Sweet and fortified wines haven’t been very fashionable for a while – but Majestic has just reported that port sales are hugely up this year among buyers in their 20s and 30s. I’ve always known how good port and other sweet and fortified wines are. At this time of year, my top three bottles would be the mellow tawny port, with its flavours of caramel, nuts, raisins and orange rind (kept in the fridge, to pour chilled at the end of dinner or while wrapping presents); the sturdy warmth of an LBV or single-quinta vintage port (to sip by the fire with family); and a good sherry to drink with mince pies. Perhaps yours are different. So let’s take a tour of some sweet and strong styles of wine – and where to find them this Christmas.
First, a confession: I’m not the biggest sauternes drinker. However, I’ve been thinking of this sweet wine from Bordeaux a lot since seeing it on a Noble Rot menu paired with treacle tart. This strikes me as a very decadent winter combination: the honeyed peach and marmalade tang of the sauternes with the intense stickiness of the treacle tart.
It’s also one that is very easy to reproduce at home and you can make the tart and buy the wine fairly inexpensively. This shouldn’t be the case because sauternes is not at all inexpensive to produce. Making it depends on having very particular weather conditions at the right time of year to create the right sort of rot to shrivel the berries on the vines and create intensely sweet, intensely flavoured juice.
Yet because sweet wine isn’t hugely sought after at the moment there are some incredible bargains around. The best of these is Aldi’s Specially Selected Sauternes 2016 (Bordeaux, France, 13.5%, Aldi, £7.49/37.5cl) which is made for Aldi by Château Suduiraut, an extremely well respected Sauternes estate.
This is a frankly ridiculous price for such a high-quality Sauternes and when I asked Aldi’s buyers how they’d come to have such a good name making their own-label they shrugged and said that at Aldi they always try to get the best wines they can: “We ask people to show us wines they assume that Aldi won’t buy.”
Waitrose’s own-label Sauternes is also made by Ch. Suduiraut and it, too, is lovely: Waitrose No 1 Sauternes Château Suduiraut 2013 (Bordeaux, France, 13.5%, Waitrose, £16.99) tastes of crystallised pineapple and coconut.
If you’re interested in other sweet wines then I loved the tang of Adnams Fine Dessert Wine Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2016 (France, 12.5%, Adnams, £9.99), which is made in the Gers from local varieties arrufiac, petit and grand corbu and petit manseng.
Also from south-west France and good for those who find sauternes too rich is Domaine de Lasserre Jurançon (12%, Co-op, £7/37.5cl): think poached peaches and apricots with floral quince. Made from gros manseng and petit manseng, this is total heaven.
Dr Loosen Riesling Eiswein NV (Mosel, Germany, 7%, Waitrose (164 shops) , £19.99/18.7cl) is exquisite. Made from grapes that are picked during a cold snap while they are frozen on the vine, it smells of lime blossom and sweet pears and has a refreshing taste.
On to the ports. I wouldn’t be without a bottle of tawny port in the fridge at this time of year. It’s a favourite among my friends and I pour it in lieu of pudding.
Tesco finest* 10 Year Old Tawny Port NV (Portugal, 19%, Tesco, £12) is excellent. And if you want something special go for a colheita (a tawny from a single harvest). Warre’s Colheita Port 2009 (20.5%, The Wine Society, £17) is great and there is a brilliant one from Noval in my wines of the week.
For ports that are a deeper red in colour I recommend Taste the Difference Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016 (Portugal, 20%, Sainsbury’s, £10).
For something more special, Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port 2012 (Portugal, 20%, Waitrose 201 shops, £25.59 down from £31.99 until January 2; Majestic £25.99/£34.99 mix six/single bottle price) is a vintage port made from vines grown in a single vineyard in the wilds of the Douro and it has notes of licorice and violets.
Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 2005 (Portugal, 20%, Waitrose, £25.49 down from £33.99 until January 2) has a little more age on it and is a real beauty.
On to sherry. The first alcohol I ever tasted was cream sherry poured in the classic way from an ancient bottle from my grandmother’s sideboard. I didn’t like it very much. But I do like cream sherry – which is just a blend of other styles of sherry – now, and I like it best when it’s sweet and tastes of raisins and sultanas.
Classics Rich Cream Sherry NV (Spain, 18%, M&S, £8) hit the spot for me. I definitely veer towards the complex, nutty “brown” (more oxidative) styles of sherry at Christmas.
A few good ones: Taste the Difference Oloroso Sherry NV (Spain, 20%, Sainsbury’s, £8/50cl) which is made for Sainsbury’s by Lustau; the glorious Williams & Humbert As You Like It Medium Amontillado NV ( Spain, 20.5%, Waitrose (150 shops), £29.99/50cl); and Gonzalez Byass Apostoles 30 Year Old Palo Cortado Sherry Half Bottle NV (Spain, 20%, Majestic, £22.49/£24.99 mix six/single bottle price) which tastes of hazelnuts and roasted almonds and is wonderfully complex.
As far as sherry goes, one for those of you who like PX, the fiendishly sweet and viscous sherry that tastes of molasses and is good poured over vanilla ice cream: finest* PX Sherry NV (Spain, 15%, Tesco, £6 for a half bottle).
And finally, a madeira. I love both the smart packaging and the wines of Barbeito Madeira. See my wines of the week, below, for more details on this, along with two excellent ports.
Wines of the week
Quinta do Noval Colheita 2007
Portugal (21.5%, Ocado, £49.99)
A startlingly good aged tawny port from a single vintage, in case you want to push the boat out. Aged for 13 years in oak, this is a sumptuous wine, so detailed that each mouthful seems to tell a story, and at a point where it still has a fresh youthfulness to balance against the more mellow flavours of roasted nuts and raisins.
Booths Finest Reserve Port NV
Portugal (19.5%, Booths, £11.50 for 50cl)
Back in the 1980s when the family-run Quinta de la Rosa took the big step from selling grapes to making their own wine, Booths was their first customer and the northern chain of supermarkets still buys La Rosa wines today. This is a super port in a beautiful modern bottle.
Barbeito Boal Reserva Madeira NV
(19%, Tanners, £12.80 down from £14.80 for a half bottle)
Just lovely: a smart little bottle of madeira made from bual grapes aged for five years in casks. It’s very gentle, medium-sweet with plenty of freshness and a delightful taste of hay, orange flower water and almonds. Much more moreish than you expect. Perfect for present-wrapping.