I love using the New Year to set plans in motion for making my wishes come true. Last year birthed Sherry Sips into reality. This is where I can share my sherry experiences with others as I continue to dig deep into its art, history and culture. In honor of #tryanuary, I decided to take advantage of giving other fortified wines a go!
I spent an evening with Michael Claypool, the wine maker for Cyril’s at Clay Pigeon Winery, for Flight Club #6. Flight Club is designed for those who want to explore some of the most fabled and beloved regions and wines around the world. For this particular event, Michael shared his love of wine and history as we compared the differences between Sherry, Madeira and Port.
Fortified wines have the bad reputation for being only cheap, syrupy dessert wines enjoyed by grandmothers at Christmas. Which is why I was so excited Michael had a captive audience to learn these are just as nuanced as any wine category. As Michael put it, the reason fortified wines are so awesome is that they are aged and at no risk to the consumer. (The exception being a Vintage Port, which depends on the consumer to cellar it for 30 years.) Fortified wines are ready to drink!
Wine is an amazing lens into world history. All three styles have an amazing connection to the British Empire as it expanded both to India and the New World. Long story short, they were essentially the first to really create an international market for wine, despite the cumbersome process.
I’ll spare the historical details about Sherry. Most of what Michael presented he borrowed from SherryNotes.com, which is a wonderful resource! I was honored that Michael allowed me to interject a few Sherry facts. Talking about Sherry gets me excited. Michael noted that Sherry has gone in and out of style throughout the years, and I am on my one-woman crusade to bring it back. In many ways, that feels true but not for the sake of making it en vogue. At the very least, I want others to know Sherry is not only a sweet dessert wine, but a complex food wine with styles perfect for any pairing.
We first tasted my favorite Fino Inocente from Valdespino. I love its golden straw color. It is very dry with good acidity and raw almond notes. I realize I love a strong flor yeast influence, which develops the longer a Fino is aged underneath its veil. We also tasted a Palo Cortado VORS NV from Bodegas Tradición. Like most Palo Cortado styles, it had a lovely toffee nose and nutty finish and good acidity. I was surprised by its salinity. Perhaps having it next to sweeter Madeira and Port styles emphasized its saltiness. Unfortunately, it didn’t win me over. Of course, the final style was Toro Albala’s Don PX Gran Reserva 1986. This is what most would recognize as Sherry – thick, sweet syrup.
Surprisingly, I was completely won over by the Madeira styles. To give you a little history, the island of Madeira was a Portuguese territory where ships would resupply on their way to the New World. The wines would literally cook inside the ship as they made the three-month voyage, thus creating a new caramelized wine style. These days, Madeira is heated in tanks for three months rather than slowly aging barrels in a hot, sunny room.
Like Sherry, Madeira ranges from dry to sweet. The Sercial style is the driest. It’s more like an Amontillado than a Fino or Manzanilla Sherry. The Bual style will be more similar to a Cream or Oloroso VORS. The U.S. colonies were practically fueled by Madeira! The Historic Series by Rare Wine Company pays homage to those founding days. Michael had us try their 30-year-old Historic Charleston Sercial Madeira. It has a lovely amber color with toffee aromas, though it tasted more like a nutty brown butter with an acidity that cut down the middle of the tongue.
Even the sweeter Madeira from D’Oliveira was to my liking. D’Oliveira Bual 1968 has a lot of raisin and toffee on the nose, but a good balance of sweetness and acidity with a lemon finish. Michael explained it could age another 40 years on the shelf, but certainly will last six months once it’s opened. It would only fade in acidity and brightness, but will be just as lovely. Keeping it slightly chilled helps bring a little of that acidity back. I’m a little bummed we didn’t try it, but it was recommended to drink this paired with a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
As the evening progressed, we moved onto Port. We started with the lighter styled 20-year Tawny Port from Quinta do Infantado. This is a great “drink it now” style at a good price point. I loved its balance of sweetness and acidity. Really lovely notes of raisin and caramel. Michael explained 40-year Tawny is amazing, but also a bit more expensive. Like Sherry and Madeira, Tawny styles are ready for consumption and laying them down for longer won’t really enhance the wine’s drinkability.
This evening taught me that Vintage Port is not my style. These are not blended and bottled straightaway for aging for another 30 years laying down. The white mark on the bottle is the indicator for how the bottle should lay in the cellar so that sediment remains undisturbed. Around three to five days before opening a Vintage Port, one should set the bottle upright to allow the sediment to settle. Michael had us try Warre’s Late Bottle Vintage 1982 Port. It smelled like brandy, but tasted like cough syrup and was extremely sweet. Even with small sips, I helped myself to the blue cheese to help it go down easier.
The evening was a fun way to learn new styles and a bit of world history trivia. I highly recommend checking out Flight Clubs at Cyril’s. You may discover your new wine style!