity. Try it with braised red meats, such as lamb shank.
Allegrini Palazzo della Torre 2007 (Italy)
Part of the fruit in this red from the Veneto region was air-dried after harvest in the Amarone style for added richness. Medium full-bodied and fresh, with a juicy-sweet cherry core and hint of chocolate. Great on its own or with a cheeseboard.
Penfolds Thomas Hyland Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
PRICE: $19.95 in Ont., $19.99 in B.C.
The Hyland offerings from Penfolds rarely disappoint, and this latest shiraz vintage is very good. Succulent and full-bodied, with rich plum and dark-berry flavours. A great red for sipping on its own and also good with steak, roast beef or lamb chops.
Chardonnay 2008 (B.C.)
PRICE: $29.90 in B.C.
Available in British Columbia direct from the winery (www.cedarcreek.bc.ca), this white is full-bodied and beautifully balanced, with just the right level of toasty oak to frame a tropical-fruit core lifted by good acidity on the long, harmonious finish. A substantial chardonnay to win the hearts of drinkers jaded by overoaked examples from California and Australia.
Black Creek Porter (Ontario)
PRICE: $3.55 in Ont.
The holidays deserve special beer too, like this one from the historic Black Creek Brewery in Toronto. It comes in single 500-millilitre pint bottles and was released commercially for the first time in Ontario at LCBO stores. Brewed in an old-school style using brown malt roasted over hardwood fires and fermented in wood, it's rich and subtly effervescent, serving up robust flavours of dark chocolate and espresso, with a bitter, slightly smoky finish. A good partner for cheeses and dessert.
Creemore Springs UrBock (Ontario)
PRICE: $2.75 in Ont.
Available in single 473-millilitre cans at LCBO stores, this seasonal brew has a colour somewhere between chestnut and mahogany. Full-bodied and at 6 per cent alcohol, it's smooth and modestly effervescent with a core of sweet molasses and coffee and a rewarding kick of bitterness on the dry finish. Great for cheese.
Patron XO Café (Mexico)
PRICE: $39.95 in Ont., $55.99 in B.C.
Recently marked down from more than $50 in Ontario, this coffee-flavoured tequila-based liqueur tastes drier and less syrupy than long-standing classics such as Kahlua and Tia Maria, partly because of the spicy tequila base and partly because of the high alcohol content (35 per cent versus 20 per cent for Kahlua). Actor Dan Aykroyd, the agent for Patron in Canada, thinks it's a standout of the brand, for what that's worth. I think it tastes better on its own than the competition's version, and it would make a decadent dessert topping - say, poured over vanilla ice cream.