But you don't have to pay a fortune for the world's most delectable sweet wines. In fact, a lot of Sauternes is outgunned by the cornucopia of sweet wines now being made all over the globe.
1996 Brown Brothers Late Harvest Noble Riesling (pounds 7.99, half-bottle, Oddbins) is a delightful Aussie sweetie. Made in Victoria from the riesling grape, it displays a fine, toffee-apple coating with a soft-centred, lemon and lime marmalade-like richness and complexity.
In and around Bordeaux itself, there are numerous Sauternes lookalikes that are often better value. Try, for instance, the 1997 Chateau Vignal Labrie, Monbazillac (pounds 8.99, Waitrose), an unctuous, honeyed blend of mainly semillon, topped up with sauvignon and muscadelle, with a degree of nuttiness and a refreshingly tangy aftertaste.
In its sweet incarnation, the chenin blanc grape of the Loire Valley offers some of the most dazzling, crystallised fruit-like wines on earth and generally with crisper acidity than Sauternes. In a half-litre bottle, the 1997 Coteaux du Layon St Aubin "Harmonie" from Domaine Cady (pounds 8.49, Oddbins) is an appealing, barley-sugared white with a ripe, peachy fruitiness. More viscously rich still, the 1995 Vouvray Trie de Grains Nobles, Domaine Bourillon d'Orleans (50 cl, pounds 11.49, Majestic Wine Warehouses) is lusciously rich, and oozes pear, quince and honey flavours.
No one has yet succeeded in ousting port as the world's great sweet red, perhaps because it needs practice to perfect harmonising red wine tannins and sweetness, and port has a few centuries of experience under its belt.
The two broad categories of port are wood-matured and bottle-aged. Wood ports like tawnies have already thrown a deposit after many years in cask so they don't need decanting. Bottle-aged ports such as vintage, single quinta and crusted, do need to be stood up for 24 hours and carefully decanted off their sediment a few hours before drinking. Having said that, there are some surprises from elsewhere, most notably Australia.
Thanks to the EU, Australia has had to drop the word port on its port- style fortified wines. An expedient compromise is to keep the word "tawny", as in Penfolds Magill Tawny (pounds 4.99, widely available), a bargain-priced caramel, nut and raisin sweet alternative made from grenache and shiraz grapes and sold in a cute, dumpy half-bottle. Drink the Penfolds with cheese, but with Christmas pudding, try one of Australia's classic "stickies", one of the few sweet wines that can stand up to it. In a handy half-bottle, Campbells' Rutherglen Muscat (pounds 6.49, Oddbins, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Victoria Wine, Wine Cellar), is a thick, raisin and date-rich, powerful amber nectar of the fortified kind.
"Vintage character" was a convenient label invented to make ruby port look more glamorous, and while it bears no relation to pukka vintage port, not least because it's matured in big oak casks, Safeway's Vintage Character Port (pounds 6.94), from Calem, has much to commend it, not least in terms of price, for its mocha and raisin-like fruitiness and spice. Sainsbury's Ten Year Old Tawny (pounds 10.99) from Quinta do Noval, is superb: a sweet, walnut, date and raisin-rich port with a degree of cask ageing in evidence. With even more nutty, aged character, Warre's Ten Year Old Otima Tawny Port (50cl, pounds 9.99, Waitrose, selected Sainsburys), is a fine tawny with brandy-soaked fruitcake and nut flavours.
Single quinta ports come from top vineyards belonging to port shippers. The main difference between single quinta and vintage is that a single quinta port is from a year which the shipper hasn't declared as vintage. It's often better value.
The 1986 Taylor's Quinta da Terra Feita (pounds 17.99; buy two at pounds 16.24 each, Majestic), is a sumptuous, mature single quinta port with aromatic power, bouquet, and delicious, underlying walnut and almond fruitcake character.
Warre's 1987 Quinta da Cavadinha Port (pounds 20.50, Waitrose) has an evolved, satiny sheen and all sorts of rich nut, rum-and-raisin fruitiness going for it.
Unwins has a fine selection of vintage ports including three superb, nicely maturing 1991s (all at pounds 40) from Croft, Quinta da Noval and, my favourite, Warre's: an intense red, full of liquid blackberry fruitiness and spices. But perhaps the best bargain here is the 1987 Calem Quinta da Foz (pounds 15.99), a single quinta port which is full of almond, aromatic spices and raisin-richness and just reaching its peak now.