Few drinks better typify a traditional British Christmas than a dense and rich vintage port. Yet – hold on to your paper hats, folks – I am daring to suggest that this year you should opt instead for a tawny.
Before a lynch mob starts to assemble, let me affirm my love of conventional vintage port and, to prove it, allow me to commend a tasty, single quinta version – 2001 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim Vintage Port (£21 at Asda). These versions bring many of traditional vintage port’s key characteristics but in a simpler format and at lower prices. Certainly, this example retains those lovely, intense, damson, date and blaeberry flavours and, here, neatly offsets them with delicate floral and spice touches and apple-centred acidity.
If it is entry point ruby port you are after, I would recommend stumping up the extra pound or so for a premium version like Fonseca Bin 27 Finest Reserve Port (£12.99 at Tesco). Even port agnostics will enjoy the smoothly rounded red plum, black cherry and liquorice flavour and spicy, tobacco backdrop it delivers.
Reverting, however, to my theme of tawny port, let’s remind ourselves just how different its ageing process is. While the main maturation of vintage port is in the bottle, tawnies spend most of their life in barrels. The oak draws out much of the colour but, in exchange, will add – over time – spice and nuttiness to the wine.
To experience that process in action I tasted a range of tawnies from Graham’s – originally, you may recall, a Scottish family. When Charles Symington (of the current family owners) took over that side of the business, he resolved to work on the secondary flavours in their tawny ports, particularly the acidity levels – and, hence, freshness. It was interesting to see the effect.
Although the colour of Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port (£21.39 at Sainsbury’s) has simply faded to maroon, the oak has already endowed it with appealing touches of clove that merge nicely with the long, rich, honey and orange flavours and the energising citric acidity. However, it is also light enough to work well with classic fruit-centred desserts.
Given another ten years, though, Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port (£36.49 at selected Waitrose stores or online) and the wine becomes rust coloured but more aromatic and with a smoother texture. Its flavours have assumed more figgy and nutty touches while the spice component moves from clove to vanilla. The softness and extra dried fruit influences make this an ideal companion for fruit cake.
The colour fades to golden by the time we reach Graham’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port (£61.01 at www.thedrinkshop.com) but the mellowness and complexity has increased. Equally, suggestions of grapefruit and marmalade have been added to the base dried-fruit flavours while the spice has taken on nutmeg characteristics. Some pair this with chocolate but, to me, this is wine to enjoy on its own.
Finally we reach Graham’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port (£99.99 at www.vintagemarque.com) but, along with its colour, the wine has now also lost two thirds of its original volume – hence the price. As compensation, the complexity has increased significantly – without compromising the smoothness – and now brilliantly balances all the original flavours with touches of all-spice and discernibly sharper lemon-centred acidity. Christmas or not, this really is wine to savour all on its own.
2012 Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay South Australia, 13 per cent
Branded Oz chardonnay can get a bad press these days but do not throw the baby out with the bath water. For sure, there is a discernible oaky backdrop but it is neatly balanced with apricot and honeydew melon fruit and proportionate lemon-centred acidity. Typical of what the genre does well.
£6.99, down from £9.99 until next Sunday at Morrisons
2012 La Cadence Carignan France, 12 per cent
Given low yields and skilled winemaking, the humble workhorse grape carignan often produces reliable and inexpensive, medium-bodied reds. Here is a good illustration with soft, bright and rounded red cherry fruit embellished by an appealing herby undercurrent and more than a suggestion of mineral depth.
Currently £6.49 – instead of £7.99 – at Ellies Cellar’s seven shops in central Scotland