Wines of the extremes

Fortified wines are a seriously undervalued category of quality wines.  Somewhere we have bought the line that to be taken seriously wines must be dry (many fortifieds are also sweet) while proper concerns about alcohol consumption put a question mark against wines that can be around 20% in alcoholic strength.  Vintage Port is the exception, not the rule, receiving lots of proper attention, but it is rare treat.  But there is a whole range of excellent wines, many at really good prices for the quality and sophistication which they offer.  And what really marks these wines out is their character as wines of the extremes – of location, climate, wine making, ageing and quality.  Here is the line up I recently presented at the Officers’ Mess at Andover. 


The evening started with two Sherries.  The image of Sherry is cosy and suburban but it is made in an extreme location. The Southern tip of Spain is far too hot and dry to contemplate growing grapes for quality white wines. And most styles are made from one of the dullest grapes in the world, Palomino Fino.  But it is the peculiarities of soil type (water retaining albariza chalk), the distinctive approach to ageing the wines in the solera system and making use of the climactic peculiarity of a hot region which is on the Atlantic coast which leads to great and highly distinctive wine.  We tasted the two classic styles from which all other Sherry styles are based – if you ignore the inky black sweetness of PX.   Las Medallas, Bodedgas Argüeso is a classic Manzanilla, the palest and lightest in the Fino style, a wine of mouth refreshing freshness and tanginess. The key to its distinctiveness is that it is aged under a layer of flor, a special type of yeast which rises to the surface in the barrel and which grows particularly thickly in the moisture rich environment of Sanlucar de Barrameda, right on the Atlantic coast.  The solera system – a series of barrels which feed younger wines into progressively older blends – ensures consistency and complexity in the three year old final product.  For a wine of this complexity, it is a great bargain at £7. 

In complete visual contrast, a true Oloroso sherry is a mid amber colour and looks like a seriously old and viscous wine.  Remarkably, it is made from exactly the same IMG_0080boring grape variety but, being fortified to a higher level, 18%, does not grow a protective layer of flor. As a result it ages in interaction with the air above it – hence the dark colour and the characteristic nutty, woody and even date flavours.  Our example was an excellently made Viejo Oloroso from Sanchez Romate, who provide the Wine Society Exhibition range wine in this style.  The only disappointment is that there is absolutely no indication about how old this ‘viejo’ is – I guess 10 years but perhaps more. (The Wine Society agree with this estimate and explained that it not financially viable to get the expensive certification of age for a small lot of wine.)  To complete the sherries, this is a ridiculously good wine at £10.75 – but then, sadly for the producers but good for the discerning drinker, Sherry is deeply unfashionable. 

The two sherries were followed by two Madeiras.  If the tip of Spain is not recommended for white wines, the sub-tropical island of Madeira, 500+ kilometres off the coast of Morocco, surrounded by the Atlantic, is completely improbable – too hot, too wet, too humid.  You have to add to those factors an overly rich volcanic soil and steep sites which require terracing.   Once again the trick is in the ageing which breaks all the rules about keeping wines cool to preserve quality.  Here you either actively heat wines to a seriously hot 50° for three months (the estufa method) or, more IMG_0079gently but equally improbably, leave them to age in a hot spot (the canteiros method), for example under the roof for years where temperatures will fluctuate wildly through the seasons – cf. the method of making Vin Santo in Tuscany. 

Our two examples were from the grand old house of Henriques & Henriques: the first was the inexpensive Full Rich Madeira, no doubt made from the commoner Tinta Negro Mole grape variety and heat treated in the stainless steel estufagem you can see on their website.  Moderately sweet, it offers marked, luscious, caramel flavours.  Much more sophisticated was Bual, 15 year old, made from one of the four so-called noble varieties, in this case Bual (both a grape variety and a style), which is grown on the warmer south side of the island.  In addition to the moderate sweetness it had a beautiful and complex combination of dried fruit, rancio, subtle wood and spice notes, with the characteristic acidity well clothed  – poised, elegant, persistent.  £22 for a 50cl bottle is decent value.  And this is a baby by Madeira standards. Madeiras are probably the world’s longest living wines; if a wine can survive this heat treatment and has high acidity, it is virtually indestructible.  For example, H&H still offer wines from the 1930s.  Extreme indeed. 

The second half of the tasting was devoted to four Ports, appropriately enough for an officers’ mess.  Here the extremes are the summer temperatures and dropping IMG_0081rainfall as you get further inland, steep riverside sites which have to be worked by hand, fast extraction of the colour and phenolics in the first two days of fermentation and, in the case of vintage ports, decades of ageing potential. 

The first two wines were in common styles – a simple, if high quality Ruby and then an LBV.  Ruby is made from a range of red grapes, typically grown in the wetter and cooler western part of the Douro.  Nowadays the fruit will be pressed mechanically with the aim of getting as much colour and tannin from the skins as is possible in the two days available before distilled grape spirit is added to leave a red, fiery, fruity wine.  Krohn Porto Ambassador Ruby more than fulfils this brief.  By contrast, the Wine Society’s LBV Port 2006, made by the dominant Symingtons group, was a star wine – showing a fresh attack of red and black fruit, edges rounded out by around 5 years in wood barrels, excellent balance between sweetness and acidity.  Late Bottled Vintage (LBV to its friends) as a style is one way of getting something of the character of vintage port but without the wait or the need to decant.  This example was made from quality fruit from the central, most prestigious, part of the Douro valley and has retained its weight despite being fined and filtered before bottling.  Why ‘late bottled’?  Because it is bottled just before it is ready to drink, while vintage port proper is bottled in its infancy, with all its growing up to do.   This example from Symingtons showed outstanding value at £11.75 a bottle. 

And finally, two contrasting example of aged wines.  Inexpensive tawny port is paler than ruby and alcoholic, and that’s about it.  True tawnies are wines that have been in a barrel long enough to go, well, tawny.  A tawny made with high quality fruit of a single year, which has been wood aged for at least seven years, qualifies to be a Colheita, the Portuguese word for ‘harvest’ here doing service for a vintage wine – given that ‘vintage’ in the language of port has a very particular meaning. Krohn Porto Colheita 2000 was an excellent example, having been aged in wood for a full 10 years in the cooler Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto itself.   Amber in colour, pleasantly and slowly oxidised fruit flavours, it was long and subtle. 

True vintage ports are extreme in other ways: only the best fruit in the best years will do; much greater use is made of the very best grape varieties including Touriga Nacional with its meagre yield of 300 grams per plant; and it needs years, decades, of ageing in the bottle to show its potential.  Surprisingly, it is the simplest of all these wines to make – select the very best fruit, extract all that you can from the skins for two days, fortify, age in wood for a couple of years, bottle without any sort of treatment – no fining, filtering or stabilisation.  Some of these wines are still made by the traditional pressing under foot in a long, low trough, producing excellent results if you can get people to do it; others by modern equivalents.  The result is a wine of massive concentration and great levels of extract, which is pretty much undrinkable in its youth.  It will throw a prodigious and solid sediment in time … and it will evolve ever so slowly in the bottle under its original cork.  Graham’s 1980 Vintage Port showed really well at the climax to this tasting but has years left in it – a remarkable combination of continuing fruit and fine, evolved tertiary notes; a great balance between power and refinement; remarkably young for its 32 years.

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