Holding the fort… fortified wines

The history of fortified wine is inextricably linked to sea voyages of varying durations so it’s an appropriate topic for Tom Harrow to delve into

Thanks especially to the appetites of Brits at home and in the colonies there was a requirement to ensure wines were able to withstand ocean crossings without spoiling. Fortifying them was the best option to ensure their stability and longevity. Whilst the market has declined considerably since the glory days of Empire, sherry has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent decades, and latterly even Port seems to be shrugging off it’s image as the sole preserve of the gout-ridden denizens of St James’ clubs.

BV Port
These are single-vintage ports but matured for five or more years in big oak barrels to accelerate their evolution. The commonly available filtered styles are perfectly drinkable if a little anodyne, but those marked “Unfiltered” are worth more time seeking out. They will have sediment and need decanting like (proper) vintage Port. Port is great value at the best of times and Unfiltered LBVs possibly the best value of all, especially given that you don’t have to wait 20-40 years for them to be drinking at their most pleasurable and complex. Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta de la Rosa, Niepoort and Dow all make interesting examples.

Palo Cortado
The king of sherries, choice of connoisseurs, and the most versatile if expensive type. Palo Cortado begins life as a light, yeasty fino style, maturing in barrels under a thick blanket of flor yeast, but then finishes ageing oxidatively like a rich, nutty Oloroso. A long time in the making, this is a wine for contemplation, but it also works as well snacking with salted almonds and olives as accompanying a rare rib of beef. Some bodegas who have fine examples of regular bottlings include Maestro Sierra, Valdespino, Hidalgo and best of all Tradicion.

The longest lived wines in the world (and many would say the greatest value) come from this small island in the north Atlantic. Discovered by accident in 16th century, after months at sea and being warmed by equatorial crossings was shown to improve the wine’s quality. As a result the method of production today still involves gently heating the wine to enhance its evolution and ensure its indestructibility. It’s not uncommon to find bottles that date back to the early 1900s, and even 1800s, and even fifty-year old bottles can be found for under €110 and last for months once opened. Styles are determined by grape variety and range from the driest – Sercial, to the sweetest – Malmsey. Houses to look out for are Blandy’s (the biggest), D’Olivieras, Leacock and a particular favourite, Barbeito.

Rutherglen Muscat
In the 1950s, fortified wines used to account for over 85% of Australia’s wine production with a wide variety of Tawny and Vintage Port styles being produced. Now this has shrunk dramatically down to less than 2% but one region, Rutherglen, in Victoria, continues to hold the fort(ifying), making some of the world’s greatest wines from the Muscat grape. The basic level is aged for 3-5 years and displays a mix of fresh and raisined fruits. The flavours and aromas get more complex and intense as you move up the grades from Classic to Grand to Rare. Top producers include Morris, Buller and Campbells, the most recognisable.

Although it doesn’t enjoy the same reputation as those of Spain and Portugal, Italy’s best known example of a fortified wine is produced from indigenous grape varieties grown in the west of Sicily. A former favourite of the British Navy, 500 barrels were ordered annually by Admiral Nelson for the fleet. Production is much reduced and more cheap Marsala is found in kitchens than on boats. Chilled, the younger Secco (drier) style makes for a refreshing aperitif. Cantine Florio is a prominent producer but the finest examples are from Marco de Bortoli and Curatolo Arini.