The best sweet and fortified wines to buy for Christmas 2020

Sherries, ports, pudding wines and madeiras for the Christmas table

best sweet wines for christmas 2020
Ports, madieras and sherries to enjoy this festive season Credit: Zoonar/S.Heap

Bristol Milk is a drink that has nothing to do with dairy. That indefatigable diarist and drinker Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his entry for June 13 1668 when he enjoyed “good entertainment of strawberries, a whole venison-pasty, cold, and plenty of brave wine, and above all Bristoll Milk” – although its first recorded mention dates back more than 30 years earlier, to 1634. Bristol Milk was a sweetish style of blended sherry.

It’s thought to have acquired its name because it was shipped – in great quantity – through the port of Bristol and often drunk in the mornings. Some also say that Bristol mothers used to rub it on the gums of teething infants. Whatever: at one point, an aristocratic woman was reportedly so pleased with a particular bottle she declared, “If that is milk, this one is cream!” – and that is how cream sherry got its name.

I hardly need to tell you that cream sherry today is considered very unfashionable, although, as sherry goes, it is actually still quite popular (in this country.) But I love it when it’s good, and a bottle of cream sherry is one of my top fortified and sweet wine picks for Christmas. Fortnum & Mason Cream Sherry Aged 12 Years (18.5%, Fortnum & Mason, £19.50 for 375ml or £11.95 for 200ml) is something very special indeed.

It’s made by Bodegas Tradición, which works exclusively with old and high-quality sherries, and is a blend of very old oloroso with pedro ximénez to bring sweetness. The wine smells of old palaces, sweet raisins and roasted nuts. It is magnificent.

Don’t wait for Christmas; buy some now and have it as your present-wrapping, gosh-hasn’t-it-got-dark-early, it-must-be-time-for-a-glass drink. I poured some to sip while I was making mincemeat, and its richness went beautifully with the spices and dried fruit. Indeed, Fortnum’s suggests serving with mince pies.

If that sounds too expensive, then there is Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847 Cream Sherry Dulce (18%, Majestic, £16.99/14.99 single bottle/mix six price). This is a decent enough cream sherry – all caramel and sweet dried fruit. But while it is less than half the price, it is much, much less than half as nice. I say that not to be rude about the Gonzalez Byass, more to flag up the aristocracy – the depth, the detail, the reach – of the F&M Tradición version, which, by the way, also looks the part with an intense burnt orange and gold label.

While we’re talking sherry, Morrisons has really nailed its sherry range this year. The whole range of Morrisons The Best sherries is made by Emilio Lustau and I particularly recommend The Best Palo Cortado Sherry NV (19%, Morrisons, £5.50 down from £6.25 until Jan 3, 37.5cl), a brown dry sherry that is intensely flavoured and redolent of coffee and roasted walnuts. The Best Pedro Ximénez (17%, also Morrisons, same price, same offer, same size) is also excellent. Pedro ximénez, if you don’t know it, is one of the sweetest wines on the planet: a treacly rush like liquidised raisins and sultanas with molasses, it is almost too sweet to drink, but pour it over vanilla ice cream and you have an instant dessert.

Port? The biggest problem with drinking port over Christmas is that it’s a drink that perpetually arrives as a kind of bilious punctuation mark after a long procession of champagnes and wines. Port is such a good drink. It deserves a space of its own and perhaps, this year, with our pared-down Christmases, it will finally get it. A sweet, rich glass of port is a good drink for a late-afternoon slice of Christmas Cake. It works well after a dinner during which you’ve drunk no wine (this can happen, even at Christmas). I always enjoy it so much more when it’s the main event – so plan it that way. There’s a port in the wines of the week. I also like Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2005 (Majestic, £34.99/26.99, single bottle/mix six price), a lovely vintage port from a single estate and Quinta do Noval Unfiltered LBV (Ocado, £21.49).

Tawny port is often even more overlooked. It’s made by longer ageing in wood, which brings the tawny colour of its name, along with more mellow flavours of roasted nuts and caramel. A favourite is William Pickering Tawny Port by Quinta do Noval NV, Portugal (19.5%, Berry Bros & Rudd, £26.95). Ocado also has the Quinta do Noval Colheita 2005 – a tawny port from a single vintage – a really serious wine at £42.99.

For sauternes drinkers, I saw a bargain at the Wine Society: a half-bottle of Sichel Sauternes 2017, France (13%, The Wine Society, £10.95) is very expressive, all saffron, oranges and ground almonds.

And don’t forget about madeira, the fortified wine from the island of the same name, a wine that lasts so long it is almost immortal. Fortnum & Mason’s Christmas Pudding Madeira (F&M, £16.50 for a half bottle) is made by Barbeito and is gorgeously nutty. I wouldn’t actually drink it with Christmas pudding, more like instead of.

Meanwhile Blandy’s Malmsey Colheita Single Harvest Madeira 1999 (20%, The Wine Society, £48) was one of those wines that stopped me in my tracks – or, rather, in my journey to the spittoon. I realise that this is a lot to spend on a bottle but it is a real wow, made from the malmsey grape, sweet and yet with incredible freshness and precision and complexity. It’s one to pour on a dark night as we contemplate what comes next after an extremely tricky year.

Wines of the week

Disznókó Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos NV Tokaj-Hegyalja

Hungary (11.5%, Waitrose, £19.99 for 37.5cl)

Tokaji is the treasured sweet wine of Hungary, here packaged in half bottles with a chunky clear base to look attractively contemporary. The wine is a joy – sweet, yes, but also tangy and lithe, with notes of orange blossom, apricots and hay. Try it with a chunk of wensleydale.

Cotswolds Cream Liqueur

(17%, Majestic, £24.99; cotswoldsdistillery.com, £24.95)

The Cotswolds Distillery’s take on Bailey’s, this is made using their own whisky (which is made from malted Cotswolds barley) and Irish cream. It is every bit as silky and luxurious as you would expect, all butter, caramel and cream. Serve neat over ice in a tumbler.

*and liqueurs

Smith Woodhouse Madalena Vintage Port 2005

(20%, The Wine Society, £30)

A port that is precisely à point just now, showing a beautiful balance of youthful fresh fruit and more mellow notes of roast fig, dried fig and hazelnuts. There’s also an unusual florality – like dried roses. I gave it three ticks on my two-tick scale.