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Pass the Madeira my dear!


October 2018

glasses of fortified wines
Sherry and port are just two of many types of fortified wine

As the weather gets colder and the days get darker, a little “winter warmer” can be appealing.

Have a little Madeira, my dear? Fortified wines were popular and really very common a generation or two the extent they were even sung about (Flanders and Swann had a hugely popular hit in the late 1950s with their cheeky little Madeira song).

Fortified wines were especially popular with older people and generally it was assumed that “fortified” wines offered a little extra health benefit that would help perk one up. They may indeed have perked one up, but the “health benefit” was not a magical medicinal property but simply a higher alcohol content!

Fortified wines resulted from a need to preserve European wines on long trade voyages during the 16th and 17th centuries. The simple alcohol ethanol has antiseptic properties. It was found that on the long sea voyages, fortified wines, or wines with a higher alcohol level, withstood the wide range of temperatures and constant motion found on the journeys better than normal wine.

So initially measures of brandy were added to the wine before or during the fermentation process. These wines contained around 17 to 21 per cent alcohol and this made them more stable and less likely to spoil once opened.

Today of course other preservation methods exist, but fortification is still being used because the process adds a unique flavour and finish. There is also much more knowledge now about the chemical reactions and results that occur during producing various alcoholic drinks. Today, while brandy is still often used in fortified wines, other neutral spirits distilled from grapes, grains or sugar can also be used.

Key factors which affect the finished product include the type of spirit being used; the type of wine the spirit is added to and interestingly, the point at which the spirit is added. For instance, when brandy is added before fermentation, the result is a sweet fortified wine with a high sugar content; when the brandy is added after the fermentation, the result is a dry fortified wine.

There are four main types of fortified wines that are popular today: Madeira wine (named from Madeira Island); Marsala wine (from Sicily and possibly the best known fortified wine); port wines from Portugal and sherry wines named from Jerez in south Spain).

The tastes of all fortified wines are different and you have to try them to determine their individual characteristics and the ones you like. Most fall in the range of between 15% to 20% alcohol by volume level.

Madeira wine
Madeira is made differently from other fortified wines, and is subjected to high temperatures for an extended period of time. This is traditionally accomplished by the construction of stone buildings that are known as estufas. These contain compartments that house the wine during their periods of exposure to higher temperatures. It is the amount of time that the wine is kept in these estufas that helps to determine the type and quality of the end product.

Madeira wine is light brown and can be sweet or dry. The best Madeiras are aged for decades and include Sercial which is very dry; Verdelho which is medium; Bual which is rich and raisiny and Malmsey, which is the sweetest of the Madeiras. Madeira is often used in cooking, but it can also be delightful to drink.

Marsala wine
Marsala wine is named for the town of Marsala on the western tip of Sicily. It is made in the "solera" tradition - a melding of years. First, a keg is filled with wine from the current vintage of grapes. Subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom (oldest) keg, it is refreshed with liquid from the next keg up, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle should have some liquid from the very first vintage.

There are a number of different types of Marsala, including Fine which is 17° alcohol and has been aged for around a year; Superiore, which has 18° alcohol and has been aged for around two years; Superiore Riserva which has the same level of alcohol but has been aged slightly longer, probably around four years; and Vergine Soleras, again with 18° alcohol but has been aged for five years.

Marsala was traditionally served between the first and second courses of a meal but is now also served at various stages of a meal and sometimes chilled and drunk with Parmesan (stravecchio), Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other spicy cheeses. It is very popular for use in cooking.

Port wines
Originally port came from the city of Oporto in Northern Portugal. It is generally a rich red wine and comes in a number of different styles.

Basic red port is a blend of several harvests that have been aged in wooden barrels for up to three years before being bottled. It is a warming sweet wine with a bright ruby colour.

There is also a tawny port. This port is given longer to age in the barrel before being bottled, anything between three to 40 years, and this causes the wine to take on a red brown colour with a dry nutty flavour with raisin overtones. Beware though, as many basic tawny ports that you buy in normal supermarkets and shops have been made by adding a little white port to a basic red. This is cheaper but does not have the real flavour of a true tawny port.

White port is made commonly from the white arinto, gouveio, malvasia and viosinho grapes. It is made in both sweet and dry styles and is intended to be drunk, slightly chilled, as an aperitif.

The most superior port is vintage port. There are strict controls on when a port can officially be called vintage: the wine must be from a single harvest, it must be bottled between 1st July of the second year following harvest, and before the 30th June of the third; and the maker must submit samples of the wine to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto.

Vintage port is only made when the harvest is exceptional which, since the 1914-1918 world war, has been about three times a decade. It is aged in a barrel for between two and three years and has to be bottled un-filtered. It needs to be laid down for a considerable number of years so that it can age in bottle.

Sherry Wine
Sherry is made from only white grapes such as the palomino, pedro ximenez and the moscatel grape. It was originally made in the region around Jerez in southern Spain which gave it its name. The best vineyards have a very chalky soil with concentrations of lime and magnesium which all add to the uniqueness of the flavour.

Sherry comes in a wide range of varieties, light to dark and dry to sweet and the style is decided during fermentation.

Fino is one of the palest and driest sherries while amontillado is dark and rich with a nutty flavour. Sherry is often thought of as a before dinner drink, but it is equally good after a meal and Amoroso sherry, a brown sweet version, is very popular as an after dinner drink. The sweetest sherry is called a cream sherry.

There are also many other fortified wines on the market now, such as Commandaria wine, made from vines grown in high altitudes on Cyprus, and Vermouth, which is a fortified wine with additional aromatics.

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