Storming the Fort

There’s a world of wine out there beyond the basic (ahem) take grapes add yeast formula. That’s the world of fortified wine.

What is a fortified wine?

You’ve no doubt heard of them primarily in the names port and sherry.

What’s this fortified business?

Fortified wines are wines that have had a distilled spirit (usually brandy) added to them. The process
originated in the 17th & 18th centuries as a way of preserving wine.

In some cases, the spirits are added after the wine has been made (like sherry) while in other cases, the addition of a spirit is a part of the process for making the wine.

If spirits are added after the wine is made, the resulting drink will be dry, while adding spirits during fermentation results in a sweeter style. Fortified wines are often much stronger than table wines, and deserve to be treated differently.

Instead of treating them like you would a table wine, think of them more as an apertif or an after-dinner drink. These styles of wine originated in the 17th & 18th centuries as a way of preserving wine.

There are a wide range of different fortified wine styes, including port, sherry, Madiera, Marsala, vermouth and others. To keep it simple, I’ll focus on port and sherry which have the widest availability here in Manitoba, and can pair well with some foods.

Port

Port is probably the best-known fortified wine. It’s a sweet wine (with the only exception being some white ports – which I’ve never seen) and usually contains an alcohol level of around 20%.

Technically (and legally) only Portugal produces real “Port,” but the Australians make some beautiful tawny ports that stand up well to the Portuguese style.

Port starts off as red (or rarely white) table wine. But the winemaker stops the fermentation process by adding a distilled spirit to the wine before all the naturally occurring sugars have been converted to alcohol.

This is where Port’s sweetness comes from. As you’ll see, there are a number of different types of port.

Again, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus on only five styles, leaving aside rose port, reserve port and the ever-popular “crusted” port (worst name ever).

Vintage

This style is produced entirely from the harvest of one exceptional year and it tends to be the most flavourful of ports – dark, rich and full-bodied.

Unfortunately for port-lovers, it accounts for a small percentage of port production and is the most expensive of all styles.

If you’re a fan, have deep pockets or a lot of patience, as vintage port usually takes ten to fifteen years to reach its peak. Having said all that, a good vintage port really has few equals in the wine world.

Wineries will “declare” a vintage year based on the quality of the wine. This is done the year after the harvest.

Occasionally, a winery will decide that the overall harvest isn’t worthy of a vintage designation, but certain vineyards are, and they’ll bottle what’s known as a “single-quinta” port.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)

LBV is similar to vintage in that it is port of a high quality from one year only, although not always a vintage year. Confusing? Not surprising.

The key thing here is that these wines are usually ready to drink right away and often cost a lot less than a good vintage port. They see four to six years of ageing in barrels before being bottled, and can be very tasty.

Ruby

This is a much younger, blended port and is often much lighter than vintage or LBV ports are because it’s aged in stainless steel or concrete instead of wood. This port can be chilled and served as an aperitif or as a digestif.

It is a great introduction to port, but don’t keep the bottles sitting around for too long as ruby port doesn’t lend itself well to long ageing.

Tawny

This is a style of port that has been aged in small wooden casks (a.k.a. pipes). Upon bottling, wine is taken from different pipes to produce a lighter (“tawny”) port.

Without a  specific age designation on the label, tawny ports will be at least two years old. But most are sold after at least ten years of age, and you’ll find ten, twenty, thirty and (rarely) forty year-old tawny port on the shelves.

I find the tastes and aromas to be more delicate than your typical vintage or LBV, with lots of caramel, candied fruit and honey aromas. But they’re still port, and can be quite strong.

Incidentally, a 40-year-old tawny can be one of the greatest bargains in the world of wine if you can find one.

White

Not surprisingly, this style of Port is made from white grapes (hence the name). They tend to be bottled young and unlike other ports, you can find drier styles of white port. At least that’s the rumour; I’ve never come across one.

Try them chilled in the summertime, or use them as a base for cocktails. I was once served a cocktail made with white port, club soda, ice and muddled basil. It was delicious, refreshing and seriously addictive. I wish I still had the exact recipe.

Pairing Port

Port can be a tough match with food, as the strong alcohol and sweetness don’t lend themselves well to your average meal.

I wouldn’t crack open a bottle of LBV to pair with a pizza or steak. Instead, try matching it with an equally strong but contrasting taste.

In my opinion, the oldest vintage ports are probably best on their own, although Stilton and vintage port is a traditional pairing. Walnuts and pears also work well, and some tawnies or other lighter ports can go well with creamier cheeses, such as Brie.

Through years of dedicated research, I’ve found that creamy desserts such as tiramisu or crème brulee can really well with aged tawny port. And for a real treat (purists – please skip the rest of this sentence) try some LBV port the next time you slice up a big chocolate cake. Your teeth may never recover, but you’ll enjoy it.

Sherrry

Sherry can be a real bargain. These wines aren’t as well-known as ports are, and you can still find some extremely well-priced sherries on Manitoba store shelves. Talk to someone in your friendly neighbourhood MLCC or wine store for more advice. You may be surprised by what you find.

Sherry is a fortified wine from the Jerez region of Spain. Unlike Port, it is made from white grapes and the spirit is added after fermentation, making it a drier wine.

The different styles of sherry can be divided into two categories. Oloroso wines are fortified after the fermentation is complete while Finos and Manzanilla gain their distinctive taste though a biological aging process under a layer of yeast called flor.

This yeast (known as flor) grows on the surface of the wine after fermentation, insulating it from air. This allows the yeast to feed off the wine, and allows the sherry to draw its flavour and aromas from the yeast.

The wines are fortified up to 15% alcohol, to allow the flor to grow. Beyond this, the alcohol levels become toxic tothe yeast and it can’t grow.

Manzanilla

A variation of fino made only in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The lightest, palest, and most delicate of all sherries, it often shows off an almost salty tang with lots of acidity.

Chill it very well and pair with fresh shellfish for a treat. You can occasionally find an aged version of Manzanilla called Pasada, which is richer and nutty-tasting.

Fino

Typically, Fino has a bitter almond note. Like Manzanilla, it makes an excellent aperitif or accompaniment to food. Serve chilled and young and try not to keep an open bottle around for more than a day or two.

Amontillado

A fino sherry that has been allowed to age until it loses its flor, resulting in an amber, perfumed nutty wine. Drier and moderately sweet amontillados can be a good apertif, while the sweetest versions are best served after a meal as digestifs.

Oloroso

Sherry aged with direct contact with air producing a darker, richer wine with nutty, raisinlike charactaristics. Some are bottled dry, and make particularly fine matches for richly flavored foods. Like amontillado, oloroso shows best at room temperature.

Cream

A style of sweetened dessert oloroso originating in England. This style was developed for export, and is most often consumed after a meal, or at afternoon tea with your grandmother.

Can Sherry Share the Spotlight with Food?

Let me be honest here, I’m not a huge fan of sherry so I don’t have any real favourites to pair with it. But conventional wisdom suggests that lighter sherries (fino and manzanilla) are best served well-chilled before a meal either on their own or with lighter appetizers. Seafood can be a very good match, as can olives and almonds. Look to your local tapas bar for inspiration.

Richer sherries are usually served after a meal, and there’s a school of thought that suggests pairing creamy desserts (like trifle) with cream sherries.

SavourWinnipeg.com wine editor Alec Stuart has been in and out of the wine industry since 1996 and has spent the last ten years handling wine education for the Kenaston Wine MarketIf you have a question for Alec or a suggestion for a future feature, drop us a line.

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