I’ve just received my latest energy bill and it appears that I’ve been living this last year in a draughty manor house rather than a three–bedroom ex-council flat. This winter, I’m going to have to choose between a warm flat and decent-quality booze. Of course it’s going to be the booze; I’ll just have to wear a woolly hat and fingerless gloves whilst drinking.
At times like this, I thank God for the ingenuity of the British. Other cold countries have drinks to combat the winter — the Russians have vodka, the Swedes have schnapps and the Mongolians have fermented yak’s milk. These are drinks to achieve oblivion rather than to savour. We, however, have a whole smorgasbord of drinks to help us through the winter.
The best wines for cold weather come from hot countries, funnily enough. Wines such as Barossa Shiraz from Australia temper the longing in the British soul for sunshine. But the ultimate winter wines are the fortifieds. These wines were created by the British in the 18th and 19th century by taking strong southern European wines and making them stronger still. This was done to survive long sea voyages but they accidently created the perfect winter drinks because the added alcohol not only made them stronger, it also stopped fermentation, so the resulting wine was often sweet.
Spectator readers are undoubtedly aware of the big three fortified wines, port, sherry and madeira, but there used to be many others. From Spain there were malaga and alicante, from Cyprus commandaria and, from Sicily, marsala. They all struggle on in reduced circumstances today. The decline of the marsala industry is particularly sad. The quay in Marsala, a town in western Sicily, is a mile long and it was once packed with warehouses of wine. The wealth of the Anglo-Sicilian merchants such as the Woodhouses, the Florios and the Pellegrinos was legendary. It was like Dallas in downtown Palermo in the 19th century: they built lavish palazzos, hosted outrageous parties, and it was marsala money that bankrolled the first railways in America. Very little of this remains and most marsala is now suitable only for cooking. But if you can find a good one, it’s well worth trying. Look for the word vergine on the label, which means that it’s unsweetened. One such marsala vergine is Florio’s Terre Arse (and you wonder why it’s not more popular in Britain): with its flavours of burnt oranges, walnuts and aniseed, it tastes like a meeting of Italy, Spain, North Africa and the Levant. It’s Sicily in a glass. And of course in that alcoholic burn there’s a reminder that Britain ruled the island during the Napoleonic wars.
Port and madeira in their every-day incarnations are better than ordinary marsala, though that’s not saying much. It’s when you start to spend a bit more that they become interesting. Recently I was lucky enough to go to a tasting with Berry Bros of madeiras dating back to 1875. The highlight for me was a still youthful d’Oliveira 1907 Malavazia, which will set you back £260. Much more affordable is the rich, nutty ten-year-old Bual from Blandy. This would be the thing to drink with Christmas pudding, though it would go equally well with stilton instead of port.
I used to be agnostic about the joys of port until I tried a properly mature port from a good vintage. It was a Delaforce 1977. Now if anything I like it a little too much. The best ports I can knock back like 12 per cent claret, but I don’t have the constitution of an 18th-century Tory. This has led to some spectacular arguments at Christmas. The family is still reeling from the time I accused my brother’s wife of being a bad vegetarian, and the less said about the great Tracey Emin debate of 2011 the better (though I do remember the port that fuelled it, a gorgeous Fonseca Guimaraens 1996 which should be quite easy to find for around £25 a bottle).
Fortunately, there exists a lower-alcohol alternative from the south of France. In the Roussillon there are two fortified wines, not dissimilar to port, made from Grenache grapes called Banyuls and Maury; there’s also Rivesaltes and a whole host of local sherry-style wines. They are left to mature in the sun, much like madeira, and as they gently cook they take on wonderful flavours of nuts and dried apricots that the locals call rancio — literally rancid. They’re less sweet than port and lower in alcohol. These wines provide a glimpse into a parallel universe where, rather than becoming a global commodity dominated by large firms, port stayed at home as an obscure speciality made by local companies and peasant farmers. The best-known Maury is Mas Amiel and their Cuvée Speciale ten-year-old is leathery and fruity with a pronounced nuttiness and a very long finish. It’s not as sweet as port and only 16 per cent.
When you literally can’t put on another jumper, then it’s time to heat up the booze. We have a little girl and one or other of her friends always has a cold, so more often than not someone in our house has one too. Consequently we’ve become addicted to hot toddies. My favourite involves chopping up a load of ginger, boiling it up with water and lemon juice, and then serving it with honey and a slug of King’s Ginger liqueur. This last ingredient comes into its own at this time of year. You can mix it with whisky for a whisky mac or add it to hot cider — use a good cloudy cider such as Ashridge or Old Rosie — to make a delicious alternative to the ghastly mulled wine. I have a very low tolerance for mulled wine, as it’s normally made from the worst possible wine, bitter with spice and boiled until there is no booze left.
So this winter, as you’re shivering in your draughty manor, raise a glass and be happy that the British have such an astonishing variety of drinks to help us through the winter — and give thanks that you don’t live in Outer Mongolia, where you would be drinking fermented yak’s milk.