Why white port should be on your Christmas table

Red port has played a traditional part within the Christmas proceedings. But Kate Hawkings explains why you shouldn’t overlook white port during the festivities – from young varieties to those aged for 50 years

Words by Kate Hawkings

white port

Dry white port and tonic is a rightly popular summer aperitif, but white port can offer so much more besides. This year saw the creation of the 50-year-old category of white ports – those that have been blended from many casks whose age averages around 50 years. It’s a really exciting addition to the existing categories of 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds, as well as colheitas, and throws into the spotlight white port’s ability to hold its own against its red cousins (ruby, reserve, vintage and LBV), who generally rule the roost when it comes to Christmas drinking.

white port
A white port and tonic makes an excellent aperitif, but the golden liquid also holds its own as an accompaniment to cheese or canapés

Unlike red ports, which are bottled relatively young (around two years for vintage; up to six years for LBVs), these are aged in small casks, known as pipes, and bottled only immediately prior to release. White grapes are macerated on their skins to extract the tannins necessary for successful ageing, then brandy is added to halt the fermentation of the wine, leaving residual sugars which give sweetness to the finished drink. They are concentrated and complex but nuanced with bright acidity and freshness, and they are as good chilled as an aperitif as they are with cheese and pudding. What’s more, unlike red ports, they last for weeks after opening.

White ports are concentrated and complex but nuanced with bright acidity and freshness

Kopke is the leading producer of aged white ports, with a unique library of very old wines, and was the first to release a 50-year-old this year. Although the white port category was formalised only in 2002, a few producers, including Kopke, have been making them for centuries. ‘They were known as “wines for the boss,”’ says Carlos Alves, Kopke’s head winemaker. ‘They were not necessarily made to be sold.’ It’s easy to see why.

The 50-year-olds are the pinnacles of the white port category, so are scarce and costly; colheitas (which means single-harvest in Portuguese – with use of the term ‘vintage’ permitted for red ports only) and younger age-indicated blends are more affordable but can be just as enjoyable, and deserve the attention of discerning drinkers.

All these are best served a little chilled (8-10 degrees), and are as good with Christmas cake and candied nuts as they are with a cheeseboard. You might find they beat red ports hands-down during the festivities.

Drink it young

taylors chip dry

Dry white ports are made in stainless steel vats and bottled young and zesty. Taylor’s were the first to produce it, launching their Chip Dry (£13.99, Waitrose) in 1934 and making it ever since. Extra-dry, crisp and herbaceous, use it in place of dry vermouth – poured over ice as an aperitif, in a Martini, or sloshed into a risotto or gravy.

pedra alta

For a little touch of sweetness in the winter, Pedra Alta’s No. 3 (£18.95, Cellar Door Wines) is lovely chilled by itself – try it served with cheese straws – or mixed with ginger beer and a squeeze of lime over ice.

white port

The 10-year-old category is a big step up. Warm with woody spice and dried-fruit richness, it’s a well-priced gateway wine that’s fairly widely available. Useful and versatile standbys in the fridge, they make a great afternoon treat with a mince pie or a slice of cake, or can be enjoyed after dinner with a trifle or a slice of Stilton. They also suit rich and creamy savoury dishes – think foie gras or a festive fish pie. Or try them in a festive Negroni, substituting the vermouth. Try Kopke’s (Hennings Wine, £22.50), Andresen’s (Laithwaites, £15.99) or Ferreira’s wonderful Dona Antonia, which is £19.75 per half bottle from Vintage Wine & Port (which happens to have one of the best ranges of old ports).

Drink it old

50 year old white port kopke

There are several producers of old white ports, but Kopke is widely regarded as the best of them all. Founded in 1638 and the region’s oldest port house, Kopke is known for its skillful blending as well as the quality of the wine. Unlike most producers, the team racks all their wines every year and corrects them if necessary, a time-consuming and expensive business. They released only 250 litres of their 50-year-old white port, so its £125 half-bottle price tag (at Hedonism) will come as no surprise. It’s an incredible drink, elegant but with many seductive layers of fruits, nuts and spices, which should be sipped quietly and contemplatively with little other distraction.

kopke white port

Kopke’s breathtaking 30-year-old is a mere £54.99 per half bottle (at Cambridge Wine) but the port producer’s colheitas are more in reach for most of us and come in 75cl bottles. Try the nutty, baked-apple charms of the 2003 (£49.95, Vintage Wine and Port), or the richer 2008 (£39.99, Cambridge Wine Merchants) that reflects the warmth of that year. Dalva is another excellent producer; not available in the UK, its white ports can nevertheless be ordered online.