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Sherry, port and Madeira are versatile Christmas drinks and not too pricey

Fortified wines that won't break the bank

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 4:28pm

It is traditional to honour the festive season by splashing out on a few special bottles while trying not to think too much about January's credit card statements.

Sadly, there are not many bargains to be had among the classic Christmas tipples. If you want better champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, cognac or single malt scotch, you have to be ready to pay through the nose for them.

There is, however, one shelf at a wine shop that you may browse without being absolutely appalled by the prices - the one with the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal.

The Iberian peninsula is not the only place where fortified wines are produced, but includes areas that produce arguably the three greatest styles - sherry, port and Madeira.

All three are well-established Christmas drinks. Sherry, as an aperitif, and port, to go with Stilton, are British seasonal favourites, while different styles of Madeira go with a range of festive foods from Christmas cake and chocolate to nuts.

One of the ironies of fortified wines is that countries with the right climate for making them generally have the wrong climate for consuming them.

For much of the year, they are not very suitable for Hong Kong weather, either, but during the cooler festive season here, they come into their own.

After decades of being out of fashion, sherry has become trendy in recent years, but prices for good bottles remain relatively modest, for now.

An obvious but reliably good dry fino sherry to have around your home at this time of year is Gonzalez Byass' Tio Pepe, and if you invest in no other wine from Jerez for the holidays, that should probably be the one.

Fino is versatile. It works as an aperitif and will go well with smoked salmon Iberico ham or nuts. Watson's Wine watsonswine.com has Tio Pepe at HK$145 per bottle.

There are several other sherry styles, however, and Christmas is an ideal time to try fino's polar opposite - intensely sweet Pedro Ximenez or PX.

PX is sherry's equivalent to vintage port, and can stand in for it in many contexts - including the pairing with Stilton. It should be an exemplary match for Christmas pudding, and many aficionados like to drizzle a little of it over ice cream as a sauce. Try Noe Pedro Ximenez Dulce Muy Vieji VORS 30 Years, at HK$450 from Amorosso Wines amorossowines.com

The presence of a bottle of PX is not, of course a sufficient reason to forgo vintage port, but if you'd rather avoid an overlap, this could be the perfect time to try aged tawny port instead.

Vintage port is the product of a single outstanding year and, after a period of wood maturation, does most of its developing in the bottle.

Aged tawny port conversely is usually a blend of several vintages, and undergoes a longer period of wood maturation producing its "tawny" colour.

Unless an aged tawny is a colheita - meaning from a single year - it is classified as being 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old, the stated age representing a rough average of the ages of the wines in the blend. Aged tawnies do not require decanting, and will keep longer than vintage wines after opening. Fine Vintage finevintage.com.hk/shop offers Graham's 10 for HK$325, 20 for HK$676, 30 for HK$1,092, and 40 for HK$1,560.

Perhaps the least known of the classic fortified wines is Madeira, from the Portuguese islands of the same name.

Good Madeira is known for its longevity, which is a byproduct of deliberate partial oxidisation and exposure to heat during barrel maturation, a process known as estufagem.

The island of Madeira was once an important provisioning port for transatlantic sea voyages, and it was noticed that its wines, fortified in the same way as port or sherry, appeared to improve over the course of their journeys. The process is intended to simulate those conditions.

Like sherries, Madeira wines can be dry or sweet. The principal styles, each named after the grape from which they are made, are dry Sercial - a good alternative to dry sherry; medium dry Verdelho; sweeter, raisiny Bual; and very sweet Malmsey, another interesting alternative to vintage port.

Madeira has the additional advantage that an open bottle - it is often best decanted - will last even longer than an aged tawny. Open it on Christmas Eve and if you can refrain from finishing it you could carry on enjoying it well into the new year.

Madeira is something of a niche taste, and only a narrow range of the wines is available here, but Fine Vintage offers a good selection from one of the leading producers, Blandy's, including five year old Malmsey or Bual for HK$254 and a 10-year old Malmsey for HK$462.

If you really aren't that worried about your January credit card statement and can push the boat out a little further, Fine Vintage also has a small allocation of a 1988 Malmsey from Blandy's at HK$1,880, a splendid way to finish a Christmas dinner, and a fine talking point into the bargain. Happy Christmas drinking.