Christine Austin chooses her top tipples to keep the season’s chills at bay.
With energy prices spiralling upwards the best way to keep warm this winter is to adopt the thick woolly cardigan approach to fashion and to indulge in the occasional glass of port, sherry or Madeira.
These wines are usually known as ‘fortified’ because they have an extra slug of alcohol in them, but since they all have their own characters and flavours I am going to ignore this generic term and talk about each one and point out the best ones on the shelves. Together they represent the most flavoursome way to defrost the toes after a morning walk, or to keep the early evening chill at bay.
When did you last buy a bottle of sherry? If it was when granny was coming round, because she likes a sweet sherry before lunch then you have some serious catching up to do. Sherry has re-invented itself and now there are some fabulous flavours in those dark bottles. And in contrast to everything else, prices have actually fallen and so sherry is now one of the best value wines on the shelves.
Head for names like Lustau, Hidalgo and Fernando de Castilla for top sherry flavours but also take advantage of some of the supermarket own-label offerings such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer who deal with top-notch suppliers.
Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla (widely available, Majestic £7.99)
This zesty aperitif is essential in every household. Its crisp, citrus and sea-salt flavours accompany a pre-prandial bowl of nuts and crisps with style. Keep it in the fridge to be ready when you are, and finish the bottle within a couple of weeks to enjoy those flavours at their freshest.
Dry Old Palo Cortado (Marks & Spencer £7.49 for 37.5cl)
This starts out as a fino sherry but then is aged like an oloroso which gives it freshness along with complexity. Sourced from Lustau, this M&S sherry shone at their recent tasting for its bone-dry style, layered with nuts, prunes and orange zest.
Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso (Halifax Wine Company £24.95 for 50cl)
Lighter in colour than most Olorosos, this is pure-flavoured, slightly malty with layers of figs, honey and dried fruit notes, dry and complex. Team this with an afternoon mince pie.
To many people Madeira is a throw-back to a bygone era, more of a fusty name than a style of drink, but Madeira is definitely alive and well, and tasting even more delicious now that producers are concentrating on quality as they capture a new, younger audience.
I generally pour a glass for guests without telling them what it is. Teamed with fruitcake and cheese, the usual reaction is absolute delight, followed by “what is it?”.
Made on the island of Madeira, using a unique process that mimics the change of temperature as casks were shipped around the world, Madeira comes in four main styles. Sercial is the driest and the wines climb in sweetness through Verdelho, Bual (also known as Boal) and Malmsey, gaining depth and complexity on the way.
Barbeito 10-year-old Sercial (Harvey Nichols, £34)
A gorgeous style of Madeira, racy, elegant and dry, with nutty complexity and a minerally zest. This is an aperitif Madeira, to be served chilled with nibbles of ham, cheese and olives.
Henriques and Henriques Full Rich Madeira (Waitrose £9.99 for 50cl)
Full of nutty, figgy flavours, with layers of dried prunes and raisins. Serve this with chocolate puddings, sticky toffee pudding and fruit cake with cheese.
Blandy’s 10-year-old Bual (Halifax Wine Company for £18.50)
Lighter than Malmsey, still with layers of nutty complexity, this is my favourite post-dinner Madeira. Head to Halifax for a vast range of Madeiras, including the full Blandy range and a fascinating selection including 1920 Bual (£402), which is sensational.
Unlike other fortified wines which should be finished before the bottle gets dusty, Madeira has already spent many years in contact with oxygen so it won’t come to any harm from one year to the next.
If you still have a bottle from last Christmas, lurking dustily at the back of the cupboard now is the time to put it out of its misery. It won’t have gone off, just lost some of the delicious fruit it had last year. Put it by the cooker and add a splash to every stew and jug of gravy you make between now and Christmas, especially if you are cooking game.
Now you feel free to buy another bottle and for daytime drinking, a good quality ruby port is one to reach for after a brisk morning walk to defrost toes and tonsils. A bottle of tawny is more of an afternoon port that can happily go through to evening, and is particularly good as a post-prandial sipper. Don’t wait for Christmas Day to open a bottle of port, open it now and enjoy it over the next few weeks.
Taylor’s First Estate Port (Majestic £8.99)
Deep in colour and rich in flavour, this has the characteristic silky style of Taylor’s ports.
Tesco Finest Late Bottled Vintage 2008 (£10.66)
One of the best LBV ports from the supermarket tastings, showing deep, concentrated plummy fruit with a gentle spicy finish. This wines comes from Symington Family Estates, makers of some of some of the top port brands. LBV port is ready to drink and will keep longer after opening, but it should still be polished off in around a fortnight to appreciate the best flavours.
Fonseca Guimarens Vintage 1996 (Waitrose £27.49)
Vintage port has been in bottle since it was two years old, so it has massive fruit, power and flavour. It also has a sediment, so stand the bottle up before decanting it – a jug will do – and then pour it back into the bottle. This is full of ripe, juicy, plummy fruit, with perfectly integrated alcohol and a long finish. Pour a glass after dinner if you must be traditional but I would prefer this with a slice of chocolate cake mid-afternoon.
Sandeman 30-year-old Tawny Port (Majestic £60)
Trophy winning and absolutely gorgeous this port has been aged for 30 years and this shows in its smooth, elegant style with apricot and hazelnut notes weaving across the palate. Serve this slightly cool and enjoy with cheese, nuts and coffee.