Enjoying Port Wine and Madeira
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Have you ever attended a large scale wine event, and wished that instead, you could spend an enjoyable hour or two sipping good wines, and learning about them from a knowledgeable person who enjoys sharing her information? How about if the wine seminar were held in a town mansion, and were reasonably priced?
That is what we recently experienced, in Washington, D.C., at an evening wine seminar on Port and Madeira wines. Ably led by Master Sommelier Ellen Kirsh (www.winematters.com), whose pleasant speaking style conveyed a thorough knowledge of her subject, the evening was organized by Giramondo Wine Associates (www.giramondowine.com). The $59 admission covered all costs, including tasting four superior port wines and two madeiras, a well selected cheese platter, and then, ample individually served Portuguese appetizers, a dinner in itself.
I have always been curious about these wines, and here was an opportunity to learn from an authority. Port of course is a staple of British clubs, and it often accompanies Stilton cheese at the end of a dinner. I don’t think that combination exhausts the possibilities where port wine may be enjoyed, by any means. Madeira on the other hand is said to have been a favorite of our eighteenth century founding fathers. (It was also a Victorian favorite, as the old Gay Nineties song, “Have some Madeira, my Dear!” suggests.)
The tasting was well thought out, even including papers for notetaking. I would also suggest either that glasses be numbered, or that numbered paper placemats be used, for at our table, two wines were poured not in succession, and it took some back and forth to sort out the proper order of the wines.
Port is a fortified wine, from a delineated region, the seventy mile long Upper Douro Valley of Portugal, and the Portuguese are just as insistent that nothing else is real port wine, as the French are about the provenance of champagne. The terroir is a steep and terraced area, said to be one of the most difficult wine growing areas in the world. The weather is harsh, and fortunately, the plants are anchored well by very deep roots so that, like the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of France, they may still get adequate water even in near drought conditions.
There are over 90 red and white grapes that can be grown, but the main red ones are Tinto Barroca (for alcohol, body and aroma), Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cao (spice), Touriga Francesca (floral aomas) and the most important, Touriga Nacional (color, flavor and aroma – good by itself as a red wine). Although mechanical grape crushing is, alas, making some inroads, the Portugese say there is nothing like the human foot for crushing grapes! That is because the human foot will crush the grapes without breaking their seeds, releasing harsh tannins. If your vacation coincides with grape harvesting, you will probably be invited to try your – foot – at crushing some grapes!
Port wine is fortified by the addition of brandy during the fermentation process, at a formula of one part brandy to four parts wine. Adding brandy, in addition to fortifying the wine (which reaches an alcohol level of 20%), kills yeasts, leaving more sugar and producing a sweet wine. There are many different styles of port wine. The two major types are either aged in wooden barrels (which are ready when you buy them), or bottle aged (keep them in your cellar). Thes wines are red. There is also a white port wine, which I have enjoyed as an apéritif in France, where this is popular, either Lagrima (sweet) or Leve Seco (dry). The French will also use port wine on melon, which is a delicious combination.
We tasted four different port wines: Ruby ($17 retail), Late Bottle Vintage or “LBV” ($19), Aged Tawny ($46), and Vintage ($50). The Taylor Fladgate Bin 27 Ruby Port, a blend of different years, was indeed straightforward with nice red fruit flavors, fresh and young. It was I think one dimensional and pleasant, but neither complex nor elegant, a starter wine for port, which is indeed what it is. On the other hand, the Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port was quite fruity, and far more elegant and complex. One would have thought this wine would be far more costly that the Ruby Port. With this wine available, who wouldn’t spend the extra $2 a bottle to buy it? Barrel aged for 4-6 years and made from a single vintage, this is said to be “the poor man’s vintage port,” and it clearly is a fine value for your money. Something to add to the trove of presents under the Christmas stocking?
The Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port was in another league entirely. These wines, barrel aged for 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, are said to be from the best ports of excellent vintages, not all of which, I was surprised to learn, are declared as vintage years. Ms. Kirsh told us that the general consensus is that 10-20 years is enough aging, without paying considerably extra for the wine (the French rapport qualité/prix). This wine was comewhat lighter in color, and was very smooth and silky. It was the consensus favorite of the tasters at our table.
Then we had the Cockburn’s 2003 Vintage Port. Vintages are not automatic, as in France. They are instead “declared” in the best years, and 2003 was clearly fine. Time will tell whether it is in the same class as 1977, let alone 1963. I found it to be a revelation of finesse and elegance, smooth and silky. This will be drinking well for many, many years, and should probably have been decanted before serving. It will have a very long bottle age. The style rather reminded me of Château Pichon Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande in an elegant year.
Madeira is grown on the islands of that name, some 625 miles west of the Portuguese mainland. Like the grapes for port wines, the grapes are grown on terraces. There are four main varieties, in order of sweetness: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malmsey. To the chosen varietal is added 15% of 40 to 60 year old Tinta Negra Mole for depth.
From the Rare Wine Company, which has produced a limited edition of varietal Madeira wines named for American seaports where Madeira was imported in the early days of our Republic, we enjoyed “Charleston” Sercial and “New York” Malmsey (either one $44 retail).
The Sercial was lighter in color and indeed dryer, with nutty flavors. It would go perfectly with turtle soup. It had a rather high acidity, like a good sherry. By contrast, the “New York” Malmsey, much darker in color, had a toffee note and was sweet, but not overly so. It might well, as suggested, accompany a chocolate dessert. It would also create some favorable table conversation about the imaginative hosts who served it.
Madeira production is said to attempt to recreate the effect that British shippers found who had imported this wine centuries ago. It was found that a long voyage, particularly in hot weather, totally transformed the wine into something different and delicious. Now, there are different production methods. The wine is fortified before fermentation ends, like port wine. Then it is heated. Lesser quality wine is heated in stainless steel tanks. Up the scale is barrel aging, in heated rooms. The “best way to do it,” however, is the Canteiro method of putting the barrels in the attic of the winey, where it can get quite hot – then just leave them there for 20 to 50 years! This produces a very cooked wine, said to be the best Madeira of all. Aging in barrels begins after this cooking process is completed!
So have some Port or Madeira this holiday season. Who knows – your latest holiday tradition may well be to enjoy one of the oldest wine treats traditional at Christmas time.