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This chapter is from the book

Fortified Wines: Porto, Sherry, and Madeira

Fortified wines are fortified by the addition of extra alcohol in the form of brandy or spirits to bring them up to an alcohol content of 18%–20%. Porto, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, and Vermouth are all fortified wines. If the extra alcohol is added after fermentation, a dry fortified wine such as Sherry is the outcome. Adding the alcohol during fermentation results in a sweet wine such as Porto.

Marsala is made from white grapes grown on the volcanic soil of the island of Sicily, Italy. Marsala has a burnt caramel flavor and is 18%–20% alcohol like all fortified wines. The sweet all’uovo (egg) version is used in desserts such as Zabaglione. Dry secco Marsala is used when cooking veal. Marsala can also be flavored.

Vermouth made in the Piedmont area of northwest Italy is used worldwide as a cocktail or in cocktails. All vermouth is fortified wine with many herbal ingredients based on secret family recipes from long ago. Three types of Vermouth exist: rosso is a sweet red, bianco is a medium-sweet white, and secco is a dry white used in martinis. The main brands are Cinzano and Martini & Rossi.

Porto and sherry are two very popular fortified wines. The following sections discuss these wines in more detail.

Porto From Portugal

Port originated in Portugal, where it is called Porto to distinguish it from ports made elsewhere in the world. In Portugal, Port or Porto (the term I prefer to use for Portuguese Port) is defined as the sweet red, tawny, or white fortified wines bottled in Oporto (or its sister city), which is where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean and the Porto companies are headquartered. White Porto is used as an aperitif or before-dinner wine, or mixed with tonic water to make a refreshing drink. But Portugal’s most famous Portos are the higher priced, deep, black-red Vintage Porto; the more moderately priced and slightly less inky Late-Bottled Vintage Porto; the very affordable Ruby (red) Porto; and the fine 10- or 20-year-old Tawny Portos that are caramel or tawny brown around the edges.

The grapes for Porto are grown far inland from the sea in the quintas or vineyards located on steep, rocky cliffs above the Douro River. Many types of black grapes are planted, including the most important variety, Touriga Nacional.

All Porto starts out as sweet wine, because the fermentation is stopped at a mid-point by racking the wine into barrels containing brandy, which kills the yeast. (Please note that this is one of the eight ways to make sweet dessert wines; you will learn about the other techniques later in this chapter.) The brandy not only kills the yeast and stops it from fermenting any more grape sugar, but it also fortifies the Porto to 20% alcohol.

Porto is classified as Vintage Porto only in the declared great vintage years of exceptional quality. This means that Portuguese Porto and French Champagne are the only two wines in the world that do not put a vintage year every year on the bottle. So any Vintage Porto or Vintage French Champagne is from a great vintage year.

Vintage Porto is a collector’s item because it can live and improve in the bottle for decades. The high alcohol, sugar, and tannin content of the Porto are what preserve it. That’s why most Porto is bottled in opaque black bottles to keep light from the wine. Vintage Porto is aged in oak barrels for just two years, so it will throw a heavy sediment in the bottle as it ages. This must be decanted or separated from the Vintage Porto before serving. It is the most deep black-red color of any Porto, with lush aromas of licorice, chocolate, and black cherry.

Other classifications of Porto include the more moderately priced Late-Bottled Vintage (abbreviated LBV) that are from single vintage years but are aged longer in wood where it throws most of its sediment (LBV is not bottled until 4 to 6 years after harvest), which means it usually doesn’t have to be decanted, especially if it’s been filtered. Ruby Porto is a blend of vintages that is aged in casks for 2 to 3 years. It has a ruby red color and can be a real bargain. Finally, Tawny Porto is a lovely light tawny brown or caramel color around the edges. The Tawny Portos with indicated age, such as 10 or 20 years old and older are the best, tasting of lace cookies, candied orange, and spice. Australia makes a lot of award-winning Tawny Port.

The sugars in the wine have caramelized, making Tawny Porto a perfect partner for flan, shortbread cookies, pound cake, bread pudding, pumpkin pie, and spice or carrot cake. Tawny Porto also marries well with triple crème cheeses.

Besides chocolate, Zinfandel Port (from California), Ruby (not Tawny) Porto, Vintage, or LBV Porto (the latter three are from Portugal) are perfect matches with the English blue cheese called Stilton. At posh wine tastings, you may see a huge wheel of this exquisite blue-veined cheese on display next to the Porto, which is its classic partner on a continental menu. Sometimes they go one step further. They poke holes in the Stilton cheese and then pour the Porto into the holes so that it works its way down and turns the cheese red. Then they cut wedges of the Port-soaked Stilton for serving. Americans took this idea and made "port cheese balls" of cheddar with artificial pink color. Not the same thing, but any blue cheese is great with any ruby style port. Try it!

Sherry From Spain

Sherry is the fortified wine originally created in the area of Jerez de la Frontera (where we got the word Sherry) on the Atlantic Ocean in southwest Spain. The best Sherry vineyards have chalk soil, and the great white grape of Sherry is called Palomino. All Sherry starts out as a dry white wine and, therefore, is fermented to dryness. To make Cream Sherry and other sweeter styles, a sweeter white wine is added. In the case of Cream Sherry, the winemaker can add a golden wine made from naturally sweet Pedro Ximenes (abbreviated PX) grapes, or the lesser Moscatel grape. (This is one of the eight ways to make a sweet dessert wine, which you will learn about later in this chapter.)

Only the very rare Añada Spanish Sherry is ever vintage-dated, but there are new categories of Age-Dated Spanish Sherry: VOS (Very Old Sherry) and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry), which are respectively certified a minimum of 20 and 30 years old. All other Spanish Sherries are made in a solera system that blends each new vintage into the year-old casks of wine below it in a "nursery" of barrels representing as many as 30 vintages. Wine is drawn from the oldest barrels for bottling, which makes space for younger wines to be added and integrated into the older wines. This produces a consistent taste year after year. It may take from 12 to 30 years to establish a solera.

The two major grape varieties used to make Sherry—Palomino and Pedro Ximenez—are kept in separate soleras until the final blending. While still in the barrels, the Sherry is classified according to whether natural flor (meaning flower) yeast is growing on the surface of the wine in the barrels. The barrels are filled only 7/8 full to leave an air space for the fortunate but elusive flor to grow. The barrels that develop flor yeast are destined to produce the driest and finest types of Sherry, such as Fino, Manzanilla, and Amontillado. These and all of the other types of Spanish Sherry are explained below.

The types of Spanish Sherry are

  • Fino, which is the lightest, most delicate and some say driest of the Spanish Sherries. Served chilled with Tapas appetizers

  • Manzanilla, which is also very dry, has a salty taste because it is aged in barrels placed outdoors on the beach where the sea air penetrates the porous wood

  • Amontillado, which tastes more medium-dry to me, has a pronounced nutty flavor that makes it perfect in and with soups

  • Oloroso, which means beautiful aroma, is dry but a richer, fuller-bodied style of Sherry

  • Palo Cortado, is a rare type of Fino that loses its flor yeast and acquires a character between Amontillado and Oloroso

  • Cream, which is the sweetest type of Sherry, is suitable on its own after dinner, or with dessert

Spanish Sherries have either cork stoppers or screw caps that allow you to easily remove and replace them so you can use as little or as much as you like at a time. And since all but the Finos are fortified to a strength of 18% to 20% alcohol, you can keep them for a couple of months in your kitchen cabinet.

If you can only have one white wine on hand in the kitchen to use in cooking, your best bet is an Amontillado Sherry. It is perfect for cooking fish, soups, sauces, and beans because it makes them easier to digest. You could also use dry Vermouth as cooking wine, but an Amontillado Sherry has more flavor, color, and concentrated richness. Do not buy "cooking sherry"—it has additives and a lot of sodium. A real Spanish Sherry costs just $6 to $12 per bottle.

Madeira My Dear

Madeira is a fortified wine made on the island of Madeira, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles off the coast of Portugal. Madeira wine has been famous since the time of the 13 American colonies when the wine was sent in sailing ships, which took up to 2 years to reach our shores. During that time the thin, dry, acidic white Madeira wine was rocked and heated in its barrels until when it reached its destination it was a caramel-colored, sweet, concentrated wine. Since then Madeira wine has been baked to re-create this effect, and is the only wine in the world that is madeirized or oxidized on purpose to achieve a perfection of deep brown color and burnt sugar richness.

Madeira is usually a varietal wine named after the white grape variety used to make it. The five types of Madeira are

  • Sercial, the driest type, used in Beef Wellington recipes and sauces for main courses and soups.

  • Verdelho, called Verdejo in Spain, has slightly more body, color and richness, but is still very dry.

  • Bual, which is very similar to Verdelho, is also considered a dry style of Madeira.

  • Rainwater, which is a blend of varietals, is light and medium-dry in style and first became popular among America’s founding fathers at the time of the 13 original colonies.

  • Malmsey, the sweetest type, is made from the Malvasia grape and is used in the dessert called English Trifle, which consists of layers of cake, pudding, and fruit.

To make sweet Malmsey Madeira the fermentation is stopped in the middle to leave some of the natural grape sugar in the wine. All Madeira is baked in rooms as hot as ovens for several months. Then the wine is fortified to 20% alcohol and most of it is placed in a solera system for aging and blending. Like Sherry, Madeira is not usually vintage-dated. However, some Madeiras indicate age, such as a 5 or 10 year old Malmsey, and so forth.

Madeira is a little more expensive than Sherry, but is terrific in sauces and soups—especially bisques or cream soups because it keeps them from curdling and makes them taste richer. And all Madeira comes with a cork stopper so you can use a little at a time for cooking or drinking over a couple of months. Other countries also make Madeira, but it is not as good as the original from the island of Madeira.

To do list

  • Learn the eight types of dessert wines

  • Understand how winemaking techniques determine dessert wine types

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