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Port and Madeira –
It’s a good time of year for fortified wines

Bartholomew Broadbent with one of his well-respected Madeiras.

Bartholomew Broadbent with one of his well-respected Madeiras.

By Denman Moody

Author, The Advanced Oenophile

Winter, or what we have of it in Houston, is the prime time to enjoy Port and Madeira. These are fortified wines. As the juice from the grapes is fermenting, instead of allowing them to complete fermentation, at around 7 percent alcohol, brandy is added which: 1) raises the alcohol to 18 to 20 percent; 2) kills the yeast which stops fermentation; and 3) leaves the desired amount of natural, residual sugar, which is around 8 percent. The majority of Port is bottled at three years of age either as a Ruby or Tawny.

Madeira, made on the island of Madeira located off the coast of northwest Africa, has almost disappeared from the scene, except for the efforts of Bartholomew Broadbent — more later —and some collectors. It’s a shame because there are some excellent matches to be made with food, and the dessert Madeiras are interesting sipping wines with or without dessert.

Besides Rainwater, which is rarely seen, there are four basic Madeiras: Sercial (dry); Verdelho (off dry); Boal (sweet); and Malmsey (sweeter). A synergism in food and wine pairing is consommé, particularly fowl and preferably pheasant, with Sercial, or even better, Verdelho. Either can also substitute for a dry Sherry as an hors d’oeuvre wine, and both are appetite stimulants. Although Malmsey is generally sweeter than Boal, I prefer Boal, sometimes spelled Bual. Either is a nice match with puddings, fruit tarts, etc. As with most dessert wines, ice cream is just too much for either one.

Madeiras mostly seen in Houston are Leacock’s, Blandy’s and Cossart Gordon, the most prevalent being 5 years old. Retail for each is around $20. Significantly better are the 10-year-olds. You may have to order them as they are scarce. With some luck, you might find some older bottles, which if not priced in the stratosphere, are usually well worth the experience. Broadbent Madeiras, though harder to find in Houston and worth the search, can be ordered by any wine shop from the distributor Pioneer Wine Company. In the past two months, Broadbent has added a 10-year-old Sercial, Verdelho and Boal to its range, which includes a 10-year-old Malmsey and the only Rainwater rated 90+ points by Robert Parker.

Madeira goes through a heat process which assists in giving Madeiras a partially, but not unpleasant, oxidized smell.  After bottling, very little aging takes place. A Malmsey or Boal from the 1800s or early 1900s is more likely to remain in good condition than almost any other wine.

When Bartholomew Broadbent (www.facebook.com/broadbentselections and www.broadbent.com) started to convince American restaurants to start serving Madeiras around 1989, he says, “… the only restaurant in America known to be serving Madeira was Masa’s in San Francisco, offering a glass of old vintage Madeira or Chateau d’Yquem with foie gras. We launched Madeira with a remarkably well-attended trade tasting at the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco, which resulted in almost every great restaurant in the Bay Area adding Madeira to its wine list. For instance, Tra Vigne in Napa Valley poured no less than seven Madeiras by the glass! I spent the next several years of my life traveling the United States educating Americans about Madeira, and the rest, as they say, is history!”

Porto, as it has been officially labeled since 1968, is much more popular than Madeira, and is always sweet. Porto comes from around the Douro River inland from the coast northeast of Lisbon. The three primary types of Porto are Ruby, Tawny and Vintage. Rubys and Tawnys start their lives in wood. A Ruby is generally bold, dark red, fruity and sometimes even a little raw or tannic, and only spends a couple of years in the barrel before being bottled.

Tawny can spend significantly longer in the barrel, i.e. six to eight years to develop properly and is softer, usually has a caramel bouquet and is more complex; however, it does not have the pleasing color of a Ruby. It is yellow-brownish. Rubys, which display no vintage or years of aging, and Tawnys (up to 10 years old), sell for around $18 to $30, respectively. Some of my favorite Portos are called Reserve Ports (super Rubys), and include Sandeman Founder’s Reserve, Harvey’s Gold Cap, Fonseca Bin 27, Graham’s Six Grapes, Taylor’s First Estate and Broadbent Auction Reserve.

The very best Tawnys are labeled 10, 20, 30 and 40, indicating their age in the barrel before bottling. Since they cost anywhere from around $40 for a 20 to around $100 for a 40, most stick with the 10s, which are very good dessert wines. My favorite for value is a 20, since the added complexities and nuances for a 30 or 40, while noticeable, may not be worth the experience more than once in a blue moon. My favorite 20s are Taylor and the very expensive Ferriera. An unusually nutty and interesting 10 is Delaforce.

White Ports usually have less residual sugar, are little seen or heard of here, and are used to make white Port and tonic drinks (with mint leaves) in Portugal. At Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas, the drink is called a Tay-Tonic! Late Bottled Vintage Ports are vintage dated, but just not up to the quality of Vintage Ports, but do not require the additional aging of a Vintage Port.

My favorites are Vintage Ports, which sometimes in their youth taste like huge, undrinkable tannic Rubys. Whereas Tawnys have already thrown their sediment in the barrel before bottling — and don’t improve after bottling — Vintage Portos age almost as well as Madeiras mainly because of the combination of tannin, sugar and high alcohol—all preservatives. Recently, some Vintage Portos have been vinified to be ready to drink earlier; however a good rule is to allow at least 10 years for development, with 20 being even better. One does not have to worry too much about which vintage, because in lousy vintages, almost no vintage Portos are produced. Only three or four vintages per decade are “declared” as vintage years. The best of the last four decades of the 1900s were ’63, ’77, ’85, ’92, ’94 and ’97, and 2000, 2003 were declared, as well as ’07, ’08 and ’09. Most recently the 2011 Vintage has been declared and these should be appearing on the shelves in Houston’s wine shops just in time for December holiday giving.

Fonseca is my favorite ’92, and the ’94s all seem to be fabulous. If you want to make a big hit with your wine buddies in about 12 to 20 years, purchase some 2007s and 2009s from Taylor, Fonseca or Graham’s, or if not quite up to those prices ($75 plus) try the second tier like Dow, Warre’s, etc. And remember to stand it up several days before drinking and decant. Not only does Vintage Porto throw sediment, after 15 years there will also be crust!


Ferreira Porto Duque Bragança 20 Years OldTaylor Fladgate 20 (Tawny Porto)

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