Fortified wines: two by two

Martin Hudson MW’s presentation of fortified wines, some of them sweet,  was organised by pairings – two Sherry styles, two Madeiras, two Ports, two Vin Doux Naturels and a lonely Rutherglen Muscat at the end.  In this way, with some elegant economy, he was able to illustrate the remarkable diversity of the world of fortified wines in just nine examples and an hour and a half.  This post won’t attempt to cover all the detail that he shoehorned into those ninety minutes but it was a tour de force and a gustatory delight!  As it happened his choices perfectly complemented an earlier fortifieds tasting I led earlier this year: Fino here, Manzanilla earlier and so on, read more.  That post concentrates more on the conditions in which the grapes are grown, this one on the final result in the bottle and how it is achieved. 

IMG_44272 Sherries

The two sherries illustrate the diversity in this category – yeasty, bready, even green olive in the pale Fino on the left, walnuts, toffee, raisined grapes in the dry Oloroso on the right.  Visually this could not be clearer – the Fino has been aged under flor, the specialist top-growing Sherry yeast which keeps the wine from oxygen, the Oloroso has done its growing up by interaction with air, hence the lovely, golden brown colour.  These are fine wines at budget prices: Lustau, Puerto Fino, non vintage about £12, Berry’s Dry Oloroso, non vintage, just £8. 

10 YO Sercial2 Madeiras
The next pair illustrated two, high quality, ten year old examples of contrasting styles from the semi tropical island of Madeira.  The Sercial on the left in the glass is the driest, or should we say the least sweet of the four classic single variety styles. It is still moderately sweet but accompanied by the searing acidity which makes Madeira stand out – and your hair stand on end.  Barbeito is a wonderfully traditional firm and that colour is due solely to the average ten years of ageing, not the addition of caramel which is common in cheap versions.  These wines are made in the slow bake-and-cool of being stored in lofts or similar while they do the equivalent of the round-the-world tour through which it was discovered that, against all the standard rules, Madeira improves through tough love.  By contrast, the Malvasia is browner and much sweeter, but still with that zippy acidity, to go with the nutty, citrus peel and fruit complexity.  Brilliant wines and – unlike the Sherries – these you can buy, open and consume at leisure over weeks and months. Having had the full heat treatment and the oxidation, they are virtually indestructible.  (The tasting earlier in the year featured the cheaper Full Rich Madeira and a 15 year old Bual.) 

Port in two styles

On to the Portly pair. The picture shows a great difference of colour as a signpost to two radically different wines.  The pale brick colour on the left is a pretty, old (20 years), tawny , but one which even at this age has fruit. By contrast on the right is the intense ruby red of a Crusted Port, a style which sits between LBV and a true vintage port. If you like vintage port but are put off by the price (or the need to keep them for years), Martin’s advice is that you head for a high quality Crusted Port.  The William Pickering 20 year old Tawny Port is about long ageing in wood, sweet fruit and no tannins – the latter have dropped out of solution over those years in wood, so this is now a sweet and smooth delight.  The Crusted Port (both Berry’s) has been aged in wood for three years but then in the bottle, in this case for eight years.  It is a blend of the wines of several years, here 1999, 2000, 2001 and bottled in 2004. And if you want to, you could keep it let it develop more complexity in the bottle.  You should really decant it as it will throw a sediment.  On all these counts it is rather like a mini-vintage port, but obviously multi vintage and doesn’t have to come for the very best years when a true ‘vintage’ is declared.  In contrast to the mellifluous character of the old tawny, it is full of red fruit and wonderful, grippy tannins.  (The tasting earlier in the year was a mini Port-fest and featured the four complementary styles of Ruby, modern LBV, Colheita and Vintage.) 


Our final pair are an unlikely couple, technically the same but very different in taste, two ‘Vin doux naturels’.  Made in a very similar fashion to Port, if fortified to a lower level, they feature the flavour of the grape from which they are made, rather than the effects of the ageing process.  A simple Ruby Port would be be the closest parallel.   (There are oxidative VDNs, for example those made at Mas Amiel, but they didn’t feature in this tasting.)  The two wines shown above are made from fully ripe, healthy grapes – Martin hopes to return to cover ‘wines affected by ‘noble rot’ at a later date – and then fermented at low temperatures (15-18° C) with a view to preserving the fruit character.  Adding alcohol stops the fermentation with the fresh fruit flavours intact and leaves the ‘natural’ sweetness (derived from the grape juice) in the finished wine.   Muscat de Beaume de Venise, Domaine de Durban, 2010 was all orange blossom and grape aromas, while La Cerisaie, Domaine des Schistes, Maury 2009 was a glassful of vibrant deep ruby colour and Grenache fruit, sweetness and, of course, alcohol. 

The final wine of the evening was a modern Australian classic, a single wine to represent this unique style.  Remarkably, given its attractive deep amber colour, it is made from the same grape variety as the the pale Muscat pictured above. In this example Muscat blanc á petit grains is grown in very hot Victoria, partly raisined before been turned into wine and then treated to a form of the solera ageing system more usually associated with Sherry – but in a hot place. In terms of its production it has it all – raisining of the grapes as in (non fortified) Vin Santo, fortification like Port (or any of the wine in this tasting), solera ageing like Sherry, heat treatment of the ageing wine like Madeira.  The wine in question is Rutherglen Muscat, Stanton & Killeen, Victoria, Australia, 12 year old, The age designation is an average, the style of a 12 year old. As this solera was started in 1921 there are at least theoretically  a few molecules of 90 year old wine in every modern day bottle!  Rich amber in colour, this wine had a mouth coating luscious richness along with intense nutty, savoury and sweet flavours.  A good wine to finish on as it would be difficult to taste anything less assertive after this. 

With many thanks to Martin Hudson for another splendid evening. We are already looking forward to the ‘noble rot and late harvest’ tasting in due course! 

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