WHAT'S your favorite wine?" Get into a taxi, meet someone at a party and this is inevitably the most frequently asked question of the wine writer. My problem is that I have so many favorites that the answer varies according to occasion, mood, food, budget and the company I'm enjoying the wine with.
At Christmas, I like to dwell on my all-time favorites, wines that, like the most deeply satisfying piece of classical music, I return to again and again like old friends; wines whose skin I feel as comfortable in as they settle comfortably in mine. Above all, they are wines that transcend the here and now of price and value and transport me into new realms not just of sensual gratification but emotional satisfaction, too.
I was first introduced to Chateau Cos d'Estournel by my father. For some reason best known to himself, he discovered that a food and wine chain called Cullens was selling this St Estèphe 2nd cru classé quite cheaply. He would drive around London and the south-east buying up every bottle he could find.
He had a little stock of them and my first-ever taste was one of those moments when I realized this was a liquid that was different from all other liquids that had gone before it. The first vintage I ever bought was a case of the 1982 vintage. When I think the latest bottle is my last, remarkably, I still seem to have a bottle or two of this divine wine left in the cellar. Quite how I just don't know. It's been the case that's kept on giving.
Ever since I went on a trip to the unique French region of Alsace, I have had a soft spot for Alsace Riesling. On my first major trip I visited a number of individual producers such as Zind-Humbrecht and Ostertag and their wines have remained in my mind and, occasionally, on my table.
The producer that made the biggest impression though was not a grower for once but a négociant, the family house of Trimbach. Trimbach make riesling in a style that to me is always refreshing and elegant. I bought a case of the Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile from the 2001 vintage and for once stuck to my rule to drink a bottle every year. It won't take an Einstein to work out that I drank my penultimate bottle this year. It had changed, of course, maturing into seductive secondary aromas and flavors.
Tuscany's Paolo de Marchi is not only a modest and affable man but one of Italy's great winemakers, and certainly one of Tuscany's finest exponents of the sangiovese grape. At a time when the Super Tuscan movement was experimenting with blends of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon or merlot, Paolo de Marchi maintained the purity of his Super Tuscan red Cepparello. He wanted the location to speak through the grape variety and he didn't believe that could happen by blending Italian and Bordeaux varieties. He's also one of the first great Tuscan producers to use a screwcap on his top red.
"Sangiovese has a complex yet delicate fruit character, and wines under screw cap show a purer, more focused fruit and certainly more consistency," says Paolo.
The 2008 Isole e Olena Cepparello IGT Toscana is the quintessence of sangiovese, a silky red of pristine mulberry fruit quality laced with spicy undertones and savory freshness.
I make no apologies for having two Italian reds in my list of Christmas favorites. If I had to apologize, I would plead in mitigation that the Cepparello is from Tuscany and the Aldo Conterno Barolo from Piemonte, the two opposite poles of the Italian fine wine spectrum.
Barolo is one of my favorite wines, full stop. There's something about the nebbiolo grape that's unique and special and it's all to do with its haunting aromas of violets and roses with notes of tar, its delicate filigree texture and flavors and the fact that at its best it's a unique expression of the northwest foothills of the Alps. I discovered Aldo Conterno's Barolo on my first-ever trip to Piemonte where I met the great man himself. Sadly, he passed away this year, but I'm pleased to say that his sons have maintained a fine tradition of wines of exceptional purity of fruit, concentration and structure.
Back in France but not to Bordeaux just yet, it's to the Rh?ne that I head for one of the great wines of the world in the Chave Hermitage. I managed to buy a case of the 1990 red - and also a case of the 1990 white - when they were still relatively reasonably priced.
This followed a visit to the region and to Chave, where Gérard Chave took me round his spotless cellar and invited me to taste the many different component parts of the syrah grape that went into the final blend. It was then that I realized that just because Hermitage is made of one grape, the syrah, it doesn't mean it can't produce an intense and complex red. The fabulous quality of the raw materials and the blending of the different parcels was the skill that singled out Chave, for me, as the greatest of all Rh?ne producers.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I haven't chosen a Champagne. This is a bit odd, I'll admit, because Champagne, vintage Champagne in particular, is unquestionably one of my "desert island" wines. The problem is I'm spoiled for choice, with so many wonderful names, among which Roederer, Jacquesson and Billecart-Salmon feature strongly.
Finishing on a sweet note instead, as befits Christmas, it's back to Bordeaux this time and the luscious sweet Barsac of Chateau Climens. I discovered the joys of Chateau Climens on one of my first trips to Bordeaux and bought a case of the 1986. Since then I have been back a few times and always enjoyed the cellar visit with the owner Bérénice Lurton. Rather like Gérard Chave, she too likes you to taste the component parts before she blends and bottles the wine. I will be having a bottle of this liquid gold this Christmas, while I raise a toast to you, dear Shanghai Daily reader.