Portugal had a good run in Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2014, with three wines in the top 10, including Wine of the Year honors for the Dow 2011 Vintage Port. But time marches on, and this year's list has nothing near last year's Portuguese dominance. That's the natural ebb and flow of vintages; in 2011, Portugal experienced perhaps once-in-a-generation quality.
Yet there's still plenty of excitement from Portugal. Two of the top 25 wines in this year's countdown are sweet and fortified, and offer their own avenues of exploration. Wine No. 16 is the Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Port 2009. This wine, unlike Vintage Ports, is ready to drink on release. The winemaking methods are identical for both, except when it comes to aging.
Vintage Port is usually kept in wood for around two years and then bottled, with additional maturity gained by aging that can be measured in decades. Not so for Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports, as represented by the Taylor LBV 2009. This wine spent about six years in large oak casks, and the additional exposure to air and wood gives it the maturity to be drunk upon release.
LBVs are usually made from years that don't quite measure up to vintage quality. They are meant to be drunk for everyday pleasure; the LBV style was originally developed for regular production in 1970 by current Taylor chairman Alistair Robertson, and this wine stands as a testament to his marketing guile. It's filled with luscious fresh red and dark fruit flavors, plenty of spice and chocolate notes, and vibrant sweetness. At 93 points and just $25, there's no more enticing wine if you want to learn more about Port.
Yet all that is sweet from Portugal is not Port. The island of Madeira, 300 miles off the coast of Morocco, is a subtropical paradise that was colonized by Portugal in the 15th century and is now home to sugar cane fields, banana plantations and about 1,000 acres of vineyards. Madeira was the favorite tipple of America's founding fathers, who bought it by the barrelful. It is fortified and varies in style from just off-dry to deeply sweet.
Nutty notes, with plenty of butterscotch and hazelnut overtones, characterize high-quality Madeiras. They are the product of a unique process. Like Port, grape brandy is added about two days after fermentation, which stops the yeast in their tracks to preserve sweetness. In the days of yore, the wine was shipped in barrel in brigantines across the Atlantic, with the wine slowly baking in the hold, which resulted in a unique range of flavors that are virtually bulletproof to decay.
Today, those conditions are mimicked by better producers on the island in their warehouses, which are naturally heated by the strong sun; the barrels are then periodically moved from floor to floor to regulate their exposure to the heat. The effect is to naturally oxidize and slightly pasteurize the wines, promoting its flavors and endurance. Wine No. 24 was made by Blandy's, one of the island's most prominent producers, from the Bual (Boal) grape, which produces wines that are sweet, but not overly so. It is a rich-tasting introduction to the glories of Madeira, with plenty of smoky accents to the dried tropical fruit flavors that are topped by crème brûlée notes, with an unctuous, creamy finish. You can open this now and it will drink well for months if not years.