There's just time to get in some sweet and fortified recommendations in for Christmas, together with the all-important pairing suggestions for them. Fortified wines, in particular, are ridiculously undervalued and make great presents.
Sherry, port and Madeira fit any number of occasions during the festive season and well beyond, from mid-morning or post-exercise pick-me-up to late-night meditative sipping. I can’t emphasise enough that fortified wines have their place all year long – and at the table, too.
There are lots of under-appreciated food pairing possibilities for fortified wines, especially if you think of sherry and Madeira only in terms of the pre- and post-prandial slots and you have port firmly harnessed to stilton alone. Scroll down for a list of suggestions, and do experiment.
As for the recommendations, they are a small, select group. There are, though, three Madeiras, samples of which were sent to me by the organisers of the Madeira Wine Experience, an event in November that I was very sorry to miss.
Three might seem top heavy, especially as there was a Madeira, Henriques & Henriques Sercial 10 Years Old, as a Wine of the Week only a few months ago, but only one of the trio is widely available. I have included the other two (for one of which there is a stockist) because I wanted to highlight what a great and underrated, or at least relatively unfamiliar, wine Madeira is.
One of its attributes, which people often don’t know about, is that once a bottle has been opened, the Madeira inside will keep for months, even years, if kept in a cool, dark place. How useful is that?
A few words on serving temperatures: sweet wines, sherries, Sercial and Verdelho Madeiras and tawny ports should be served chilled, although only a light chill for tawny and Verdelho, if you prefer. I like Bual cool and Malmsey coolish, but some people prefer them, especially Malmsey, at around 18ºC.
The Madeira exceptions are the frasqueira or garrafeira wines. These are made from a single harvest (aka vintage or colheita) and single grape variety and are usually served at 17–18º, or even slightly higher, and are often sipped on their own without food. These rare bottles are usually better stored upright because they may throw a deposit with age.
Unfortified sweet wines should be served chilled.
Braida Brachetto d’Aqui 2022, Italy
A semi-sparkling, sweet, naturally low-alcohol red wine made from the Brachetto grape in Piedmont. That’s the technical description. More helpfully: it’s a fun, frothy, light, sweet, refreshing red wine bursting with juicy strawberry fruit. A winner with fresh fruit salad. 5.5%.
Disznókó Tokaji Late Harvest 2020, Hungary
This is made from the same main grape, Furmint, as the famous Aszú wines of Tokaji, but it’s a lighter, less intensely sweet and concentrated style made from late picked grapes, only some of which are botrytised. It’s bright and fruity with flavours of apricot, clementine and Mirabelle plum and finishes clean and fresh. Disznókő recommends it as an aperitif, but you can also serve it with desserts such as poached fruit and apple snow or to cut through a creamy rice pudding. 12.5%.
£16.95–£21.95 for 50cl, Master of Malt, Lea & Sandeman, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Oxford Wine Company, Bon Coeur Fine wines
Royal Tokaji Blue Label 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú 2018, Hungary
Christmas stocking alert! This is a 25cl bottle. What could be better to find in a stocking on 25 December? The 5 Puttonyos is always good, but the 2018, from the earliest known harvest, is something else. Fully sweet with shimmering acidity, it’s fragrant, rich and vibrant with flavours of ripe apricot, stem ginger, acacia honey, tangerine and a tiny twist of white pepper. Goes well with fruit tarts and other fruit desserts and with hard and semi-firm cheeses. 11.5%
£12.49 (down from £14.99 until 1.1.24) for 25cl, Waitrose
Gonzalez Byass Leonor Palo Cortado Seco 12 Años, Spain
This gorgeous Palo Cortado – dark amber, bone dry and creamy smooth – was a Wine of the Week in November. It’s a sherry for the table as well as an aperitif and, very usefully, once opened it can be kept stoppered in the fridge for a month or more. 20%
£18–£21, The Drinks Emporium, Rise & Vine, Flagship Wines, Laithwaites, Averys, Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange, Ocado
Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port, Portugal
You can take your pick of several very good 10 year old tawny ports. Graham’s is one of the more richly flavoured, its toffee mellowness resonating with walnut, dried fig, nutmeg and orange peel notes. Drink chilled with hard cheeses, panforte, nut cakes or light chocolate puddings. Once opened, re-stopper and keep in the fridge for up to two months. 20%
£16–£22.49 (more expensive when in gift tube), Amazon, Tesco, Waitrose, Sandhams Wine Merchants, Soho Wine Supply, The Whisky Exchange and many other independents
Quinta do Noval Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Port 2017, Portugal
Not only unfiltered so that nothing is taken from the flavour, but a single-estate port trodden by foot in stone lagares in the traditional way. The result is an opulent, mouthfilling LBV with ripe black cherry, fig and blackberry fruit, Christmas spice and dark chocolate flavours. It's a treat with dark chocolate, Stilton and well-aged hard cheeses and, in ideal cellar conditions, will continue to mature for five years or more. 20%
£21–£27, The Wine Society, Master or Malt, Waitrose, Ocado
Barbeito Boal Reserva Madeira, Portugal
Boal, usually called Bual on Madeira, is the local name for the high quality Malvasia Fina grape and usually applies to a medium-sweet style of Madeira – a step down from the sweetness of Malmsey. But Barbeito’s pale amber Reserva, which is matured for 5 years in French oak casks in traditional canteiro (Madeira warehouses), is less sweet than many – closer to some Verdelhos. It has flavours of honeyed smoked walnuts, marmalade, chocolate-coated figs and toffee apple with a gentle smoky tang and acidity balancing the sweetness. Serve it with panettone, almond cakes, hard and semi-firm cheeses, grapes, dried fruit and nuts. 19%
£13.99–£18.50 for 50cl, Simply Wines Direct, Philglass & Swiggot, Fareham Wine, Corks of Bristol, Barrique Fine Wines, Weavers, Field & Fawcett, Buon Vino, Dylanwad Wine
Justino’s Verdelho 1999
Only 500 bottles of this outstanding, canteiro-aged frasqueira (single vintage, single grape variety) Verdelho were produced. There's a glint of green in the amber colour and the wine is intensely tangy, creamy smooth, spicy and nutty with aromas and flavours of walnuts, woodsmoke, fresh hay, grapefruit marmalade, crystallised orange and toffee. And the flavours go on and on. Savour it long into the night at a temperature of around 18º, either on its own or with some dried fruit and a few nuts. Justino’s also suggest cigars – you tell me.
No known stockist
D’Oliveiras Colheita Malvasia 2009
Bottled in 2022, this is another exceptional, canteiro-matured Madeira from a single harvest (or colheita). It’s sweeter and a little darker than Justino’s Verdelho and has an extraordinary, enticing smokiness like a peaty Islay whisky (my notes exclaimed, ‘Lagavulin!’). There’s even a medicinal hint of camphor, together with flavours of dried apricots, Christmas cake, walnuts, hazelnuts, apple skins and cardamom, all wrapped in a creamy texture cut by burnt, tangy acidity. If I’m not selling this to you very well, believe me it's immensely complex and very special. It is available, but only just: at the time of writing, there are three bottles on Highbury Vintner’s website.
£69, Highbury Vintners
Food matching with fortified wines
Soup – dry sherries or Verdelho Madeira
Shellfish – Fino and Manzanilla sherries
Smoked salmon, especially peaty cures, smoked eel, smoked oysters – Fino or Sercial Madeira
Raw fish dishes such a ceviche – Sercial
Tuna with soy sauce – Sercial or Amontillado
Sushi – Fino and Manzanilla
Dim Sum – Fino and Manzanilla
Air-dried hams, smoked duck breast – Palo Cortado sherry or Verdelho Madeira
Rich patés – Bual Madeira
Dark meat or game and/or mushroom stews – Oloroso sherry
Pork (organic), pan-fried or slow-roast – Amontillado
Jerusalem artichokes, roast cauliflower – Palo Cortado or Amontillado
Wild mushrooms –Palo Cortado or Amontillado
Bean dishes such as pasta e fagioli – Palo Cortado
Chocolate/chocolate puddings – port, especially dark chocolate with LBV port, Malmsey Madeira, cream sherry
Crème caramel, crema Catalana, crème brûlée, creamy rice puddings – Bual, cream sherry, tawny port
Tiramisu, other puddings flavoured with coffee – Malmsey, cream or PX sherry
Almond and other nut cakes – Bual
Christmas pudding, rich fruit cakes, mince pies – Malmsey, cream sherry
Ice cream – PX sherry, ensuring you pour some over the ice cream
Firm cheeses (cow’s and sheep) – Palo Cortado, Amontillado, Oloroso (roughly speaking, the more mature the cheese, the darker the sherry), Bual, tawny and vintage ports.