Fortified for the festivities
They may be the ugly ducklings of the wine world but what’s better than a warming glass of port, a nutty sherry or a rich Madeira on these cold winter nights, asks JOHN WILSON
Neglected and ignored, fortified wines are usually relegated to the bottom shelf in most wine shops. Yet these ugly ducklings of the wine world are some of the most complex and long-lived wines of all, with an honourable history going back centuries.
In the not too distant past, we drank huge quantities of fortified wine in this country. However, images of crusty gout-ridden old colonels with a glass of port, or grannies with a bottle of cheap sweet sherry did little to appeal to a new generation of wine-drinkers. Sales have plummeted over the last 20 years.
As with any wine, it is all a matter of how and when you drink it.
Fortified wines should not be consumed in large quantities, although they can be served alongside a meal.
A fino sherry may be a mere 15 per cent in alcohol (the same as many red wines), but port and Madeira are a heartwarming 20-22 per cent. A small glass of something really good is the best option.
I spoil myself with a bottle of Sercial, a drier Madeira, each Christmas, and will certainly do the same this year. I find a bottle will usually last right through Christmas, sipped a glass at a time when the mood takes me.
In addition, in the Danish tradition, my reward for putting up the Christmas tree is a glass of port and a warm mince pie, so a decent bottle of port is essential too.
Fortifying a wine simply means adding grape brandy at some stage in the winemaking process. This was originally done to preserve or strengthen the wines. This was important if they were to make long voyages to Northern Europe or later to India, the Americas, and finally Australia. It was quickly realised that the fortification process changed the nature of a wine, sometimes for the better, and a new category of drink came into being.
Although you will find them in other countries, Spain and Portugal can claim to make the greatest fortified wines, Spain with sherry, Portugal with Madeira and port, along with a few others.
Madeira is supposed to have been invented by accident. Ships bound for the East Indies often took on supplies of fortified wine before departing Europe. This had the twin advantages of providing ballast on the outward journey and supplying the colonies with much needed sustenance. (In time some colonies, South Africa and Australia in particular, developed their own very good fortified wines which were exported back to the UK).