June 2008 issue

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PAGES (52-59) June 2008

SPECIAL REPORT Fit to Be Fortified Roy Hersh

Ten affordable Ports and Madeiras to anchor any fine dessert-wine list

Every good wine list has a wide variety of bubbly, white, and red selections by the glass and the bottle. But even a knowledgeable sommelier may overlook a significant opportunity to drive sales: the dessert list. Dessert is the last chance to appeal to your guests. Any server can sell coffee or tea at the end of a meal, but it’s also important that the floor staff be carefully trained in presenting dessert wines. A compelling dessert-wine selection is not only a great food-pairing option and sales tool, but carries the potential for both the sommelier and the service staff to improve their own tips.

The two great fortified wines from Portugal, Port and Madeira, deserve a place on any well-conceived dessert-wine list. They have tradition on their side, and they just happen to accompany beautifully the majority of desserts on most menus. Here’s an introduction to Port and Madeira and a list of 10 top producers to consider the next time you look to revise or upgrade your wine list.

WHAT MAKES PORT SPECIAL

Port comes from Portugal, period! As good as many American, Aus-sie, and South African variations on the theme may be, none of these wannabes should really call itself Port wine. The Port label on fortified wines produced near the town of Porto, from grapes grown in the Douro River Valley, is a hallmark every bit as distinctive as Burgundy, Champagne, Cognac, or Chablis.

Kopke, the first Port producer, was established in 1638, and in 1756 the Douro region became the first appellation in the world to receive an official demarcation—nearly a century before Bordeaux created its classification. British drinkers, looking for sources of wine during the trade wars with France in the 17th and 18th centuries, found Port to their liking. Many of the original Port shippers (as they are still called) were British, but today there are only a few families of British descent remaining in the trade.

Visiting the sister cities of Porto (Oporto in English) and Vila Nova de Gaia, on either side of the mouth of the Douro, one quickly comprehends the tradition linked with the drink. But even more striking than the ancient Port lodges in Gaia, with their deep and dark cellars crammed with tens of thousands of bottles, is the dynamic Alto Douro, or Upper Douro Valley. Sixty miles east of Porto, the Douro’s three subregions—from west to east, the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior—open up with extraordinary vistas and abundant vineyards. There is truly no place like this in the wine world. Only a third of the Rio Douro actually resides in Portugal, however; as the river flows east past the wilds of the Spanish border, it becomes the Ribera del Duero, heart of the Spanish wine region with a growing reputation for quality.

Throughout its 400-year history, Port has evolved slowly and precisely. The area has always prided itself on tradition, and that begins with the grapes. As many as 80 grape varieties can be used in the production of white and red Ports from the demarcated Douro region. As in Bordeaux, there’s a “big five,” but these are native Portuguese grape varieties with names that don’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain), Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão. Like the components of a Bordeaux blend, each grape has its own unique characteristics that make the Port cuvée more complex.

Vineyards (quintas) stairstep up from both the northern and southern banks of the Douro, reaching altitudes of 2,200 feet, although none above 2,000 feet may be considered for Port. The slopes often approach angles of 40º, making mechanization next to impossible. Herein lies the vast beauty of this sparsely populated region, as the handmade, terraced walls seem to stretch on forever. In fact, the original terracing of the Douro from sedimentary schist was comparable to the building of the Egyptian pyramids. Even today, it’s a daunting undertaking to repair just a few yards of these walls.

“Soil type” is actually a misnomer here if you consider that vineyards can survive, but not in anything resembling “soil.” To see vines actually growing out of this rock is mind-blowing—as is the dynamite used to drill holes for planting rootstock. Talk about stressing the vines: it is not uncommon for them to reach depths of 40 feet as they seek the minuscule available amounts of nurturing moisture. But the vertical strata of schist provide easier passage for the roots to travel to the nooks and crannies where the water is captured.

With an annual average precipitation of about 6 inches, the desert-like conditions wreak further havoc on the grape set. It is not uncommon for temperatures to reach a balmy 115ºF during the long summer, but that is part of what makes the Douro the perfect place for Port to flourish. In 2003, when the rest of Europe was sweating through exorbitantly high temperatures, it was business as usual in the Douro. In fact, 2003 was an exemplary vintage, generally “declared” by the Port trade.

Given this natural obstacle course, Port production is anything but easy. The heat at harvest, the steep inclines, and the distances that the grapes must be carried all challenge the sturdy Duriense. The majority of Vintage Port grapes are still trod by foot in granite lagares. After dinner, in the somewhat cooler evening temperatures, the same workers who’ve spent a full day picking are thigh-deep in grapes. This is truly hard work that goes on for many hours, but despite the automation of pressing for some less expensive Ports and Douro table wines, the foot is still thought to be the best instrument for crushing the skins without breaking the bitter pips. Fermentation is cut short after only one to three days by fortification—the addition of a neutral grape spirit (aguardente), which kills off the remaining yeast cells, leaving a substantial amount of residual sugar and an alcohol level between 19.5% and 20.5%.

DISCOVERING MADEIRA

Although Port is one of the most widely popular and collectible dessert wines in the world, Portugal produces another fortified dessert wine that is equally food-friendly and just as able to stand on its own.

The island of Madeira, about 60 miles long and 35 miles wide, lies some 360 miles off the coast of northwest Africa. Madeira’s subtropical climate, volcanic topography, and wild natural beauty make it similar to Hawaii. Once you travel outside the capital city of Funchal, however, the north and south coasts become as rustic as they are remote, and vineyards begin to appear virtually everywhere.

Although fresh flowers and bananas are more significant exports, Madeira is best known for its historic wine. No other wine in the world is as long-lived or, arguably, more complex. Like Ports, these wines were originally fortified for shipping over long distances, but the secret to a Madeira’s aging potential is its intentional oxidization through heating. Unlike the best Ports, the best Madeiras are made from white grapes (called “noble” or “traditional” in Madeira). There are four basic styles, named after their grape varieties.

SERCIAL: The driest and lightest in body; grown at higher altitudes, it usually offers great intensity and bracing acidity.

VERDELHO: Ranges from very dry to showing hints of sweetness, with an equally wide range of complexity.

BOAL (BUAL IN ENGLISH): Generally has moderate sweetness and great depth, with explosive aromatics and vibrant flavors.

MALVASIA (MALMSEY OR MALVAZIA IN ENGLISH): The sweetest style—unctuous and rich, often displaying caramelized flavors and a sublime aftertaste.

Other varieties are Bastardo, extinct in Madeira since the 1927 vintage, but still found in the Douro; Moscatel, no longer found on the island; and Terrantez, the rarest grape in Madeira today, with barely 200 liters produced from current harvests. The red Tinta Negra Mole (now called Negra Mole) proliferates on the island and is primarily used for blending.

In ascending order of quality, the inexpensive versions of Madeira are the “rainwater” and the 3-, 5-, 10-, and 15-year-olds, with the 15-year wines labeled according to their specific grape varieties. The more expensive styles designated by the Instituto do Vinho da Madeira are Reserve (5 years old), Old Reserve (10 years old), Colheita (from a single vintage and at least 5 years old), Solera (made like Sherry), and Vintage (aged at least 20 years in wood casks).

One of two unique production methods is used, in an area of the facility called the estufa. Estufagem, which artificially ages the wine, is generally used for lower-priced Madeiras. The wine is heated to about 120ºF, typically for more than three months, in enormous old concrete tanks, with hot water circulating through pipes to maintain steady temperatures. Over time, this causes the sugar content to caramelize and adds richness and sweet flavors to the wine. A slower estufagem process, used for 10-to-15-year-old wines, uses armazem de calor (warm rooms, typically attics) to heat the Madeira casks to a lower temperature, usually for twice as long. Because this process gently ages the wine, it keeps volatile acidity in check.

The canteiro production process, which has been employed for three centuries, is reserved for the finest Solera and Vintage Madeiras. These wines age for at least eight years in their warm rooms, which have oversize windows and southern exposures; some are aged for four or more decades.

In the Madeira lodge, the aging wines are situated in reverse order of sweetness, with Malvasia on the ground floor and the dry Sercial up in the loft, where the heat will rise to the highest temperature. Evaporation further concentrates the flavors; the casks are allowed to maintain some head space to encourage oxidation. Woods from mahogany to chestnut to Brazilian hardwood and even teak may be selected for the casks—called pipes, cubas, or tonels—which are then used for long-term maturation on the cooler, lower floors.

After undergoing this oxidation process, Madeira is about as bulletproof as any wine ever made. Once a bottle is opened, it will drink well for months, if not years, making Madeira extremely cost-effective on a dessert wine list.

The accompanying tables list 10 of my favorite outstanding and reasonably priced Ports and Madeiras.


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