|Non-vintage, single quinta and late-bottled Port|
By Matthew DeBord
So you want to pick up a little something for Dad this Father's Day. You're thinking wine, but you're worried that the old man will consider a nice bottle of Merlot or Chardonnay to be, how shall we say...a tad undermasculine?
Hey, that's the way it goes sometimes with dads and wine. Either they share the passion, or it makes them nervous. Sounds silly, but there it is. Can't just pick him up a six pack, but a beverage like wine... Well, it won't do.
Despair not. There's an entire category of genuinely masculine wines (wines, not liquor) that you might not have considered. They carry with them a venerable and gentlemanly tradition. They're tough, yet subtle. They're built for the long haul. They are, in short, just like Dad.
They're Port, Sherry and Madeira, and they fall into the general category of "fortified wines," meaning that, at some point in the fermentation process, a neutral spirit of some sort was added, to cause fermentation to stop.
Additionally, all three hail from the Iberian peninsula, which encompasses Spain and Portugal. These are manly regions, to be sure. A land of moustaches and flamenco, of Picasso and Latin seductions conducted at midnight. Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, one of those records that every grownup male should own, leaps to mind. Spain and Portugal are warm places. There are fishermen. There are pro golfers. There are men who know what they're doing.
Especially when it comes to Port, Sherry and Madeira. Here's how they stack up.
Port was essentially invented by British traders, who because of constant warfare with France in the mid-18th century were seeking an alternative to claret. They hit upon Portugal as a red wine source, but discovered that the wines didn't always survive the trip north. Enter fortification, by which a portion of brandy was added to Portuguese wine to enhance its durability. The result was a rich, sweet wine that damp, chilly Britain took to straightaway. By the 19th century, Port had become for all practical purposes England¹s favorite wine, and to this day, Port and Britain are almost inextricably associated. It comes in several different forms, with the very long-lived vintage Port being the most desirable.
(To learn more, check out the bible on the subject, Vintage Port by Wine Spectator European bureau chief James Suckling.)
Madeira is also Portuguese, hailing from an island off the North African coast. The wine itself is virtually indestructible; you can uncork a bottle and allow it to sit around for weeks with no appreciable decline in drinkability, because of the way it is produced. Being Madeira, it has already madeirized, or been oxidized and essentially cooked. Like Port, it is typically sweet, though some styles are sweeter than others.
Sherry -- named after Jerez, the Spanish city of its origin -- is a little more complicated. It is produced by means of something called the solera system, in which different styles of sherry, from pale and dry to rich and sweet, are drawn off from stacked oak barrels (called "butts"). Sherry producers like to point out that, even though Sherries cannot be vintage dated, there is a small quantity (a few molecules, maybe) of the very first sherry they ever made, the foundation of the solera, in every bottle.
Sherry can be divided into two categories: fino and oloroso. Fino sherries are typically dry and have benefitted from the development of a naturally occurring yeast called flor. Sherry producers, once they have crushed their grapes, have no idea whether the flor will arrive, but if it does, they separate the flor butts from the non flor and go from there.
So what about gift suggestions? A bottle of vintage Port, from one of the great old Port houses -- W. & J. Graham, Taylor Fladgate, Quinto do Noval Nacional, Fonseca, Dow, Warre, Niepoort -- will always fly, but Port producers don't declare a vintage ever year. And besides, vintage Port isn't exactly cheap. An alternative, especially in non-vintage years, is a "single quinta" Port, unlike vintage Port, made from grapes grown on a single farm, rather than blended. You can pick some up for $30-$40.
Another problem with giving vintage Port as a gift is that it is never meant to be drunk young. It requires time -- or a bank account large enough to purchase older vintages that are drinking well now. An good option is "Late Bottled Vintage" Port, a special type that is designed to emulate authentic vintage Port, but that can be drunk sooner. A bottle will set you back about $30.
On the Madeira front, you can choose from four styles: more-or-less dry sercial; medium-sweet verdelho; golden boal; and very sweet malmsey. Keep an eye out for producers such as Blandy's, Henriques & Henriques, and Cossart Gordon, all of which have performed well in Wine Spectator blind tastings. An older Madeira can cost upwards of $200, but more recent nonvintage examples can be had for $35-$45.
Where sherry is concerned, you can begin with the pale dry manzanilla style and work your way up through the finos to the sweeter olorosos, culminating with the sweetest of them all, brown sherry. An excellent, widely available producer is Emilio Lustau. Expect to spend anywhere from $10-$50, a relative bargain compared with vintage Port and old Madeira, which can go for hundreds.
But whatever you decide, rest assured, Dad will thank you. And be able to sip his gift with manly confidence.
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