Looking for the best port wine to buy over the festive period? Our wine expert shares her favourites, including supermarket port, vintage port and tawny port.
Like mince pies, mulled wine and comedy jumpers, port tends to appear only at Christmas and then is forgotten for the rest of the year. This is a great shame, for port is a wonderful drink, made in many different styles and to suit so many occasions.
What is port wine?
Port is a fortified wine that comes from the Douro region of Portugal, whose main city Oporto (also known as Porto) gives the wine its name. It dates back more than 300 years, when the Brits were at war with France so looked to Portugal – their oldest allies – to quench their thirst for wine. Producers in the Douro valley added a little distilled grape spirit to stabilise and preserve the wines before their long journey aboard sail-powered ships to reach our damp shores. They were an immediate (and lucrative) hit, and close relationships with producers and English shippers endure to this day.
The best ports to buy
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Best late-bottled vintage port
Like vintage ports, LBVs are made from grapes grown in a single year but are aged in barrel for up to six years before bottling, making them a little lighter, and longer lived once opened.
Budget: Taylor’s LBV 2013, £15, Tesco
A real crowd pleaser for Christmas. Great with a mixed cheeseboard, rich chocolatey puddings and anything with dried fruits, this is also a perfect match for a wintery fruit crumble.
Plums, blackberries and vanilla stand out in this lovely silky number, which is pleasingly fresh and less sweet than many LBVs.
Best white port
Made, as its name suggests, from white grapes, and usually sold fresh and young. White port and tonic is THE aperitif in the Douro region, served over lots of ice and garnished with lemon and a sprig of mint, and makes a great, less alcoholic, alternative to a G&T. Give it a seasonal twist by replacing the mint with a cinnamon stick.
Not as sweet as many white ports, this has lovely notes of bergamot, bay leaves and toasted almonds. Great with tonic, or chilled and served by itself with citrussy puddings.
Altogether more serious, as its price suggests. Tangerines, honey and a slight tang of ginger, this really special port is great with hard cheeses such as comté or manchego, and is a surprisingly good match with sushi. It will keep for several weeks after it’s opened, in the unlikely event you’ll need it to.
Best pink/rosé port
This is made from red grapes that, as with rosé wine, are left for a short time in contact with the juice after pressing to give colour and a little bit of tannic grip. Sweet and fruity, it’s best served over ice with tonic garnished with a slice of orange.
Raspberry and cherry fruits with a touch of vanilla, this also makes a great riff on a negroni when used in place of the vermouth.
Blowout: Offley Rosé Port, £12.49, Waitrose
Fragrant with notes of mango, Turkish delight and orange blossom, this would be good very cold alongside (or on top of) vanilla ice cream.
Best ruby/reserve port
Getting its name from its jewel-bright colour, ruby port is blended from several vintages and is intended to be drunk young. This variety lacks the complexity of more costly ports but sits well with berry-based puds and is also great for cooking – try poaching pears in it along with a few cloves and star anise.
This is made by the renowned Symington’s family and is a real bargain. Rich and fruity but not too sweet, it’s great with mince pies and anything involving chocolate.
Reserve ports are rubies that have been aged a little longer and have a bit more finesse and complexity. This is intense and velvety with notes of stewed blackcurrants and violets – too good to cook with.
Best vintage port
Produced only in the best years, and from the very best grapes, vintage ports are aged in barrel for two years then bottled and laid down for further maturation. The best vintages can be kept for many years, or even decades.
Vintage ports form a sediment at the bottom of the bottle so should be left upright to settle for 24 hours or so, then poured slowly into a decanter or jug, leaving the sediment behind. They oxidise quite quickly after opening, so I recommend rinsing the bottle to get rid of the sediment then pouring the port back into it before serving, and drinking within a week or so.
Deep, dark and tannic, vintage ports are brilliant with hard cheeses but I think the best are enjoyed quietly alone, or maybe with a little very good dark chocolate.
Budget: M&S Vintage Port 2011, £27, M&S
2011 is regarded as one of the best recent vintages for port, and this is a cracking example at a really good price. All the powerful richness and spice of a great vintage port along with a pleasingly elegant finish.
Blowout: 1994 Warre’s, £72, Berry Bros & Rudd
Vintage ports make great gifts for special anniversaries and birthdays, so this would suit anybody with 25 years of anything to celebrate. The 1994 vintage is one of the best of the 20th century, and Warre’s is one of the best makers. Intense plum and blackcurrant fruit wrapped around layers of black pepper, liquorice, a bit of mellow smoke and so much more besides; it’s just coming into its own now, and could be kept somewhere cool for at least 10 more years if you need to wait for a certain occasion.
Best crusted port
Made in the same way as vintage port but a blend of wines from two or three different harvests, crusted port is so called because, like vintage port, it contains sediment so should be decanted in the same way. Known as ‘the poor man’s vintage’ because it so often punches above its weight for the price (hence why we’ve only included one option), crusted port is rare these days but well worth seeking out.
Dark and luscious with intense, brambly fruits, this much-lauded port is lifted with a really fresh acidity. Great quality for the price.
Best tawny port
Tawny ports are aged in small barrels for a minimum of seven years, often longer, so they lose the dark red colour of ruby and vintage ports and take on a brownish hue from which they get their name. This ageing process means they are very stable, so will keep well for weeks after they’re opened. Most are blended from several vintages – the age on the label indicates the average age of wines in the blend. Single vintage tawnies are labelled colheita along with the year of their harvest.
Tawnies are fresher and more delicate than their fruit-forward cousins, with nutty, leathery notes along with caramel, coffee and orange peel. Served slightly chilled, they’re the most versatile of ports, working with snacks of salted nuts and charcuterie, all but the most pungent cheeses, and anything with dried fruits, chocolate and/or nuts – they cut the richness of Christmas pud really well.
A great introduction to the tawny style at a fantastic price, this would be a great left-field accompaniment to cold turkey and cranberry sauce sandwiches, as well as Christmas cake, mince pies and chocolatey puddings.
Good aged tawnies don’t come cheap, but this is fantastic for the price. With layers of figs, walnuts, cloves and candied citrus peel, it has compelling complexity and a refreshingly clean finish. Totally delicious alone or with any of the suggestions above, it’s also an incredible match with Portuguese custard tarts.
Best show-off port
Six bottles of port in one! This huge bottle would make a proper port statement for a large gathering. Graham’s is one of the best and most reliable port producers and this has all you want from a good 10-year-old tawny. Fortunately, it will last for several weeks after it’s opened so don’t panic if you can’t finish it all at once.
Best port glasses
Portônica – white port and tonic – is best served as you would a G&T so go with whatever you like best. Some people use stubby tumblers, others prefer more modish balloon-shaped glasses, while I happen to favour tall highballs – it’s really just a matter of choice.
Other ports are traditionally drunk in small glasses – at around 20% ABV, it’s much stronger than unfortified table wine so serves should be smaller. Charity shops and antique fairs are good sources for pretty vintage glasses; don’t feel they all have to match.
Made from 100% recycled materials as part of a pioneering sustainable glassware partnership with the Eden Project in Cornwall, these also have a very pretty colour and a cute dimple on their bottom which seem to enhance the freshness of a portônica so well.
Named after a couple of sleuths with a fondness for cocktails in the 1934 film, The Thin Man, this pretty etched glass is also perfect for port with a cheeseboard, or just a mince pie and a good book.
Riedel famously make a huge range of glasses, each designed to bring out the very best in a specific wine or grape varietal. This classic shape allows port’s aromas to develop while emphasising the concentration of the fruit. A desert-island glass for port, sherry, madeira or any other fortified wine.