“Any port in a storm,” goes the old saw, and it’s not hard to understand that sentiment. Sailor or not, a stormy evening seems far friendlier with your hands wrapped around a glass of rich Port.
Port is a fortified wine and together with its brethren Sherry and Madeira, the trio is called “fortified,” because they are bolstered with the addition of distilled spirit. In the old days, a dose of spirit was added to fortify the wines for a voyage to England or farther shores. But closer to home, a tipple of one of these wines can bolster today’s bar or restaurant patron as well.
For many, the assumption is that all fortified wines are sweet, and that they are consumed for dessert. Plenty of fortified wines are sweet, it’s true, but there are many dry versions as well. Clearly a dry wine such as a Fino Sherry or Sercial Madeira is most appropriate at the start of the meal, not the end. But how about an Amontillado? When are you supposed to drink that?
The easy answer would be, whenever you like, just as you would drink any other wine.
But the widely varying styles of fortified wines causes confusion for consumers and servers alike. Worrying about the precise placement of a fortified wine in a meal is as absurd as fretting over the position of any other wine in the meal order.
A BETTER BODY
Simply put, fortified wines have more body than most other wines, because they range in alcohol levels from 13 percent to as high as 20 percent. Wines with that kind of bone structure show up at dessert time simply because they’re the biggest wines around. Chocolate’s intensity and oiliness create a challenge for standard table wines that can be more easily overcome by the greater weight of fortified wines, such as a late-bottled Vintage Port or a Malmsey Madeira.
Dry Madeiras such as those made from sercial or verdelho seem uniquely suited for soups. Fino Sherry, and its more nimble sibling Manzanilla, famously accompanies many tapas, whether it’s Serrano ham, grilled squid or patatas bravas.
And the well-known fortified wines aren’t the only delicious drinks out there; notable fortifieds include Muscat de Beaumes de Venise from France’s Rhone Valley, Portugal’s Moscato de Setubal, and Australia’s great “stickies.”
Still, the big three, Port, Sherry and Madeira, have fame and historical importance. Perhaps more importantly, they also exhibit remarkable variety. Sherry can easily be cleaved into two styles: Fino and Oloroso.
Fino is always dry, and after long aging, it might be bottled as an Amontillado. That too should be dry, but often isn’t. Oloroso is generally thought of as a powerfully sweet dessert wine. But it too can appear in other guises; Dry Oloroso is uncommon but not unknown. Lustau’s version is delightful; think roasted walnuts.
SHERRY’S MANY STYLES
Few wine regions allow as much flexibility. But with Sherry’s long history as a wine-producing region, all manner of wine has been made here at one time or another. So a myriad of styles is Sherry’s legacy, and a Sherry lover’s bounty.
The first step on Sherry’s path is to be chosen either for Fino or for Oloroso. If chosen to be an Oloroso, the wine will be fortified to about 18 percent alcohol and then left to age in barrels.
If the wine is intended to be a Fino, the wine will be fortified to only about 15 percent alcohol and the barrel won’t be completely filled to the top. The empty space above the wine will soon hold a yeast growth called the flor, a Spanish word meaning “flower.” But it looks more like pond scum. However, the flor has a pretty purpose — it protects the wine from oxygen, and adds a nutty, almond-like character.
The almond note is not the most interesting part of a great Fino, however. It is that the greatest can also be light on its feet, even delicate; and at 15 percent alcohol, that is no small achievement.
There is another version of Fino called Manzanilla. It’s a Fino that has been aged in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The ocean’s proximity feeds the flor like in no other place; the flor here can grow half a foot tall or more.
Numerous wine books will obfuscate the matter but the growth of the flor is no mystery. The barrels selected for flor growth have previously contained flor-laden Sherry. The barrels are placed near the windows, exposed to ocean breezes that feed the flor.
And the flor grows because of the precise amount of fortification. Fifteen percent alcohol allows the flor to grow; the 18 percent shot that Oloroso receives kills off the saccharomyces yeast that creates the flor.
If Fino is a Sherry that grows under the flor, then as soon as the flor dies, that wine begins to change into something else. As the wine gains in richness, it is soon called an Amontillado.
If you’re following the story, then you will suppose that all Amontillados are dry. But habit and commerce have it otherwise. Many Amontillados in the market are slightly sweet, and that sweetness is gained from the addition of sweet wines long produced in the area, especially from super-sweet grapes such as moscatel or Pedro Ximinez (PX for short).
Often the unfermented sweet grapes will be added to the wine, and sometimes the grape juice will be cooked down into a sweetened paste, which can be added to the wine to intensify it.
With some of the commercial Amontillados in the market, a touch of this sweet stuff has been added to make the wine seem even older and richer than it might actually be.
Olorosos, Sherry’s great dessert wines, also start life dry. But almost all are aged for years, even decades in barrels, and then with the addition of some of the sweet grapes, or sweet grape paste, the wines gain outrageous sweetness, as well as dried fruit character and complexity.
SHERRY’S NEW DESIGNATIONS
For all of Sherry’s antiquity, new things are afoot for it. There are two new designations for Sherry: VOS and VORS. Though the two abbreviations are Latin terms, they are easily translatable into English. VOS is a Sherry blended from wines no younger than twenty years old, and the easy translation is “Very Old Sherry.”
VORS stands for “Very Old Rare Sherry” and the minimum age for any Sherry in that blend is 30 years old.
It’s the rare restaurant that offers a wine that’s ten years old; few ten-year-old dessert wines could be expected to last more than a few days opened. But these old Sherries, VOS and VORS, can be consumed for weeks after the bottles are opened.
And they represent some of the greatest values in winedom. Many of these old Sherries wholesale for less than two dollars a glass (two ounces), though the cost of production is greater than wines from most other regions. A thirty year-old barrel of wine has completely evaporated at least once; that means there’s been a lot of barrel re-filling. That old Sherry should cost more than it does.
Old vintage Port doesn’t live as long as old Madeira (see sidebar). Vintage Port needs twenty or thirty years to come around and to be drinkable. But once it’s ready to drink, it needs consuming.
PORTS: FRAGILE OR NOT?
The greatest vintage Ports need time, but once opened, those wines may only offer greatness for a few hours. That fragility has more in common with wines that aren’t fortified, than with great fortified wines like Madeira or Sherry. Indeed, some of Portugal’s best bars refuse to pour vintage Port by the glass, because they know the wines are meant to be consumed immediately after the bottle is opened.
Not all Port is that fragile. Vintage Port accounts for only about three percent of all Port wines. A vintage Port that has been aged for twenty or more years is likely to be as fragile as any table wine of similar age. In fact, vintage Port is aged in barrels just as most red table wines; usually about a year and a half in-barrel before they are bottled.
Most Port spends a longer time in barrels. Ports, and their barrel-aged permutations, can be as complicated as Sherry. First, there are two broad styles of Port: Ruby and Tawny. While Ruby and Tawny may sound like dancers at an exotic club, they describe the two alternate routes that a Port will take.
The basic difference is in their names: if the wine is called a Ruby, it’s ruby in color, while a Tawny Port is light brown to orange brown in color, because of the changes due to so many years (five or more) in the barrel.
Within the category of Ruby Port, there are Vintage Ports, Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV) and Single Quinta Ports. An LBV Port is just what it says, it’s a Vintage Port that was bottled long after the wine was produced. Whereas vintage Ports are bottled 18 to 30 months after the wine was made, LBV’s are bottled four to six years after harvest. As a result, the wines are softer and rounder than Vintage Ports, and are ready to drink upon release.
“Single Quinta” means “single vineyard” and a Single Quinta Port is just like a Vintage Port, except that instead of coming from a mix of vineyards, as with most Vintage Port, it comes from just one vineyard. The idea is that great Vintage Ports are made only in great years, blended from several excellent vineyards.
But all great Vintage Ports have one great vineyard that forms the backbone of the wine. In a less than stellar year, that crucial vineyard may still make extremely good wine. So the Port house may bottle it on its own. It will cost less than a real vintage Port, age more quickly, and offer less complexity. But in almost all cases, a Single Quinta Port offers a more affordable and accessible version of the vintage Port concept.
The most popular style of Port in Portugal is Tawny. They’re typically sold in age denominations of 10-Years, 20-Years and 30-Years, though the latter is usually a less interesting version. The ten- and twenty-year-old Ports are complex interlays of fruitiness and nutty, aged character.
One of the ironies might be that the labels are, shall we say, misleading. For instance, there is no guarantee that a ten-year old Port is actually ten years old. It might only be eight years old, with a little twelve-year-old juice thrown in. The idea is closer to non-vintage Champagne than it is to vintage Champagne, in that the blender is looking to match a pre-existing style and is less concerned with being able to tell someone that the bottle contains a certain percentage of this vintage and that aged wine. Rather, the blender wants to be able to say that this ten-year-old tawny Port tastes exactly like the one made last year.
But each Port house fashions their tawnies as a balancing act between young fruit and aged nuttiness. With ten-year-old tawnies, fruit tends to wine; and with twenty-year-old tawnies, the nuts seem to dominate.
With both, the restaurateur can trust that the wine will remain sound for at least several weeks after it is opened. So, even if the weather is mild today and a fortified wine seems too serious, the wine will still be waiting and ready to warm you on a chilly night. Maybe you don’t have a roaring fireplace, but with a glass of a first-rate fortified wine in hand, you can always pretend.
Doug Frost is a wine and spirits writer and one of only three people in the world to have earned the titles of Master Sommelier and Master of Wine.
Opening Up On Madeira
Madeira can be a remarkably extravagant dessert wine. But, like Sherry, it can be dry too. Sercial and Verdelho are the two grapes associated with Madeira’s dry style. These can be lemon tart and as racy as green apple skins.
Dry Madeira is probably an acquired taste. Not so the sweet versions. Grapes such as terrentez, bastardo, malvasia, and especially bual and malmsey are as rich as fig juice and still exhibit balance and longevity.
And Madeira’s longevity is a thing of wonder. An open bottle of vintage dated Madeira can last for months, years, maybe even decades. A wine that can be opened and then poured glass after glass for years? That’s not normal wine. How does Madeira do it?
Madeira is an island off the coast of Africa. The wines grown on the volcanic soils of the island have an unnerving amount of acidity; that acidity makes the wines nearly eternal.
IMPROVES WITH AGE
Madeira is fortified wine, just like the other wines in our report. But after that, it’s warmed up, exactly as has been done for three hundred years or more. Early purveyors of Madeira’s wines decided that the wines were far better after a long journey on a boat; the trip across the center of the globe with its slow, equatorial warming made the wines taste better.
Often Madeira lies in barrels that are never topped up, or filled to account for evaporation. For all wines but Madeira, topping up prevents the wines from spoiling due to oxygen exposure. But with Madeira, somehow, the wines seem to take it all in and keep giving forth more fruitiness.
Madeira is amazing. Once opened, a bottle of great Madeira seems to last forever. But then again, what could happen to it, that hasn’t already happened? It’s been exposed to heat. It’s been allowed to see too much oxygen. There’s nothing left to do but shoot the stuff.
With this kind of longevity, an open bottle of vintage Madeira, even an old vintage Madeira from the 19th century, is an almost sure bet. The old vintage wines in the market may set back a restaurateur hundreds of dollars, but there’s no risk.
Imagine a bottle with the vintage date of, say, 1900. At the current cost of such a Madeira (around $300 wholesale), a restaurant could buy a bottle, sell a two-ounce glass for $75 over the next year and gross $800 on the initial investment.
You could probably charge more than that for such an unusual experience. Regardless, that restaurateur is offering an unmatched experience to the customer - I doubt that any other venue in the restaurant’s neighborhood has the smarts to do that.