Friday, 8 April 2011

Fortified wines: treasures of the wine world

Earlier this week I had the fortune of attending the Big Fortified Tasting in London. Last year I was working there, standing in for a port producer unable to fly to London because of the volcanic dust cloud. This year, with no such commitments, I was free to fully enjoy this remarkable event. Remarkable because it's an opportunity to taste so many fascinating, distinctive wines together, rather than in a geographical context with regular strength table wines, where they are overlooked or have an overwhelming effect, being so much more alcoholic. The other remarkable aspect of the BFT is the quality and pedigree of so many of the wines on show.

That said, it still required quite an effort to make sense of the mind-boggling (and palate thwacking) array of treats – it was a warm, sunny day, so I narrowed my focus to take in the lighter, drier styles of sherry and their international equivalents and, after a quick break for lunch, heavier, sweeter wines from less mainstream regions (so not port, sherry or Madeira). Some of these were pretty quirky. The joy of an event like this is to taste things you wouldn't otherwise be able to.

On what was, so far, the hottest day of the year, the fino and manzanilla sherries showed extremely well, but there were some less obvious wines that were particularly memorable.

While I was tasting lighter, dry (or drier) fortified wines, white port, Sercial from Madeira and a South African solera aged Chenin stood out. Niepoort's Dry White Port and 10 Years Old White Port were showing handsomely. The former was off-dry, freshly balanced, honied with a spicy vanilla finish. The latter, a superior wine, had a deeper yellow colour and a richer, nuttier nose. It had a big, broad, syrupy mouthfeel with complex honey and nut aromas and a vibrant savoury finish. A beautiful, seductive wine.

The independent Madeira house of Pereira d'Oliveira treated us to wines dating back to 1922 (after a big jump from 1966), but I  stuck with the comparatively youthful Reserva Sercial 1971. This had a deep burnished colour and a complex nose of nuts and dried fruits, but was fresh and lively. I was a bit disappointed by the palate which, despite the complex nutty aromas, seemed too hot and alcoholic and disjointed. However, the finish was more mellow and rounded.

In contrast, the D'Oliveiras 10 Year Old Dry punched above its weight – tangy and complex, with a delicious spicy, yet perfumed finished. Simpler than the 1971, but charming and more complete tasting. This house was founded in 1820 and they boast substantial quantities of old and rare wines.

Barbeito Sercial Frasqueira 1988 was another fine example: broad and mouth-filling, with a touch of honied sweetness and a fresh, complex finish. Gorgeous.

Axe Hill Dry White, a white port style wine from South Africa's Calitzdorp region (the centre of Cape 'port' production) was off-dry, with a toothsome honied palate, yet finishing dry. It would make a great aperitif, while nibbling on some spicy nuts or salty blue cheese. It would would also work well with foie gras dishes.

It was great to taste the full range of wines by Californian sweet wine enthusiast, Andrew Quady. The Essensia Orange Muscat and Elysium Black Muscat showed predictably well in a clean, modern style, reminding me how well they'd cope with a broad spectrum of desserts (Elysium being especially good with chocolate). Deviation is a recent cuvĂ©e – a Muscat flavoured with rose geranium and damiana that was a Turkish delight-like confection; fragrant with botanical notes. I thought they were trying too hard with this and spoiling the natural scented quality of the Muscat. Their vermouths were a revelation, though, especially the Vya Sweet Vermouth: fresh, juicy red fruit with delicious aromatic complexity and fragrance. A really stylish choice for cocktails.

Of what I tasted, the star of the show for me was the Maury 1928 Solera, demonstrating the unsung treasures that exist in the wine world. As you can see in the picture, the wine had a mature, rich mahogany colour, with a yellow rim (which classically suggests age). It tasted of the past, evoking haunting sepia tinted photographs. Decades of ageing have transformed sweet red berry aromas into a complex mouthful of treacle, date and walnut, yet finishing tangy and dry. Maury is a traditional Grenache-based vin doux naturel from Roussillon, aged for long periods in soleras. British importers, Richards Walford, work with the local co-operative, Les Vignerons de Maury who have stocks of these old 'mother' wines dating from the 1920s and bottle them from individual casks (numbers are shown on the labels), all varying in character – some more sherry-like in style, others more Madeira-like. Currently not that popular with French consumers, these forgotten old treasures are finding their way to our shores and retailing for less than £20 per 50cl bottle. Their loss is our gain.

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