Sweet & for­ti­fied wines for Christ­mas

These treats come into their own at this time of year. Andy Howard MW high­lights 20 top-value wines to try

Decanter - - NEWS -

ONE Of ThE world’s great wine mys­ter­ies is why so few peo­ple drink sweet and for­ti­fied wines on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. If I am vis­it­ing a pro­ducer, I’m al­ways keen to see whether they pro­duce wines of this style, though it may take a bit of ca­jol­ing for an amaz­ing, de­li­cious bot­tle to be prof­fered. It’s a pity, as they of­ten rep­re­sent the ‘jew­els in the crown’ of a par­tic­u­lar pro­ducer, pro­vid­ing a clear in­sight into their phi­los­o­phy, and the es­tate’s ter­roir.

Christ­mas is tra­di­tion­ally the time when sweet and for­ti­fied wines get the op­por­tu­nity to shine. Paul Syming­ton of Syming­ton fam­ily Es­tates con­firms that 34% of an­nual Port sales in the UK take place in De­cem­ber. Sweet wines fol­low a sim­i­lar sales pat­tern, and qual­ity is higher now than it has ever been. So now is the time to ex­per­i­ment and en­joy.

The best sweet wines bal­ance a tightrope of resid­ual su­gar and re­fresh­ing acid­ity, in­ter­wo­ven with highly com­plex flavours. The key re­quire­ment is con­cen­tra­tion of the grape, and wine­mak­ers achieve this in many ways. One tech­nique is to har­vest late in or­der to gen­er­ate higher po­ten­tial al­co­hol lev­els, be­fore ar­rest­ing fer­men­ta­tion to leave some resid­ual su­gar in the fin­ished wine. Or ripe grapes can be con­cen­trated, ei­ther through the ef­fects of botry­tis (no­ble rot) or des­ic­ca­tion as a re­sult of ‘cor­don cutting’ while on the vine (see right, Mount Hor­rocks), or through freez­ing (Ger­man eiswein and the ice wines of Ni­a­gara, Canada). And there are dif­fer­ent meth­ods of dry­ing grapes, as in Ital­ian pas­sito wines, the ethe­real vin santo or re­cioto di Soave. These dif­fer­ent tech­niques are of­ten used in com­bi­na­tion.

Sweet wines are nearly al­ways costly to pro­duce – a re­flec­tion of both the time taken, and the drive for qual­ity and low yields. The amount of resid­ual su­gar can make eye­wa­ter­ing reading for those con­cerned about calo­ries – the ul­ti­mate be­ing the essen­cia of hun­gary’s Tokaji, which can have up to 800g/l – but this should not de­ter wine lovers as the amounts con­sumed will al­most cer­tainly be mod­est, and al­co­hol lev­els are (as with beer­e­nauslese wines) of­ten lower than in dry wines. Amaz­ing, com­plex flavours will of­ten be cre­ated through ex­tended mat­u­ra­tion in wood and blend­ing of dif­fer­ent grape va­ri­eties. The best ex­am­ples will al­ways show a bal­ance be­tween fresh­ness and sweet­ness, leav­ing the drinker want­ing an­other sip.

for­ti­fied wines are pro­duced dif­fer­ently, with a fun­da­men­tal part of the process be­ing the ad­di­tion of spirit to stop fer­men­ta­tion. for­ti­fied wines range in style from bone-dry (man­zanilla and fino Sherry); lus­ciously sweet and ap­proach­able when young (Mus­cat de Beaumes-de-Venise); struc­tured and tan­nic (vin­tage Port); mel­low, evolved and com­plex (tawny Port); or deca­dently sweet and raisined (Pe­dro Ximénez Sherry, Ruther­glen Mus­cat). As with sweet wines, acid­ity is the back­bone of most for­ti­fieds, with Madeira (throughout the range from dry Ser­cial up to Malm­sey) be­ing per­haps the most fo­cused ex­am­ple.

In putting to­gether this short guide to some won­der­ful wines for the fes­tive sea­son, what be­comes even more ap­par­ent is the huge range of styles. This is a very ab­bre­vi­ated se­lec­tion and it is hoped that try­ing some dif­fer­ent wines will en­cour­age more con­sumers to visit the sweet and for­ti­fied sec­tions more of­ten. These are wines to en­joy all year round – not just for Christ­mas!

Klein Con­stan­tia, Vin de Con­stance, Con­stan­tia, South Africa 2015 98 £35 (ib)-£59.99/50cl

Ban­croft, Berry Bros & Rudd, BI, Cham­pagne

Di­rect, Cru, Eden­croft, Exel, Farr Vint­ners, Farthinghoe, Hand­ford, House of Tow­nend, Jus­terini & Brooks, Laith­waite’s, Lay & Wheeler, Nick­olls & Perks, Slurp, Swig, The Ox­ford Wine Co, The So­lent Cel­lar, Un­corked, WoodWin­ters An his­tor­i­cal wine, Vin de Con­stance has been re-estab­lished in the last few years as one of the world’s finest sweet wines. Dried Mus­cat grapes are aged for three years be­fore bot­tling, in French and Hun­gar­ian casks with a touch of aca­cia wood. Cit­rus, or­ange zest, rose­wa­ter and spice notes leap out of the glass. The palate has a laser-like fo­cus with mas­sive sweet­ness per­fectly bal­anced by acid­ity and a min­eral fin­ish. As im­pres­sive as Château d’Yquem (and con­sid­er­ably bet­ter value). Drink 2020-2030 Al­co­hol 13.9%

Mullineux & Leeu Fam­ily Wines, Straw Wine, Swart­land, South Africa 2017 95 £24.54-£27.50/37.5cl

AG Wines, Christo­pher Keiller, Swig,

Vin Cognito, WoodWin­ters Chris & An­drea Mullineux are fa­mous for their ‘ Straw’ wines, for which care­fully se­lected Chenin Blanc grapes are air-dried for many months be­fore fer­men­ta­tion. A fan­tas­tic ex­am­ple of the pas­sito style. Lus­cious and in­tense on the palate – the pu­rity of fruit is out­stand­ing: or­ange peel, lemon acid­ity and ripe apri­cot flavours coat the palate. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 9.5%

Bis­soni, Al­bana di Ro­magna, Emilia Ro­magna, Italy 2012 94 £26.95/50cl

Lea & Sande­man

Emilia Ro­magna’s Al­bana grape is very rare, and much bet­ter as a sweet, rather than a dry wine. This is a highly sur­pris­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing take on pas­sito sweet wine with in­di­vid­ual grapes hand­picked from a nat­u­rally foggy, wooded part of the vine­yard, which en­cour­ages botry­tis. Two-thirds of the grapes dry on the vine, the rest on straw mats. Dried apri­cots, a hint of fig and honey are ev­i­dent. There is still won­der­ful vi­tal­ity and char­ac­ter here. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 12.5%

Cro­ciani, Vin Santo di Mon­tepul­ciano, Tus­cany, Italy 2013 94


Waitrose Cel­lar Lus­ciously sweet, this 100% Mal­va­sia vin santo ticks all the ex­pected boxes. Highly com­plex on the nose and palate with bit­ter zesty notes, flavours of prunes soaked in grappa, and some lovely ma­ture wood hints from the ex­tended age­ing in caratelli. There is plenty of bal­anc­ing acid­ity on the fin­ish, with a long, lin­ger­ing and ethe­real af­ter­taste. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 16%

Mount Hor­rocks, Cor­don Cut Ries­ling, Clare Val­ley, South Aus­tralia 2017 94


Eton Vint­ners, Exel, Nick­olls & Perks, Noel Young, Ran­noch Scott, The Aus­tralian Cel­lar, The Fine Wine Co, The Wright Wine Co, Vinvm, Vir­gin Wines Frost dam­age halved the crop in 2017. ‘Cor­don cut’ refers to a process of cutting the cane, leav­ing grapes to raisin on the vine be­fore pick­ing. Fer­men­ta­tion was stopped with 185g/l resid­ual su­gar, yet the wine shows re­mark­able pu­rity and el­e­gance. Still very youth­ful, the con­cen­trated apri­cot­dom­i­nated palate also has pear and cin­na­mon notes. A touch of botry­tis in 2017 added fur­ther com­plex­ity. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 11.5% ➢

Château Suduiraut, Waitrose Sauternes, Bordeaux, France 2010 93


Waitrose Pro­duced by the same team be­hind this top Sauternes pro­ducer’s grand vin, se­lected parcels of Semillon and Sau­vi­gnon Blanc were hand-har­vested be­fore spend­ing 16 months in bar­rel, of which 10% was new. 2010 was a rich, pow­er­ful vin­tage, shown here by the pow­er­ful, weighty palate dom­i­nated by lemon and or­ange. A de­lec­ta­ble ex­am­ple. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 14%

Do­maine Cady, Les Varennes Coteaux du Layon St-Au­bin, Loire, France 2015 93


Haynes Han­son & Clark, The Wine So­ci­ety Fam­ily win­ery lo­cated close to An­jou. Old Chenin Blanc vines are planted on schist, quartz and Varennes stone slopes, with no­ble rot giv­ing in­tense char­ac­ters of peach and hon­eyed cit­rus peel. Chenin is hugely un­der­rated for sweet wines and this ex­am­ple mar­ries pre­ci­sion with power. Very youth­ful, this can be en­joyed now but will keep for decades. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 12%

Ore­mus, Berry Bros & Rudd Tokaji Aszú 5 Put­tonyos, Tokaj, Hun­gary 2011 93


Berry Bros & Rudd Tokaji wine has been pro­duced on the Ore­mus es­tate since 1620. This is a very el­e­gant, pre­cise ex­am­ple which re­places weight with fi­nesse. Although there is plenty of pure, sweet resid­ual su­gar here, the driv­ing acid­ity (typ­i­cal of Tokaji) keeps the palate beau­ti­fully fresh. Not a sweet wine for heavy desserts, this can be en­joyed on its own or with cheeses. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 12%

Seifried, Sweet Agnes Ries­ling, Nel­son, New Zealand 2016 93 £16.29-£20.50/37.5cl

Banstead Vint­ners, Baythorne Hall,

Exel, Flag­ship Wines, Har­vey Nichols, Laith­waite’s, Richard Granger, Roberts & Speight, The New Zealand Cel­lar, Waitrose Cel­lar A mul­ti­ple award win­ner, in­clud­ing 2018 DWWA Plat­inum (97pts). Sweet Agnes comes from the Eden vine­yard close to the Wairoa river. Sev­eral tries were car­ried out to se­lect per­fectly ripe grapes, with a high pro­por­tion nat­u­rally shriv­elled and raisined. Flo­ral notes, lime fruit and tan­ger­ine/kumquat flavours are ev­i­dent. A late-har­vest wine with great pu­rity of fruit and a won­der­ful acid bal­ance. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 10.5%

De Bor­toli, Re­serve Botry­tis Semillon, Rive­rina, New South Wales, Aus­tralia 2013 93


Asda De Bor­toli’s flag­ship wine, No­ble One, is the finest botry­tis Semillon in the south­ern hemi­sphere. Yet for a frac­tion of the price, you get a strong hint of No­ble One’s char­ac­ter by buy­ing one of the many De Bor­toli Botry­tis Semil­lons avail­able for less than £ 10. This is re­mark­able value, with a lin­ger­ing, in­tense and pure flavour redo­lent of mar­malade and cit­rus zest. There’s plenty of con­cen­tra­tion and light­ness of touch on show here. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 10.5%

Sánchez Ro­mate, Oloroso En­con­trado Sherry, Jerez, Spain 96


The Wine So­ci­ety Avail­able from 3 De­cem­ber: rush to get some, as only five butts of 600 litres were made. En­con­trado means ‘ found’ – lit­er­ally this was dis­cov­ered in the cel­lars at Sánchez Ro­mate, and very kindly they have re­leased it for sale. En­joy this pun­gent, dry Oloroso chock full of notes of zesty cit­rus fruit, waxy aro­mas and tex­tures, and deep, rich and sat­is­fy­ing nutty, savoury char­ac­ters. Hugely com­plex and worth ev­ery penny. Drink 2019-2024 Alc 20%

Emilio Lus­tau, Añada Vin­tage Sherry, Jerez, Spain 1998 95


Marks & Spencer Lus­tau Sher­ries are fre­quently found on UK re­tail­ers’ shelves, but this must rank as one of the ab­so­lute best. A (sweet) oloroso from the 1998 vin­tage, this rich, hon­eyed wine has ma­tured for many years in a sealed 500-litre, old-oak cask, rather than en­ter­ing a sol­era sys­tem. Both beau­ti­fully evolved yet still pierc­ingly fresh and vi­brant. Mar­malade, a touch of fur­ni­ture pol­ish, or­ange blos­som and a hint of herbs are found on the nose. The palate is long, lux­u­ri­ous and fresh, de­spite the 185g/l resid­ual su­gar. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 21%

Bode­gas Bar­badillo, Pas­tora Man­zanilla Pasada En Rama, Spain 93 £7.99-£10/37.5cl

Baythorne Hall, Cam­bridge Wine Mer­chants,

Har­ro­gate Fine Wine Co, Mum­bles Fine Wines, Roberts & Speight, Shaftes­bury Wines, The Dorset Wine Co, The So­lent Cel­lar This 2017 DWWA Plat­inum/Best in Show award win­ner is a beau­ti­fully fresh ex­am­ple of en rama man­zanilla pasada. This com­bines the salty tang of clas­sic man­zanilla with nutty char­ac­ters, in­tense cit­rus acid­ity and a warm­ing, gen­er­ous fin­ish. Savoury and long on the fin­ish. A won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tion to this style and great value for money. Drink 2019-2022 Alc 15%

Graham’s, 20 Year Old Tawny Port, Douro, Por­tu­gal 96


Widely avail­able via UK agent Fells Tawny Port is al­ways ex­cit­ing, but if you can af­ford to splash out, go for a 20 Year Old. All the ma­jor houses make won­der­ful aged tawnies and this is al­ways one of the best. Ethe­real and mel­low on the palate, it boasts flavours of tof­fee and caramel, burnt or­ange and raisins, dried plums, hazel­nuts and a savoury hint of mush­room on the fin­ish. Won­der­ful stuff! Drink 2019-2028 Alc 20%

Kopke, Col­heita Port, Douro, Por­tu­gal 1998 96


Cam­bridge Wine Mer­chants, Har­rods, He­donism, Hen­nings, Nick­olls & Perks, Od­dbins, Spir­ited Wines Col­heita Port is a tawny from a sin­gle vin­tage, aged for many years in an ox­ida­tive way. This is a glo­ri­ous ex­am­ple, with pun­gent aro­mas of or­ange boxes, fruit zest, hazel­nut and al­monds, and is rich, sat­is­fy­ing and mel­low. With (only) 95g/l resid­ual su­gar, this is not overly sweet but has huge depths of com­plex, smoky flavours. Drink 2019-2026 Alc 20%

Tay­lor’s, Quinta de Vargel­las Vin­tage Port, Douro, Por­tu­gal 2004 94 £27.12-£41.99

Cam­bridge Wine Mer­chants, Co- op, Exel, Ma­jes­tic,

Od­dbins, Slurp, The Car­di­nal’s Cel­lar, Vin­tage Wine & Port, Waitrose Cel­lar Won­der­ful ex­am­ple of what makes vin­tage Port so spe­cial. En­ter­ing its peak pe­riod now, some evo­lu­tion in colour is ev­i­dent within the deep, inky core. The nose is glo­ri­ous with cin­na­mon, clove, lina­ment, and a hint of bram­bly hedgerow. Grace­ful, long, lin­ger­ing and very fresh – proves that 100g/l resid­ual su­gar and 20% al­co­hol can still be re­strained and el­e­gant. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 20.5%

Quinta de la Rosa, Late Bot­tled Vin­tage Port, Douro, Por­tu­gal 2014 92 £14.78-£17.26/50cl

Christo­pher Keiller, JN Wine, The Ox­ford

Wine Co, White­bridge, WoodWin­ters A clas­sic blend of Touriga Na­cional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, this re­strained LBV has flavours of dark fruit, spice, a slightly herbal flo­ral edge and a cleans­ing min­eral fin­ish. Although not as hefty as some LBVs, this has great lift and re­fine­ment – a very el­e­gant take. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 20%

Hen­riques & Hen­riques, Boal 15 Year Old Madeira, Por­tu­gal 94 £22.64-£32/50cl

Alexan­der Hadleigh, Cam­bridge Wine

Mer­chants, Fort­num & Ma­son, Har­rods, He­donism, Nick­olls & Perks, The Ox­ford Wine Co, The Wine So­ci­ety Boal is, with Malm­sey, at the more ex­ot­i­cally sweet end of the Madeira spec­trum but, as with all great Madeira wine, the prom­i­nent acid­ity here keeps the raisin, dried fig and ripe plum flavours in check. The 15 Year Old des­ig­na­tion means this is a Madeira which is ma­ture, hugely com­plex and mel­low, yet the wine has a long life ahead. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 20%

Do­maine de la Rec­to­rie, Parcé Frères Rivesaltes, South­west France 1988 94


The Wine So­ci­ety Bot­tled in July 2017, this was in bar­rique for 28 years and pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the qual­i­ties of vin doux na­turel from Rous­sil­lon. De­spite its age, this is still ul­tra-fresh with vi­brant acid­ity bal­anc­ing the rich notes of mar­malade, honey and caramel. There is also a sub­tle whiff of volatil­ity – not a fault, but a contributing fac­tor to the wine’s in­ter­est and lift. This is one of those rare things – a per­fect wine with choco­late. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 16%

Camp­bells, Ruther­glen Mus­cat NV, Vic­to­ria Aus­tralia 92


Banstead Vint­ners, Christo­pher

Piper, Bon Coeur, Corks Out, Ev­ing­ton’s, Hen­nings, No­ble Green, Ocado, Soho Wine Sup­ply, Waitrose, Wine Di­rect ‘ Sticky’ wines from Ruther­glen in northern Vic­to­ria have a unique char­ac­ter. The blaz­ing heat con­trib­utes to the style, with Mus­cat à Petits Grains Rouge (lo­cally Brown Mus­cat) grapes for­ti­fied and left to ma­ture for many years at high tem­per­a­tures. The re­sult­ing liq­uid is highly dis­tinc­tive, very sweet, strongly rem­i­nis­cent of fruit­cake and makes a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to Christ­mas pud­ding or vanilla ice cream. Drink 2019-2023 Alc 17.5%

Andy Howard MW is a reg­u­lar Decanter con­trib­u­tor and DWWA judge. He runs wine con­sul­tancy Vine­trades, hav­ing formerly worked for more than 30 years as a wine buyer for Marks & Spencer

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