A tipple or two to fortify the spirit

I can’t imagine living in the tropics, where there’s no real summer or winter and seasonal weather changes are minimal. I enjoy the winter chill, which gives us the opportunity to rug up, to sit in front of an open fire, snow-ski, listen to the drumming of rain on the roof etc. It also brings different foods to celebrate and enjoy at only that time of year: chestnuts, quinces, rhubarb, Brussels sprouts… It’s also a time to break open different kinds of wines that we might never feel like drinking in warmer weather. Hearty reds, yes, but also fortified wines in their many hues and styles. I love a glass of chilled champagne as an aperitif almost any day, but sherry before dinner is real alternative, a time-honoured habit that deserves to be revived. A chilled glass of fino is a year-round pleasure, it’s great even on the hottest summer evening, but a more complex amontillado or a rich and hearty oloroso is a soul-warming drink: a symbol of winter as potent as a red-breasted robin on an frosty fence-post.

Fortified wines

The definition: a fortified wine is a wine which has had distilled grape spirit added to it, boosting its alcoholic strength to between 18 and 20 per cent. This was originally done to ‘fortify’ a table wine for an arduous sea voyage, to protect it against the hyper-oxygenation that could occur as it sloshed about in a barrel, deep in a sailing ship’s hold. Sherry from southern Spain, Port from Portugal and Madeira from the island of Madeira were examples, heading over the seas to their markets in England. Fortification is a great preserver: vintage port and Madeira are among the longest-living wines of all… and extended aging brings fabulous complexity of flavour.


Sherry (Apera)

These can vary from pale-coloured, bone-dry, aperitif wines such as fino and manzanilla to medium-dry amontillado and palo cortado to sweet oloroso and very sweet moscatel and pedro ximenez. Apera is the new Australian term for Sherry. Fino and manzanilla are peerless aperitifs: good winter-time alternatives to pre-dinner sparkling wine, lip-smackingly dry and marvelously appetite-stimulating. Dry amontillado is great with tapas; sweeter amontillado and oloroso are great with clear soups, especially consommé.

Try these

Pale and dry:

Medium-sweet:

Very sweet:

  • Sanchez Romate Cardenal Cisneros PX ($57 – tasting)
  • Seppeltsfield DP38 Rare Rich Oloroso ($32/500ml)

Port, etc.

Port originated in Portugal, where the best of this much-copied style is still produced. It can be single-vintage, which is aged in the bottle and demands patience, or wood-aged (tawny or ruby) port, which is usually a non-vintage wine, blended to a consistent style from bottling to bottling. If in doubt about telling the difference, a vintage port usually comes in a claret-shaped bottle with a long cork, whereas a tawny is usually in a stumpy bottle with a short cork stopper or screwcap. Tawny port is ready to drink when sold; vintage is sold young, relies on the buyer to cellar it, and can be at its drinking peak anywhere between 15 and 30 years from vintage. It’s great with aged hard cheeses like cheddar, and blues like stilton, gorgonzola and Roquefort. As with Sherry and Tokay, Port is now a protected name and Australia can’t use it. Wineries employ a variety of solutions to this problem, such as VP or Vintage Fortified for vintage port styles; and Fine Tawny or Rare Tawny for wood-aged tawny ports.

Try these

Tawny-Australian:

Tawny-Portuguese:

Vintage-Australian:

Vintage-Portuguese:


Muscat, Tokay, Madeira

We could bracket these wines loosely as sweet dessert wines. Made from superripe, late-harvested grapes, only partly fermented, then aged for long periods in old oak barrels of various sizes, these are the liqueur-like after-dinner sippers, sweet to the point of being luscious. Like old tawny ports, they can be tremendously complex in bouquet and flavour. North East Victoria, especially Rutherglen, is Australia’s pre-eminent region for these. As Apera has replaced Sherry, so the word Tokay has been replaced by Topaque. Rutherglen muscat is made from the red frontignac grape, known locally as brown muscat; Topaque is made from muscadelle.

Madeira, from the Portuguese island of the same name, is another thing altogether. The wine is heated before being wood-aged. It comes in a multiplicity of styles ranging from very dry (sercial) to very sweet (malmsey). Several grape varieties can be used. The few Australian examples that still remain (the name is to be banned here) tend to be sweet.

We have many other wonderful sweet fortified wines from other regions, such as Sandalford’s Sandalera from the Swan Valley, Bleasdale’s Fortis et Astutus from Langhorne Creek, De Bortoli’s The Black Noble (Riverina), Joseph The Fronti (Adelaide Plains), Dandelion Vineyards PX and Turkey Flat PX (both Barossa). And don’t forget Marsala: Vito Curatolo Arini, dry, sweet and especially the vintage Riserva Storica.

Luscious fortifieds are great with chocolates, caramels, fudge, Florentines, hazelnut toffee, and many other kinds of confectionery.

Try these

Muscat:

Topaque:

  • Buller Fine Old ($20 – tasting)
  • Morris Old Premium ($65/500ml)
  • Chambers
  • Campbells
  • Stanton & Killeen
  • All Saints
  • Baileys

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 4 June 2013.

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