Fortified for the festivities


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).

It was discovered that when going through baking hot temperatures, the wine changed character, and gained an extra complexity. As a result, producers in Madeira began to “cook” their wine in estufagem, or ovens, on the island. Thus further strengthened, Madeira is almost immune to oxidation, and can last for a century or more in cask or bottle. Once opened, a bottle will last for weeks, unlike almost any other wine.

Port is better-known than Madeira in Ireland. It comes in two basic styles, vintage or tawny. Vintage port needs to be aged in a bottle, and will keep 20 years or more. Its little brothers, ruby and late-bottled vintage, are released ready-to-drink. All are ruby in colour, with red fruit flavours. Tawny port is aged in cask and therefore tastes more of nuts, wood, and caramel. Tawnies are probably better with sweet foods, vintage-style ports with blue cheese.

I have covered sherry, the great fortified wine of Spain many times. At this time of year, I tend towards the richer nuttier styles, such as Amontillado or Oloroso. Both make magnificent fireside wines.

I wrote previously about “en rama” fino sherries, which are bottles unfiltered and unfined. Last month, I received two bottles, one from Sherry, the other from a neighbouring region. The Alvear Fino en rama from Montilla-Moriles (Quintessential Wines, Drogheda) is well worth seeking out.

In addition, the sherry below, from one of my favourite producers, has finally arrived in this country.


Delgado Zuleta Goya XL Manzanilla en rama, 15%, €23 per litreA wonderful complex dry wine, finishing crisp and dry.

Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule; Black Pig, Donnybrook; La Touche wines4u, Greystones.

Quinta da Gaivosa 10-year-old Tawny Port, de Sousa, 20%, €24.99Sweet damsons and milk chocolate on the nose. A fruit-filled palate with a long finish.

Stockists: Wines on the Green, Dawson St.; McCabe’s, Blackrock.

Barbeito Special Old Reserve 10 years old Sercial Madeira, 19%, €29.99This is a lovely dry Madeira, with aromas of orange peel and nuts.

Stockists: 64 Wines, Glasthule; World Wide Wines, Waterford.

Petit Guiraud 2010, Sauternes 13.5% €19.99The second wine of one of the top Chateaux, this is a delicious sweet but balanced wine.

Stockists: McCabe’s, Blackrock; Mitchell’s, IFSC and Sandycove.

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