Welcome to the first “window” of the MidWeek Wines Mini Advent Calendar which kicks everything off with a post that combines two seriously underappreciated styles – fortified wines and sweet ones.
Although I contend (with vigour) that both these genres have a place all year round, it is Christmas that traditionally puts a spotlight on fortified wines and, to a lesser extent, on what Australians call “stickies”.
As you would expect from this site, the primary focus will be on accessible wines that are available on most High Streets – but not exclusively so.
As ever, use any images or hyperlinks shown to help make things a bit easier in the hustle, bustle and jostle of shopping at Christmas.
Starting with sweetness
Classy sweet wines are forever associated with Sauternes and Barsac (and do head there for the excellent wines they offer) but here are a couple of others, involving traditional sweet wine grape varieties, that I have enjoyed.
One is produced in a different part of Bordeaux – Majestic’s Château La Rame 2017, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont – while the other is from another part of the word completely – Hermits Hill Botrytis Semillion from Australia’s De Bortoli family.
Here is a detailed look at others
Tokaji is the iconic sweet wine made in Hungary from furmint and other local grapes and with a history as rich as the wine it describes – as this this comprehensive guide illustrates.
Originally, the sweetness of the wine was measured by the number of puttonys (25 litre wooden tubs holding the botrytised grape must) included in the cask; traditionally, it was between 3 and 6.
In these more scientific times, however, the recorded level of residual sugar decides what goes on the label.
For lovers of concentrated, dense, luxuriously sweet wine this is obligatory Christmas fare and, in this case, at a great price.
Viscous with golden syrup influences, 2017 Specially Selected Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos (£12.99 for 50cl at Aldi and 11% abv) provides smooth peach preserve and tangerine flavours supported by attractive traces of honey and by zesty pink grapefruit acidity – to counterbalance that three figure total of grams per litre of residual sugar.
Stocks may be limited online.
But the New World has a shout too
While Marlborough and Central Otago grab most of New Zealand’s South Island wine-related headlines, Nelson (at the top end of the South Island) also produces a range of impressive wines including riesling which, in this case, appears in that variety’s ultra-sweet format.
With honey aromas and musky depth, 2019 Seifried Estate Sweet Agnes (from £14.99 at Laithwaite and 10%) also contains ripe, cooked apple and mango flavours garnished by a citrus acidity that brilliantly counterbalances the wine’s deceptive sweetness levels and is joined by marmalade and mint elements.
My star sweet wine for Christmas 2021
Among its group of largely local grape varieties, South West France has the Manseng brothers – gros and petit – with the “big chap” playing a key role in the region’s dry wines while petit manseng hits the high spots in sweet wine production.
Here, they combine (50:50) to create a lovely, well-priced wine which uses the varieties’ acidity to lighten and freshen the finished article and give a delicacy that makes it much more versatile than simply an accompaniment for the dessert course.
Balanced and with a long finish, 2018 Domaine de Lasserre Jurancon (£7 for a half bottle at the Co-op and 12%) has ripe orange, peach and honey flavours partnered by hay, honeysuckle and lemon curd influences – yet containing firm acidity to balance out the sweetness that forms its central core.
Switching from sweet to very dry
While sweet wine remains a hard sell with the public at large, sherry has experienced something of a revival as folks begin to appreciate its enormous flavour range, brilliant alliance with tapas and the fantastic value for money it represents.
So, here are three that illustrate sherry’s extensive range well yet do not cost anything like as much as the superstars at the pinnacle of the sherry world.
Bone-dry and delicate, Manzanilla is made in similar ways to fino sherry but its cooler, coastal location is thought to enhance the wine’s layer of yeast and make the result finer and, possibly, saltier.
Certainly, there are briny aromas and saline hints on the palate with Alegria Manzanilla (£8.75 at The Wine Society and 15%) and these helpfully embellish the wine’s crisply dry foundation and the associated almond and apple flavours and suspicion of lemon acidity.
If you struggle with the dryness of sherry like this, pop a green olive into your mouth at the same time as you take a mouthful of the sherry – the difference will amaze you.
Moving towards the centre ground
Amontillado is a darker and medium style sherry often (although not always) involving finos where the protective yeast layer (flor) has ceased to function, resulting in a richer wine – still served chilled though – that can accompany suitable food as well as acting as an aperitif.
Light brown and smooth, Medium Dry Amontillado Sherry (£8 at M&S and 17%) delivers marmalade, quince and apricot flavours combined with hints of fudge, treacle and fruitcake built into a gently nutty texture.
And getting sweeter
Cream sherries had a poor reputation because so many indifferent ones sold in the UK 40 years ago but things have moved on significantly (leaving memories like that seriously outdated) as demonstrated by this great value and award winning option made for Tesco by Gonzalez Byass.
Typical of the style, this is blend of Oloroso and the ultra-sweet Pedro Ximenez grape – 75%: 25% in this case.
Mixed with a segment of orange (still with its peel on) and over ice, it can be a revelation.
Full and unmistakably sweet, Finest Cream Sherry (£6 for 50cl at Tesco and 18%) features rich orange, nectarine and dried fruit flavours coupled with gingerbread, toffee and date components.
Coming safely home to Port
For wine drinking dinosaurs like me, port is a libation to adorn any occasion at any time, but Christmas is when the style comes more sharply than ever into focus.
Enthusiasts will have their favourite port houses and wine merchants and, given the cost of those bottles, this is not the place for a detailed look at traditional vintage port.
For a taster, though, a sound single quinta option is a good choice (Quinta de Vargelles is usually reliable and about £30) and one of the Late Bottled Ports (often under £10) can fit the bill nicely. I also hear excellent reports of Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port (£7.99 – instead of £12.29 for the rest of this year at Waitrose).
However, I would encourage you to be especially adventurous and go beyond these three options – good as they are.
It could be all white on the night.
About one in five bottles of port is white and (unsurprisingly) is made from white grapes of which the representative from the extensive Malvasia family is probably the best known.
To be brutally honest, port producers seem have regarded white port as the Cinderella of their tribe largely destined for use in Portugal’s classic cocktail with tonic.
However, where it does receive loving care, the result can be terrific and some of the aged versions now becoming more common are outstanding.
Let’s start at the beginning
Noval has a long history in the port world dating back over 300 years and they take even their entry level white ports more seriously than plenty of others.
This example uses grapes from relatively high vineyards with clay covered schist geology that have been identified as suiting the style well.
Integrating nippy acidity into a classic sweet foundation, Quinta do Noval White Port (£14.90 Hedonism and, obviously for port, 19.5%) offers apricot, orange peel and dried fruit flavours accompanied by a dry finish, ginger-led spiciness and a lively mouth-feel.
How About an Aged Version
White port with some age is relatively unusual in the UK so an enthusiastic welcome please to this one from Dalva (something of a white port specialist).
Enjoying 24 hours skin contact and 2 years in tanks before moving to wood, grapes for this wine (echoing Noval’s point) were also grown at high altitudes.
Smoother and more overtly powerful than the Noval, Dalva White 20 year old (£34.15 www.vinha.co.uk and 20%) exhibits mellow orange, juniper and fudge flavours combined with shrewdly balanced acidity and a long finish – together with hints of liquorice, baking spice, honey and nuts.
Now a word about Tawny
Anyone seeking a succinct explanation of how tawny and vintage port differ should take a quick look at this Australian wine website that covers the main points well.
Expert blending plus decades of aging and cellaring obviously push up the cost of 20+ year Tawnies (the excellent Quinta Santa Eufémia 30 year old Tawny costs around £90) but much less expensive – albeit younger – options are available.
For instance, the delightfully soft Churchill’s 10 years Tawny (£21.50 Vinvm for 50 cl and 19.5%) brings us cherry, strawberry and marmalade flavours supplemented by suggestions of caramel, allspice and ginger all neatly underlined by zippy aidity yet controlled sweetness too.
Since port is not normally wine for a single sitting, I asked Paulo Russell-Pinto of the Instituto dos Vihnos do Douro do Porto how long it will last once opened.
He advises that bottles topped with a “full” [driven] cork such as Vintage, Crusted port and some LBV’s should “behave as a regular wine” lasting for several days “depending on how you keep it open”.
However (and brace yourself for good news here), he maintains that wine in bottles with a traditional T-shaped bar cork (tawnies and ruby port for example) are “made to last …. in good condition for 2 or 3 months” largely because they are already “used to some oxygen presence”.
While I expected these wines to get tired more slowly, that time-scale was a major surprise and, of course, gives you license to enjoy these wines over the whole Christmastide and beyond – providing you can resist the temptations within the bottle of course!
That then is a brief look at sweet wines and fortified ones too and the icing they put on “wine drinkers’ Christmas cakes”
Stand by though for the second of my Advent Calendar windows next Thursday (on red wines for Christmas) but, before then, don’t miss next Monday’s whistle stop tour of supermarket promotions and, of course, my recommended Top Tips.
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