Christmas is around the corner and fortified wines, ignored for much of the year, are very much in demand. Port spearheads this seasonal surge and is undoubtedly the UK’s favourite winter warmer but there are many other fabulous fortifieds out there and I’d like to shine a light on a couple of my favourites.
Before I do, I’d best explain what a fortified wine is. A fortified wine is simply one that’s had brandy added to it to boost its alcohol content. The amount added varies from country to country and from region to region. Sometimes, only a small amount is added, and the finished fortified weighs in only slightly stronger than a regular table wine. At other times, it’s more of a brandy bonanza and the end product comes in at around 20% ABV – a typical port, for instance, is a fifth brandy. Stylistically too, there’s a big variance, some fortifieds are bone dry, others are syrupy sweet, and they come in many different colours.
Madeira, the Portuguese owned volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean, produces wonderfully complex and incredibly moreish fortified wines that deserve to be more widely appreciated. There are four major styles – Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia – named after the grape varieties used to make the wines.
All are worth seeking out but it’s the second sweetest of the styles, Boal, that I always recommend to first time Madeira drinkers. In particular, the medium sweet Barbeito Boal Reserva which has notes of marmalade, barley sugar, crème caramel and ginger. Impressively versatile, it pairs well with rich pâtés, blue cheeses, fruit cake, orange sponges and, when the time comes, with those festive mince pies.
Madeira’s winemaking history stretches back to the Age of Discovery in the early 15th century when the island was a key port of call for ships wanting to purchase wine, before heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine.
The Madeirans themselves, were blissfully unaware of this metamorphosis until an unsold shipment of wine was returned to the island and with it, came the revelation, that the much travelled wine was far superior to that originally sent to sea. Of course, enhancing the flavour of your wine by packing it off for long sea voyages, whilst romantic, isn’t terribly practical or cost effective. So, these days, a process called ‘estufagem’ is used, which involves heating the wine for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing it some levels of oxidation.
All of which means, that a bottle of Madeira will last a long, long time after it’s been opened because it has already been oxidised and therefore cannot be damaged by exposure to the air. At least, that’s the theory. In reality, you need to be made of stern stuff to resist wolfing it down pretty sharpish and then begging for more!
And the same applies to the fortified classic from down under – Rutherglen Muscat. So called, because it hails from the town of Rutherglen in Australia’s Victoria State and is made from the Muscat A Petits Grains Rouge grape.
As with Madeira, Rutherglen Muscat’s story is also closely intertwined with the spirit of discovery. Gold was discovered in the Rutherglen region in 1851 and, suddenly, men from all over the world flocked to Victoria, their minds giddy with dreams of untold wealth, and their throats thirsty. One such man was Timothy Stanton who, along with his son, established a farm and vineyard in 1864 to supply the local miners with fortified wine.
Nearly 150 years later and with the gold rush long gone, the winery, now called Stanton and Killeen, is world renowned for its ‘liquid gold.’