A Toast to Fortified Wine

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A Wine-and-Spirit Advice Column by Charles Fredy

fortified winesThe next time you toast the holidays with a glass of Madeira, you may want to thank the Portuguese adventurers who sailed ‘round the world in the sixteenth century, during the Age of Exploration.

Legend says that wine made from grapes grown in Madeira, off the coast of Morocco, was stowed in the hold of a Portuguese ship and forgotten. By the time the sailors rediscovered the wine, the ship had circumnavigated the globe, crossing the equator and baking the liquid cargo. To their surprise, the wine was delicious; grapes that typically produced a rather ordinary wine had acquired new texture and flavor. Madeira became a popular commodity, imported to the New World by the Dutch East India Company. Thomas Jefferson liked it so much, he raised a glass of Madeira to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, placing barrels of wine in the bottom of wooden ships and sailing them through equatorial waters isn’t the most practical production method. Winemakers quickly found an easier way to replicate the process: aging the wine in a heated chamber called an estufa. Circulating hot water keeps the wine at temperatures between 113 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit for several months. A more delicate version of this process, canteiro, ages the wine in rooms where it’s heated by the sun; the result is a higher-quality Madeira.

Though often overlooked, Madeira, like sherry and port, is an ideal wine for the holidays. All three are fortified, which means they’ve had a neutral grape spirit added during fermentation. Adding the neutral spirit stops the fermentation, enriches the wine’s texture and significantly increases its alcohol content. The timing of that addition also helps determine the wine’s sweetness and style.

Because of their higher alcohol content, fortified wines are more comfortably consumed in cooler weather or when they are slightly chilled; perhaps that’s why we associate them with the holiday season. While their weight and sweetness makes them excellent dessert wines, drier versions make outstanding aperitifs, and can create an intriguing pairing with a glazed and roasted duck.

Try these fortified wines for your holiday:

Blandy’s 15-Year-Old Rich Malmsey, Madeira. Enjoy with almond cake, pecan pie, creme brulee, rich chocolate puddings and cheeses.

Graham’s Vintage Port, 1980, Oporto. Solo is the best way to enjoy this decadent port, but team it with a blue vein cheese or chocolate, and you will be treated to a great experience.

Emilio Lustau S A Xeres Palo Cortado Peninsula Solera Reserve NV. Made from the Palomino varietal, this nonvintage sherry is dry, crisp, and intense, offering complex, nutty aromas. Pair with chilled seafood, aged cheese, toasted nuts or flan.


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