When you start writing your Christmas tipple list be sure to include a sweet wine or two…
A ‘pudding’ wine with the dessert course of a meal is not as common as it once was. These are sweet wines fortified with brandy or neutral spirit to bring the abv up close to 19 per cent.
Now it seems there is a revival in the genre in trendy London bars and restaurants as a drink in its own right, not specifically linked to desserts or puddings. This revival is led by Madeira and it is being drunk, as it historically always was, as an apéritif or a sociable drink on its own.
A recent issue of the London Evening Standard reported the Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels wine bar in Neal’s Yard (Covent Garden area) as saying its “Madeira menu is more popular than ever”.
It is an old wine going back to the 1700s when Madeira, some 300 miles due west of Morocco, was the last stop-off for ships crossing the Atlantic, although the Canaries and Cape Verde further south might debate this. Wine was shipped aboard and brandy added to preserve it. The natural maturation in barrels and the time and motion of the ship and temperature changes on the voyage made the wine virtually imperishable. The matured colour is a muddy red.
Modern day makers replicate this process on land using grain spirit instead of brandy, and four grape types, from dry to sweet, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. This latter is sometimes an alternative generic which pops up in TV period dramas. Some older readers may remember the Flanders and Swann comic song ‘Have Some Madeira M’Dear’.
Supermarkets will have several ports and sherries but usually only one or two Madeiras. The most likely will be Blandy’s, an Englishman who curtailed his Atlantic sailing voyage to stay in Madeira and established a winery in 1811. It is still owned and operated by the same family, and if you ever sail there, try the whole Blandy’s range and take its Wine Lodge tour.
Here, Waitrose has Blandy’s Duke of Clarence, 19 per cent, £12.39, 75cl and a five-year-old version at £15 for a 50cl bottle.
Madeira has potential as an apéritif but is more likely to be a highlight of Christmas dinner to go with cheese or traditional Christmas pudding.
MORE FESTIVE DRINKS
A good sweet red wine to go with mince pies is Banyuls from the French town of that name a few miles from the Spanish border, next stop Barcelona, and sometimes dubbed the French cousin of port. Most sweet French wines use Muscat, Semillon and Grenache grapes. They are late harvested in the autumn once they develop a mould called ‘the noble rot’, which has to be precisely timed before the mould turns to ‘grey rot’ which renders them useless.
The late harvest causes the grapes to shrivel up, which provides a high sugar content that produces more alcohol. Add a year or more in maturing oak barrels and the cost inevitably mounts up. Banyuls, bottled at 16 per cent abv, is £21.95 for a 75cl bottle from Yapp Brothers, www.yapp.co.uk.
Want to go English this year of all years? The Lyme Bay Winery in Axminster, Devon has a very appropriate offering named Christmas Pudding Wine with a festive holly label. This is a sweet, spicy, gluten-free wine with a hint of raisins, lighter at only 10 per cent but just right for more or less any Christmas dinner dessert, along with the brandy sauce.
It is not widely distributed – I found it at my local garden centre Christmas shop – but you can buy it online from masterofmalt.co.uk or direct from the winery, £9.25 for 75cl at 10 per cent a.b.v.