With the sound of shotguns and tumbling pheasants close by, supermarkets offering cut-price Christmas crackers and the by-line ‘with all the trimmings’ appearing on booking menus at your nearby restaurant, it would be difficult not to identify the season in question. We are veering towards Christmas from all directions and although we complain, we manage to retain our annual excitement nevertheless. The drinks industry will be keeping its fingers crossed that we stay excited. Although we may accept reductions in child benefit or the diminution of the armed forces, they in turn hope we will maintain the annual expenditure on our drinks cabinet through thick and thin. Well we usually do, and this is often helped by one of the most mysterious commercial decisions since refrigerators were first sold to Eskimos. At the time of year where even the most abstemious of households venture forth to buy a bottle of gin or a cream sherry, and groaning trolleys of Belgium beer, Irish cider or slabs of Babycham file past the check-out, supermarkets decide, as one, to slash their booze prices. The one time of the year when they may possibly count on a captive audience, they up the price war! This very British issue, which often turns an assured wine shipper into an amateur hustler, is a game that supermarkets apparently create in order to enhance the season of goodwill for all men.

This was brought sharply into focus last week when I attended a port tasting in London. What was grandly entitled ‘A Decade of Port’ was I guessed, more of a bid to get the stuff onto supermarket shelves before October end and the commissioning portcullis fell.

I must confess I was not exactly looking forward to a six hour Port tasting.

For some years now, I have come to believe that for every moment in the day and for all occasions, there is a suitable wine waiting to be enjoyed. To end a glorious dinner, interspersed with delicious wines, only to down a glass or two of mediocre, fortified red, seemed a waste of all preceding wines. I confess that this is a generalised response, but one that has happened all too often in my life. The better ports rarely get served at shoot suppers or Christmas Eve dinners in my experience.

I was to be jolted from my presumptions, as this was a tasting that re-invigorated my faith in these glorious and majestic wines.

For those who get justifiably confused as to how Port arrives on our table, a few pointers may well assist in seeking out your own bargains this season. Port is made like any other wine, except that during the process of natural fermentation, when the juice reaches 8% alcohol, a base brandy is added to stun the yeast cells and halt any further fermentation.  This prevents the remaining sugar from dissipating, thus making the resultant wine both sweet and strong. An array of indigenous Portugese grapes can be used during its blending, with Touriga Nacional regarded as being the best quality. There are 80 or so permitted grape varieties, although most of them sound more like a triple word score at Scrabble, than your recognisable high-street regulars.

Basic Ruby port tends to be the most widely available style, which is the young, sweet, bright purple wine, aged in bulk stainless steel containers and bottled after a couple of years. This is the culprit which in its most ‘obvious’ and simple incarnation, kept me away for so long. One step up is ‘late bottled vintage’ often sold as LBV, but which is the same Ruby port, often matured in oak, and normally aged for no less than 5 years. My tasting last week showed the distinct and beneficial difference the LBV style offers over its Ruby cousin, without any restrictive increase in pricing. On the other hand, Tawny, which again starts its life as a Ruby, undergoes lengthy ageing in oak casks which creates the distinctly mellow colour, and goes on to show delicate restraint after 20,30 even 40 years. I tasted several, which were served chilled, all offering a delightfully refreshing finish on the palate.

I completed the tasting with the ‘declared’, Vintage ports, wines of a single and selected year, which are bottled after three years, before spending decades of quiet maturation in the cellar. Recent vintages to track being 2000 and 2003, with the expensive 1994 regarded as the greatest of the last century.

Tried to buy a bottle, but my bank manager wasn’t returning my calls that day!