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Reading Between the Wines: beating the seasonal rush

It might sound a little pre-emptive in early November, but it makes sense to start planning your festive tipples early. Leaving it late can result in paying over the odds for average kit, or worse yet, failing to get that ‘special someone’ the right bottle for Christmas.

Many wines, spirits and liqueurs will sell out weeks before Christmas
Many wines, spirits and liqueurs will sell out weeks before Christmas

Don’t get me wrong, I despise the run-up to Christmas, and find myself something of a reluctant participant. The attrition of Christmas advertising seems to start earlier every year (I saw some as early as August this year), and it can have an oppositional effect, making us try our hardest to think of anything BUT seasonal shopping.

Despite this, I start planning my drinks early because experience has taught me that the booze I want will sell out, ruining my favourite part of the ‘festivities’.

Drinks retailers get the most obscure requests in the closing weeks of the year. When informed a product is – gasp – out of stock, customers will provide the retailers with wild expressions and bizarre reactions in return. While working drinks retail at Christmas, I once (unintentionally) reduced a person to fits of tears by telling them I didn’t have any Crème de Menthe in the shop – no joke.

So, if you want to avoid the temporary psychosis so common to the booze shopping experience at ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, you are in luck, as I have some vital advice. Some types of wine, spirits and liqueurs see an incredible sales spike in December, having spent the rest of the year gently collecting dust, and there are some specific categories of drink you should be aware of as famously hard to get, as supplies begin to run dry from around the 10th of December.

A general rule of thumb should be: if you don’t buy it often, you should assume it will be hard to get at Christmas and New Year. A second guideline is that if it is a gift idea, other people will be after it too, so expect competition. Thirdly, if it is traditional to have in the festive period (Champagne, Malt Whisky, etc), it will be nigh-on impossible to get good stuff late in the day: book now to avoid disappointment.

Now, on to specifics. You see, we rarely know exactly what to get people in terms of ‘bottles-as-presents’, but there are some staple gift choices people stick to year after year, and it is important to be aware of these. If it is a gift for ‘him’, people tend to go for big reds with big-name geographic specifications like Saint-Emillion, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Amarone or Barolo. These will clear out within a week or two before Christmas.

For ‘her’, it is often a white wine equivalent; recognisable names like Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, or high profile new-world brands. However, if you saunter into your local wine shop on Christmas Eve asking for a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, you will probably be told you’re out of luck.

For fathers, grandfathers and uncles, folks tend to opt for ‘special’ malts, something a wee bit more flash than the ‘standard’ ten or twelve-year-olds. Leave this one close to the wire and you’ll be trudging home with a bottle of ASDA ‘Smart Price’ whisky.

Sherries and brandies are always in demand with people who don’t know what to get for their grannies and aunties, but buyer beware: you will be doing battle with the armies of shoppers buying these for their Christmas puddings! Sherry and brandy stocks swell at most retailers around early November, but I assure you that the good ones will soon become scarce.

So, there you have it – you are now armed with the knowledge you need to get the right plonk for your presents, and the best tipples for your toasts.

Most retailers will have started their seasonal promotions already, including some cracking prices on Champagnes and sparkling wines, so it is a great idea to have a look around and get the pick of the best stuff. You have no excuses if the drinks aren’t ready come the 25th of December. Given the horrors of Christmas planning, you will need them.

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