Off Piste - Elixirs of life

If you are a connoisseur of fortified wines, you are likely to be over 50. Enthusiast Aldwyn Cooper has enjoyed expanding his knowledge of the finest wines and can't understand why the young haven't cottoned on

June 24, 2010

Madeiras, sherries and ports have been described as today's great overlooked wines. The great houses of Funchal, Jerez and Vila Nova de Gaia have contributed immeasurably to the pleasures of consumption, feature in literature and play their roles in history. Their products all have rich, varied flavours created through complex and geographically unique processes, varied grapes and yeasts. But today their appreciation appears to have become predominantly limited to the over 50s. It is sad that they are virtually ignored by younger imbibers, who seem to prefer the simple fruity flavours of the New World. There have been attempts to create styles to attract younger drinkers - cream sherry with lemonade and pink port. However, they have justifiably failed to gain market share since they are a pale comparison (or Palo Cortado as we may say in Jerez) of their noble ancestors.

My own acquaintance with fortified wines did not start well. As I was growing up, they were associated with the less pleasant duties of family life. At Christmas gatherings I would be made to sit on the lap of great-aunt Daphne who smelled vaguely of old furs, wee and sickly sweet port and lemon; and during the visits of Uncle Bert, on whose lap you struggled to avoid sitting, you were assaulted by the smell of snuff coupled with the varnish-like aroma of cheap "British sherry". As for Madeira, that was reserved for exotic excursions to the local gourmet restaurant where almost every kind of meat, but particularly veal, seemed to be swamped in Madeira sauce that made it inedible for reasons of both animal welfare and good taste.

During my university years, fortified wines were not exactly the beverages of choice. Good German, French or Italian wines were sometimes served on those rare occasions that one dined with the parents of wealthier friends. However, the student standbys were Stingo barley wine, real ale, Spanish red and, during my time at Bristol, lemon-top scrumpy cider.

Oddly, it was not until I moved to California that my interest in the fortified wines of the Old World was really stimulated. Of course, the locals have their own variants, with names such as Golden Sherry or California Port and the truly fascinating Angelica - a blend of fruit juice and local brandy. These are the kind of beverages that are drunk from bottles wrapped in brown bags on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. They have as much similarity to the real thing as a supermarket Danish Blue cheese has to a Paxton and Whitfield Stilton from Cropwell Bishop Creamery.

My wife Roz was fortunate to work at a place called The Wine Company, which was devoted to wine education. It was owned by Stanford MBAs and scientists who spent much of their time trying to remember the 1960s. One afternoon when I arrived to pick up Roz, they were bemoaning the fact that one of the principals had been too successful in his reminiscences and was incapable of teaching that evening's class on port. I muttered something about it being a damn poor show.

The group turned as one to look at me strangely and pronounced that since I really was frightfully British, I must know about port and that I was nominated to teach the class. They brooked no protest, presented me with three books on port, instructed me to accentuate my accent and tell anecdotes about British country houses, supplied me with a case of different wines, a collection of glasses and a map across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley.

Country houses were not quite in my experience, but I was able to draw widely on the works of P.G. Wodehouse. In among the items of genuine instruction, drawn from my quick reading of the supplied texts, I told the audience of the exploits of Beach, that splendid butler to Lord Emsworth, and his ability to supply, at a moment's notice, one of Keats' beakers full of the warm South, the true, the blushful Hippocrene! I shared with them the exquisite sound of a squiffy butler falling off a bicycle. They became almost as knowledgeable about Galahad Threepwood and his ability to consume vast quantities of vintage port in the pantry as they did about lagares presses and the ages of tawny ports. They came to grips with Sir Roderick Glossop, masquerading as the butler Swordfish, serving copious quantities of the stuff to "Kipper" Herring and Bobbie Wickham.

I became hooked. For the next two years, keeping a few pages and a bottle or two ahead of the class, I taught two or three times a week. Over time, I extended my repertoire to sherries and Madeiras. Then I ventured into California speciality wines - Angelica, Cold Duck, Crackling Pink Chablis and Christian Brothers' Sauterne. But it was all a step too far and made me yearn for Europe, so we returned to the UK and started visiting the wineries and lodges themselves.

What is it about European fortified wines that makes them so special? It is the fact that they are made with passion, commitment, traditional skills and methods, real knowledge of their regions and grapes, with just a touch of historical luck and magic.

Wine has been made in Madeira since at least the 15th century. To prevent the wine being spoiled on long voyages, it was usually dosed with brandy, and it was this, in combination with accidental baking in the holds of ships, that gave Madeira its special flavour. Today, the best Madeiras are gently warmed in estufa houses, heated by the sun, and aged for 20 years or more in small oak vats. It is the length and nature of that process that give Madeira its beautiful tawny colour.

During an all-too-brief stay at Reid's Palace Hotel in Madeira, I was given some tutored tastings of Madeiras by the late John Cossart, from one of the great producing families. From him I learned that Madeira, or Madera as the aficionados say, is an 11 to 11 drink - a habit I hope to cultivate and thereby emulate the great American statesman and writer Thomas Jefferson, who expanded his early cellar from 15 bottles of Madeira to more than 300 by the time he moved to Monticello.

The sweetness of the different styles of Madeira, from dry Sercial to the rich mouth-filling Malmsey (in which the Duke of Clarence was drowned in Shakespeare's Richard III), is created by using different grape types and halting fermentation at different stages by adding the brandy. There is also, of course, the anomalous style called Rainwater. It gained this name either because the vines were grown in vineyards that were difficult to irrigate and dependent on rain for survival or because a shipment destined for the American colonies was diluted by rain while it sat on the docks, so the merchants passed it off as a "new style" of Madeira. Personally I am drawn to the latter.

Wine produced in the Jerez region of Spain has always been much prized. When Ferdinand Magellan set out on his circumnavigation in 1519, he wisely spent more on sherry than he did on weaponry.

Sherry, called sack, became particularly popular in Elizabethan England. The origin of the term is not clear, but my favourite explanation for its popularity is Sir Francis Drake's "sack" of Cadiz in 1587. For great literary connections, in The Tempest, Stephano, the drunken butler, "escap'd drowning upon a butt of sack"; and the poet laureate, since John Dryden in 1668, has received an annual butt of sack in addition to the stipend. That should be a good prompt for me to restart writing verse.

With sherries, the distinction between different styles is more about the process after initial fermentation, rather than grape type or soil. On completion of fermentation, the quality of the wine is assessed and the finest is lightly fortified and stored in vats with a layer of flor yeast floating on the surface to add flavour and prevent oxidation. These sherries include the great, light, dry finos that can be drunk throughout a meal from aperitif to pudding.

Why is it that today, with a tapas bar on almost every corner in big cities, the young wolf down chorizos, patatas bravas, albondigas and queso con anchoas but drink lager or nasty white wine? Shame on them. Get back to basics!

The greatest genius of sherry is the solera system whereby the barrels are set up in racks from three to nine barrels high. At bottling, wine is drawn off from the oldest, lowest level, which is then refilled from the one above and so on until the top rack is refilled with new wine. Ageing like this means that the youngest wine in a bottle is aged by at least the number of years of the height of the rack, but that there will be some small portion in every bottle that dates back to the year that the solera was established. It's a bit like human experience, and it is this blending that gives the wonderful consistency and depth to great sherries and great people.

I must just mention Pedro Ximenez, a sherry made from sun-dried grapes that produce a thick, rich, caramel-chocolate flavour that is the essence of grape: pure nectar, and one of the finest elixirs to cure depression.

Britain has always played a great part in the port trade. British houses have made major contributions to the development of the techniques to produce the finest examples and have expanded the market worldwide. Port must be produced from grapes grown in the beautiful Douro region in northern Portugal. Wine has been shipped out of Oporto for more than six centuries. However, it is only since the late 18th century that the exquisite ports, fortified by brandy, started to be produced. Initially, this was to stabilise the wine for the long sea journey to England, but then it was done simply because it was quite wonderful. Oporto's splendid Factory House, with a duplicate dining room for the serving of postprandial port and walnuts, is a gentlemen's club for port families, and a testament to enduring British links.

White port from white grapes is a splendid aperitif, chilled and possibly served with tonic. Take my word; it is a great picnic drink for Ascot, Wimbledon or Henley. Basic ruby port is a quaffable drop whose colour is retained by maturing in glass or metal vats. Vintage ports, declared only in great years, are supreme beverages. The wines are still produced by pressing with the feet, which reduces the bitter tannins. They are matured in bottles over long periods and require care and attention for storage and serving. But it is all worthwhile to experience that complexity.

For me, however, the best ports are the vat-aged tawnies. Most are blends of wines up to 10, 20 and more years. Their clarity and colour delight and they can be matched with many different foods or repay drinking on their own. The very best tawny ports, Colheitas, are made from a specific harvest from a single year.

One of my favourite moments came when I sat on the terrace of Calem, the leading Portuguese producer, outside its lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, enjoying a tawny port and food-matching exercise with the master blender, Fernando Oliveira, while looking at the barcos rabelos moored up in front of the World Heritage view of Oporto.

All these Old World wines are wonderful. Don't let them be lost to posterity by commercial pressures and the constant modern desire for something new. Try them again yourself if you are not already committed.

As for me, it is nearly 11 and just about time for another glass for, as Jefferson said: "Wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health, which is now suffering by its disuse."

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