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IF YOU have a cellar full of mature vintage port to tuck into this Christmas, good for you. If like me you haven't, buying it for drinking now is a minefield. Many won't be ready for drinking until some time next century. A vintage chart will tell you that the ideal vintages to be opening now are the 1970s (at a mere £29-£35 a bottle), 1966s (£50) and 1963s (£50-£100). It might be worth splashing out on the stunningly intense and peppery *****1970 Dow's (£31 Berry Bros of London SW1 and Basingstoke), but how do you go about buying ready-to-drink fine port on a budget?

The youngest vintage ports generally drinkable now are from 1980. They are not exactly cheap, but ****1980 Warre's (£17.49 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, £8.99 per half selected Tesco) and ****1980 Fonseca (£18.99 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up) are lovely, figgy and peppery wines with good tannin. Both are drinkable now but will be softer in two or three years. Most 1983s still taste too strong, but one of the real snips of this Christmas, and just about ready for drinking, is ****1983 Feuerheerd (£10.99 Oddbins), a big, rich wine with lovely flavours of cedar and muscovado sugar and hints of eucalyptus. Drink this now, or keep it for years. Another bargain is the lightish, figgy ***1977 Skeffington (£12.99 Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, down from £19.99), unusually ready because unusually lightweight for a 1977, one of the great vintages of the century.

Apart from these, the main affordable alternative to vintage port is single quinta (estate) port. These are made by port producers in the good years they don't consider quite good enough for a proper vintage. Because they start out lighter and less tannic, they mature more quickly. Most come from single estates, whereas most vintage ports are blends of the finest batches of wine the port firms can lay their hands on. ****1979 Grahams Malvedos (£12.99 Oddbins, Majestic and Wine Rack, down from £17.49) is a brilliant offer for a thick, dark, plummy-sweet port, lovely already but maturable for antoher two or three years. ****1976 Quinta da Vargellas (£17.99 selected Wine Racks and Bottoms Up) is another lovely, full, mature wine with treacly, cedar and blackcurrant flavours. ****1978 Fonseca Guimaraens (£16.45 Sainsbury's) isn't from a single estate, but is the label used by the firm Fonseca in lesser years: ready now, this is figgy, cedary and plummy.

Usually a very poor reflection of vintage port, late bottled vintages (LBVs) are drinkable much younger than vintage because, already lighter wines at the outset, they get four to six years' fast maturation in oak barrels. (Vintage port stays in barrel for just two years, then slowly finishes its maturation in bottle, staying fierier and redder). Just a few LBVs are really stunning: the concentrated, almondy and cedary ****Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage 1987 (£9.99 EH Booth of Preston, Lancs, £9.75 Bibendum of London NW1) and ****1990 Quinta de la Rosa Late Bottled Vintage Port (£9.90 Morris & Verdin of London SW1), really quite tannic and vintage- like, with muscovado sweetness and lovely plummy and cedary flavour. You could drink this now or keep it a year or two to soften. ****Harvey Nichols LBV 1990 (£9.95) is the same wine. ***Cockburns Anno 1988 LBV (£8.99 Asda, £9.49 Tesco, Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up, Safeway, Somerfield, Victoria Wine, £9.49 Sainsbury's until 1 January, then £9.99) is good value, with cedary character, plummy fruit and good tannin.

Vintage character, confusingly, is a step down in quality, usually on a par with basic ruby port. But here, too, there are good ones. ***Warres Warrior Vintage Character Port (£7.85 selected Tesco and Safeway, £7.99 Asda, Unwins, Sainsbury's, Majestic, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Thresher and Oddbins) is the best, pruney, woody, rich and cedary. Other good buys in this style are ***Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve Port (£8.79 Noel Young of Cambridge, £8.99 London Wine Emporium, £9.30 Morris & Verdin of London SW1), fragrant, plummy and very chocolatey; the dark and plummily fruity **Niepoort Ruby (£6.89 EH Booth of Preston, Lancs, £6.95 Bibendum of London NW1); and the rich, peppery **Fonseca Bin 27 (£7.99 Waitrose, Morrisons, Davisons and Victoria Wine.)

The other main type of port is tawny, a pale, orange-brown wine lightened by long wood-ageing - which inevitably means high prices. To meet the demand for cheap tawny, the port trade developed a pale style of ruby - which, confusingly, is labelled "tawny". Cheap tawnies (under £8 a bottle) are often the least interesting of all ports. They may be pale because they were feeble wines in the first place. They may have had their colour filtered out, or be blends of red and white port (and white deserves to be drunk only disguised by tonic water).

Real tawnies are something quite different, always described as 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years old. They are always sold ready-to-drink, and once opened will last for ages - unlike vintage. True tawnies are elegant, nutty-flavoured wines - an alternative to vintage at the same level of quality. ****Niepoort 10-year-old Tawny (£14.98 Bibendum) is very light, cedary, almonded and honeyed; ******Dow's 20-year-old Aged Tawny (£20 selected Waitrose, £24.50 Unwins) is toffeed and caramelly with figgy fruit and chocolatey, nutty complexity. Similar in style, bottles labelled "Colheita" ("vintage" in Portuguese) are tawny ports made with long wood- ageing from wines from a single vintage. They are rare in Britain, but 1976 Quinta do Noval Colheita, Bottled in 1993 (£11.49 per half bottle Selfridges) has a figgy, almost salty, tang.

For a special Christmas present for someone who will be prepared to wait until the turn of the century to drink it, look at Oddbins' offer for the wonderful, intensely flavoured ******1977 Warres and *****1977 Dow's (both £23.99), or ****1977 Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port (£19.99 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and selected Thresher, £21.99 Tesco).

******the tops *****outstanding ****superb ***excellent **very good *good