When planning a menu, it seems the selection of an appropriate drink match is often restricted to red or white wines. And when we find one we like, we tend to stick with it. On occasion, we might become a little more adventurous and include beer or even a sparkling wine or Champagne on our beverage list — after all, they’re versatile and refreshing — but now is the time to try something new.
An often overlooked category is that of fortified wine, of which the four best known examples are Sherry, Port, Madeira and Marsala. Perhaps we just don’t know enough about them or maybe we feel they are drinks for an older generation. Those that disagree have already discovered that there is certainly a place for fortified wine both in the kitchen and at the table.
Fortified wine has a higher alcohol content achieved by the addition of a grape spirit to the wine sometime during the production process. In most cases they have a longer shelf life once the bottle has been opened and will benefit from cellaring.
Although many countries such as Australia, Canada and South Africa produce Sherry-style fortified wine, we will focus on Spain, the country where Sherry got its start. Sherry is made in styles ranging from dry to sweet, known as Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso and Cream Sherries. Fino Sherries such as Tio Pepe or Osborne Fino Quinta are bone dry with a light nutty character and are great as an aperitif or to sip while munching on roasted almonds. Manzanilla Sherries, such as Burdon Manianilla, are also bone dry but have a slightly salty characteristic as a result of the humidity and the sea breezes off the coast in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
This style of fortified wine is a delicious aperitif when served with green olives or sardines and are an interesting match with oysters. lino and Manzanilla Sherries are best served chilled. Their fresh flavours don’t last, so consume them within days of opening. They also make a handy substitute for white wine in many recipes. Amontillado Sherries like the Savory and James and Oloroso styles such as Gonzales Byass Nutty Solera are a little weightier, usually 18% alcohol, and have an inviting mahogany colour as a result of wood aging. You’ll also this fortified wine to be richer and often sweeter than Fino Sherries. They are great to sip on a cool evening and make a good partner for full bodied soups.
Cream Sherries are the richest Sherries and are best served on their own at the end of a meal. They are suitable for serving with trifle, or for a new twist, substitute Harvey’s Bristol Cream for red vermouth when making a Manhattan.
Port fortified wine is certainly becoming more and more popular. Some would argue that they are best with nuts or strong, flavourful blue cheeses like Stilton; others might say they add complexity to reduced wine sauces. I say they need nothing but good company with which to share them.
Port is made in a variety of styles-White, Ruby, Late-bottled Vintage, Vintage and Tawny. When making Port, the fermentation is stopped by the addition of a grape spirit which preserves some of the wine’s natural sweetness. White Ports are delicious as an aperitif served over ice with a slice of lemon. Be sure to try Fonseca White Port or Dow’s Fine While Port.
Ruby Port is a good introductory style for the new Port fan. Bottled at a young age it retains its deep ruby colour, jammy plum fruit flavors and warm finish. Good examples of this style are Kopke Full Rich Ruby and Sandeman Ruby.
Moving up the scale we have late-bottled Vintage Port such as Taylor’s Reserve LBV and Delaforce LBV. LBV Port is made from the fruit of a single year and is aged for four to six years before bottling. These wines tend to have more intense fruit aromas of cherry and vanilla, with perhaps a hint of toffee and a lovely warm finish. LBV and Ruby Style Ports do not need decanting and are good to have on hand for cool evenings by the fire.
Every collector searches for Vintage Ports. The British tradition is to buy Vintage Port for newborn children and let it gracefully mature along with them, often opening the bottle in celebration of their 21st birthday. Vintage Ports are only made in the best years. They are aged in barrels for only two years then continue maturing in the bottle. These wines do go the distance, requiring 15 to 25 years or more to reach their peak. When aged, they require decanting as they throw a sediment made up of pieces of skin, pulp and tannins in the bottle that, while harmless, may not be what you want in your glass. Once opened, Vintage Ports are best consumed within a few days. Tawny is another Port style, so called because it takes on a brownish tawny colour from aging in the barrel, rather than in the bottle. These Ports do not need decanting even when they are 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years old and they are great on their own or over ice. Rozes Tawny Port has a brick red colour, aromas of dried fruit and a slight nuttiness on the palate. The dried fruit flavors continue and end with a nice warm finish. Fonseca 20 Year Old is also a good example of an aged tawny.
Madeira is named after the place it comes from, a volcanic island off the coast of Morocco. It is a fortified wine that is heated or baked during the manufacturing process, yet retains a high level of natural acidity. Balanced with high alcohol these qualities allow good quality Madeira to age longer than any other wine in the world. (food quality Madeira can put a dent in your pocketbook, but if you are feeling rich and want to experience some history try a 100 year-old masterpiece, Pereira D’Oliveira Verdelho Madeira 1900. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the curious should try Casas Dos Vinhos Fine Old Madeira, which offers rich, baked mincemeat and dried fruit aromas, full lasting flavours and a warm finish. It is excellent after dinner with nuts or hard cheeses, and will also add a lot of character to rich sauces.
Marsala is a fortified dessert wine from the hot plains western Sicily and one we know best for its contribution to the famous veal sauce or to the dessert Zabaglione. Despite its Italian origins, it was invented by an Englishman in the 18th century, who decided the best way to ship the wine from Sicily to London was to fortify it by adding brandy. Largely due to lax production habits during the 1960’s it fell from fashion, but has recently enjoyed a justifiable return to favor as quality soared. Vecchiofiorio Marsala Superiore Dry is a good example of a mid-range, wood-aged Marsala. Try it on the rocks after dinner. You may also want to see: Cooking with Fortified Wines.