Why port and madeira should always be drunk first, not last – and the best bottles to buy

Illustration for port and madeira
It's time to stop thinking of these wines as the icing on the cake and instead as the cake itself - Simone Massoni

Wrapping presents on a dark December afternoon? Reading a book by the fireside on a cold weekend? Making mince pies? All these activities are, at least in my view, much improved by the presence of a glass of port or madeira. Both these fortified wines have suffered cultural imprisonment. Stuck at the end of festive meals, they’ve acquired all the wrong sorts of associations – with overeating and anachronistic menus.

Let’s free them: liberate them from formal settings and, most importantly, stop thinking of them as the icing on the cake and instead as the cake itself. This means opening port and madeira first.

The sweet fruitiness and nutty warmth of LBV (late bottled vintage) port is easy to appreciate on a gloomy winter weekend. Don’t be surprised if it looks a little more pricey than you remember from last year; the August increase in duty rates for port with an abv of 20% added £1.56 (duty + VAT on the duty) to a bottle.

A handful of recommendations: Finest Late Bottled Vintage Port 2017, Portugal (20%, Tesco, £13.50) is very good indeed; 2017 was a brilliant vintage for port, which helps.

I also love Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage Port 2019, Portugal (19.5%, Waitrose, £19.99) which is made from a field blend (different grape varieties, grown and picked together) of 80-100 year old vines. And the superb Quinta do Noval Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Port 2017, Portugal (19.5%, Waitrose, £24.99).

But let’s not forget about madeira, a fortified that also tastes (depending on its style) of dried fruit and roasted nuts but which is lighter and also more refreshing than port.

Some people cook with madeira. I mean this in both senses of the word ‘with’ – in the food and a glass on the side. Jacqueline Cole of Bovey Wines, which imports d’Oliveiras madeiras, has plenty of good ideas. ‘[Madeira made with the grape] bual I like with liver and bacon casserole. Three-year-old medium-sweet is good with seared duck breast, slosh it in there.’

Dinner at Cole’s house is sounding pretty good but for madeira I veer towards the mid-afternoon glass and snack option. A favourite madeira for me is the lighter (in alcohol), dryer, fresher style of Barbeito Madeira Rainwater Reserve NV, Portugal (18%, Harvey Nichols, £18 for 50cl). It has an easeful warmth but is also pleasingly tangy with layers of dried apples, sultanas, candied lemon peel and orange flower water against a background of pear and walnut. It’s great with roasted salted almonds, chunks of hard cheese or air-dried ham wrapped around breadsticks.

Another good one? Henriques & Henriques 10 Year Old Sercial Madeira NV, Portugal (19%, Waitrose, £18.99 down from £21.99 for 50cl until 1 January). Sercial is the grape that makes the lightest coloured, driest style of madeira and this version combines the atmosphere and intensity that comes with age with salty notes of dried peach, roasted almonds and fresh pear and a frisson of orange oil. Again, get out the cheeseboard and the nuts. Or a slice of lemon drizzle cake made with ground almonds.

As Cole says, though, the most Christmassy madeira is made from the Malvasia grape, like the boat-pushing-out, date and roast hazelnut-laced d’Oliveiras Malvasia 2000, Portugal (19.5%, The Whisky Exchange, £123).

Try these...

wines to try
wines to try

Finest 10 Year Old Tawny Port NV, Portugal

20%, Tesco, £14.50
Like crème caramel with roasted nuts, a gorgeous oak-aged tawny port that needs to be drunk chilled. Accompany with manchego cheese or pecan pie.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim Port 2013, Portugal

20%, Asda, £32
An excellent vintage port from a single estate (Bomfim), which has been farmed by the Symington family for five generations.

Henriques & Henriques Single Harvest Sercial 2001, Portugal

20%, The Wine Society, £68

Expect flavours of dried and fresh orchard fruit with a slightly smoky edge of roasted almond.

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