Having spent many years behind the bar, I can always spot the
"deer-in-the-headlights" look that even an experienced bartender gets when asked about Sherry, Port or Madeira. And, why not? Most bartending schools do not address the matter
perhaps they feel itıs not really in the spirit category. Most wine students, teachers, writers and enthusiasts invest a mere fraction of attention to the topic-perhaps they feel itıs not a true table wine.
Today we bartenders are slinging cocktails dominated by vodka. This great category seems to get stuck in limbo between wines and spirits, when the truth of the matter is: fortified wines actually bridge the gap between wines and spirits because they contain both
- a wine and a spirit. "Fortified" means "strengthened," a wine that has been strengthened with a distilled spirit, usually a grape brandy.
There are six basic groups of fortified wines: Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Vermouth and even Muscat (Moscatel). The final alcohol level for these wines will range anywhere from 15% to 22% ABV. I will concentrate on the first three to hopefully reduce some bartender insecurity that we may have experienced.
The first thing to know about Port and Sherry is that they are different, very different. Port is produced in the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal; Sherry is produced in the province of Andalucia in Southern Spain. Port is mostly made with red grapes; Sherry with white grapes. But, if you are going to remember only one difference between them, remember this: Sherry is generally dry; Port is sweet. During the production of Sherry, the wine is allowed to fully ferment before the addition of the brandy resulting in a dry fortified wine. In other words, all the sugar in the grape juice has been consumed by the yeast and then it is strengthened with the spirit. When making Port, the distilled spirit is added during fermentation which stops the process and results in residual sugar in the fortified wine. Therefore, the dry Sherry will generally make for a better aperitif, while the sweeter Port will make for a better digestif.
A few other things to note about Port. Ruby Port will continue to age in the bottle like red wine. These will keep their ruby, purple color and a good amount of grape in the flavor. If it is a Vintage Port (1989, 1991, etc.) it may need to be decanted. Tawny Port will be aged in an oak cask and will be brownish in color and will take on the character of the wood.
These oak-aged ports are filtered prior to bottling so decanting is not necessary
- however, they will also have a number on the label. This number depicts the age of the port, e.g., 10 = ten years in the oak barrel.
Madeira is made on the island of the same name off the North African coast near Portugal. This wine evolved during the East India trading routes by ship during the 1600s. Similar to how the Pale Ale beer category began its evolution (IPA - East India Pale Ale, e.g., Bass), Pale Ale had the slightly higher alcohol content and was
"hopped" heavier to survive the trip to the East Indies; Madeira had its grape brandy fortification. This wine didnıt only endure the tortuous travel by ship, but improved because of it. Today Madeira is made in
"lodges" specifically designed to recreate the sweltering heat of ship travel. The techniques for exposing the barrels to heat may vary from lodge to lodge
- one heating system is the use of an estufa (stove). Another technique is storing the barrels in the attic spaces of the lodges. Not only is the roof absorbing the tropical sun, but the walls have hot-water pipes running through them! This
"baking" of the wine results in a honey-sweet caramel aroma.
The main things to know about Madeira are the four basic styles. Remember, Madeira is named after the island, not the grape varietals. Luckily, the four styles of Madeira are named after the grapes, so knowing the styles you automatically know the grapes that are in them. Sercial is the palest and driest style of Madeira. Then comes Verdelho which is slightly sweeter. Bual is sweeter and darker and, finally, Malmsey the sweetest of the four. The first two styles are usually made like sherry where the sugar is almost fully fermented before the brandy is added. The last two styles are closer to the way Port is made by interrupting the fermentation with grape spirit leaving residual sugar in the Madeira.
The best way to feel a little more confident with these beverages is to taste them either side-by-side or when you are out for dinner or having drinks. Instead of having vodka-cranberry before, during and after dinner, treat yourself to a Sherry or a Sercial Madeira before dinner. Or finish the night with a Port or even Malmsey. But, most importantly, donıt forget that if itıs behind your bar, it is fair game to use as an ingredient in cocktails. Since vodka seems to be a must these days, try making a Portini: equal parts Port and vodka, a squeeze of orange juice, and sprinkle of nutmeg work well with it. Or, try a White Portini
- a rare white Port with vodka. I add a splash of simple syrup to this one to replenish the sweetness that the vodka reduced. Your can also experiment by making mini-sangrias with Port or Madeira.