Seasonal sips: ports and fortified wines for Christmas

The great thing about Christmas is that no one – or at least practically no one – minds if you play it by the book. In fact, if anything, they tend to be mildly reproachful if you don’t. That’s why not having a bottle of port to drink with the stilton is as big a crime as forgetting the stuffing or, in my case, the bread sauce. But which one do you go for?

Before I start, a quick port 101 (and I realise this will be well-trodden ground for many of you): port is a fortified wine, in other words one whose strength, and sweetness, is boosted by adding grape spirit to the base wine. There are two main types: ruby, the traditional, deep red, brambly style that’s generally aged in stainless steel; and tawny, which is aged in wood, amber in colour and with a more nutty, caramelly character. Tawny port is generally sold in multiples of 10 years, most commonly 10 or 20, while rubys either go under names like “special reserve” or date from a specific year, like a late bottled vintage. And despite popular belief, almost all ports don’t have to be decanted, with the exception of vintage and so-called “crusted” ports (Google how to do that, or it’ll take up the rest of the space I have for this column).

Which one you go for, then, is a matter of preference and price (rubys tend to be cheaper). I generally prefer tawnies, especially with cheese, though ruby ports are nicer with mince pies and chocolate. I’ve noticed that port is getting fruitier and less “spiritty” of late, though that depends very much on the producer. Booth’s Late Bottled Vintage 2016 (£14.50 for 50cl, 19.5%), for example, which is made by Quinta da Rosa, is the most wonderful explosion of blackberry and dark cherry fruit, while Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference LBV 2016 (on offer at £10, 20%), which is made by Symington’s, is more traditional and better suited to the stilton. My own favourites from recent tastings are Warre’s gloriously nutty Colheita Port 2009 (£17 The Wine Society, 20.5%), a colheita being, unusually, an aged tawny from a single vintage, and the lovely Quinta da Pedra Alta No 10 Ten-Year-Old Tawny Port (£24.95 for 50cl Master of Malt and Trelawney Wines, 19.5%), which is laced with figs, raisins and hazelnuts.

You also find some interesting copycat port wine styles that are not allowed to call themselves the P word. Argentinian producer Zuccardi’s lusciously sweet Malamado (£9 Tesco, 18.5%), which is made from malbec, is a good example and a great wine to put on the table if you want something that looks a bit more snazzy.

There are, of course, other fortified wines, cream sherry being the other traditional Christmas option. It may not be fashionable (which is all to the good when it comes to price), but it is delicious. If you find the cheaper examples a bit sweet, try Harveys elegant Signature 12-Year-Old Cream Sherry (£13.99 for 50cl Waitrose, 19%), which is made in the slightly drier Spanish style. I’m also a big fan of palo cortado, a sherry style that’s similar to amontillado with a dash of clotted cream. I can personally vouch for the fact that Pedro’s Almacenista Selection Palo Cortado (£15.99 on Majestic’s mix-six, 20%) is irresistibly good with cheese straws.

A sweet madeira such as Marks & Spencer’s Five-Year-Old Madeira Wine (£12 a half-bottle in store and Ocado, 19%), which is made by the brilliant Henriques & Henriques, would be the perfect glass to sip on one of those miserable afternoons when it gets dark at 3pm. Mince pie optional.

Finally, a fortified wine you might not have heard of that, despite its strength, is a terrific match for Christmas pudding: JM Fonseca Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 2012 (£7.99 a half-bottle Waitrose, 17.5%) is a rich, orangey dessert wine from Portugal that wouldn’t be too shabby with one of those gorgeous custard tarts, either.