Fortified wines are the perfect, relaxing wines to sip when life moves into the slow lane in the evenings and over the festive period. They also make great presents. The Marsala will be a revelation if you've never had a really good Marsala; the Late Bottled Vintage port can be cellared like a vintage port, which makes it a bargain at the price; and I’ve also included a Vin Santo below because it’s higher strength than table wine and fits into that same meditative, close-of-a-meal or post-prandial sipping slot as fortified wines, but it’s emphatically not fortified. Its strong because the grapes are air-dried for several months post-harvest to concentrate them and the wines are matured in small barrels for at least three years.
It’s hard to list the wines below in a logical order, but roughly speaking they go from dry to sweet and, in the case of the ports, the ‘lighter’ wood-aged ports before the darker, bottle-aged, vintage styles.
Dry Old Oloroso Sherry, Jerez, Spain
Intense, dry and walnutty with a touch of vanilla cream softening the salty Marmite finish. Made by Emilio Lustau, one of the top producers. Drink with hard cheeses, especially sheep’s such as Manchego, nuts, chorizo and cured meats, or dark-fleshed game birds.
£8 for 37.5cl, Marks & Spencer
Marco De Bartoli Vigna La Miccia Marsala Superiore Oro Reserva 5 Anni, Sicily, Italy
Glowing amber-gold, medium sweet, contemporary interpretation of Marsala. Nutty (hazelnut and walnut), spicy, dried and fresh apricot aromas and flavours; richness and concentration combined with a fabulous lift of tangy orange acidity. Serve lightly chilled with rich liver pâtés (foie gras), soft or blue cheeses, chestnut soup, roast chestnuts or other nuts. A revelation.
£23.90, for 50cl, tannico.co.uk
Cantina Nottola Vin Santo di Montepulciano 2008, Tuscany, Italy
Not fortified, as I said in the intro, but concentrated and higher strength (16.5% abv). Gold in colour, with a nutty, lightly sherry-ish, coffee and walnut aroma and intense dried fig and apricot flavours. The sweetness (112 g/l residual sugar), is balanced by laser-cut acidity (the drying of the grapes concentrates flavours, sugar and acidity). Serve chilled with biscotti, panforte, panettone, stollen, mince pies or cheese, including creamy blues.
£22.95 for 50cl, Jeroboams (on offer at this price until Christmas, then back to £26.95)
10 Year Old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal
Sweet and mellow but with a red fruit freshness alongside the almond, cherry, juniper, chocolate and walnuts. A parcel from the lodges (cellars) of the port group that includes Taylor’s and Fonseca. Serve lightly chilled with puddings such as crème brûlée, fruit pies, nut cakes, or cheeses such as cheddar.
£17, Marks & Spencer
Penfolds Father Grand Tawny 10 Years, Australia
It can't be called port if it's not from the Douro region of Portugal, but Australia does produce its own high quality Tawnies. This one is powerful, smooth, sweet and nutty, with dried fig, mocha, clove and cumin flavours and a clean, peppery finish. Serve lightly chilled with chocolates and rich desserts, including Christmas pudding.
£16.99, Frazier’s Wine Merchants; £19.99, Laithwaites
Quinta do Noval Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Port 2011, Douro, Portugal
From a single vineyard and made like a classic vintage port (foot-trodden and unfiltered) to improve with age, although it’s ready to drink as soon as it’s released – all of which makes it something of a bargain, especially at Ocado's offer price. Rich black fruit, dark chocolate, mocha, a hint of mint and refined, rather than adolescent, tannins. Serve with blue cheese or rich chocolate desserts; maybe even Christmas pudding.
£16.99, Ocado (until 3 January 2017, then £19.99)
Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port 2002, Douro, Portugal
Deep, sweet and resonant with dark fruit, violets, smoke, coffee and mineral notes. Ample and smooth, yet crisply defined. Mature, but with years to go. Serve with blue cheese or rich chocolate desserts.
£27.65, The Whisky Exchange; £28, WineTrust100; £29, Oddbins
Fonseca Vintage Port 1985
One of the stars of the 1985 vintage and at its peak after three decades, although with many years ahead of it. Tremendous power and opulence; super-sweet and velvety with violet-perfumed black fruit, exotic spice and black pepper flavours. Serve with Stilton, cheddar, nuts, chocolate truffles...
£75, The Oxford Wine Co; £80, Laithwaites (last orders for Christmas 21 December); £85, Hennings Wine; £95, waitrosecellar.com (last orders for Christmas by 9pm Thursday 22 December); £96.50, Hedonism
Photographs, except Quinta de Vargellas, by Joanna Simon