While entertaining dinner guests recently, when a discussion broke out about the benefits of a small glass of Port after dinner.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, I dug through dusty corners my wine cellar, finding not only an old bottle of Port, but also bottles of the holy trinity of other fortified wines, namely Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.
Port is certainly the most famous of the fortified wines, although its origins come out of a desire for filthy lucre, rather than any noble attempts at viticulture or creating the perfect tipple.
Back in the late 1600s, Portuguese wines were not selling well England, until a few crafty wine merchants in the city of Oporto dumped a few buckets of grape brandy into the wine barrels before shipping it off across the water. This apparently made the difference, as the British palate found this unholy mixture to be mostly tolerable, and this fortified concoction eventually became known as Port.
Sherry is another type of fortified wine, made in or around the Spanish town of Jerez. Sherry has always played second fiddle to its more famous Portuguese cousin, perhaps due to Sherry’s lower alcohol content and lighter flavours.
I did once spent a day in Jerez, sampling the wares at the world-famous Tio Pepe sherry bodega, which has been continuously operating since 1835.
Unlike Port, Sherry is not strictly a dessert wine, and comes in widely varying flavours, including Fino (dry), Manzanilla (light), Amontillado (darker), Oloroso (dark and sweet), and PX (darkest and sweetest).
I do like a Fino Sherry paired with olives, or a Manzanilla Sherry paired with oysters. The sweeter versions of Sherry, especially the Oloroso and PX styles, are much more similar to Port, and are generally enjoyed as dessert wines.
A less common fortified wine is Madeira, which comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, located 1000km southwest of the mainland, and is actually much closer to the African country of Morocco than the Portuguese mainland.
Madeira started out as a conventional wine, which was then fortified with grape brandy. In the early days of empire, the Portuguese trading ships would take barrels of Madeira to the East Indies, but the long trip in the hot sun would scorch the wine, resulting in a hard-to-replicate flavour that was enjoyed in foreign markets.
With the advent of modern technology, Madeira is now produced with the help of large industrial heaters to provide that distinctive burnt wine flavour, which is much more consistent than those early years.
Madeira was especially popular in the early days of the USA, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being notable fans. Madeira faded from public view over the last century or so, but has recently been staging a comeback, more than tripling in foreign exports over the last decade.
Marsala is yet another fortified wine, this time coming from the town of the same name on the island of Sicily. Available in both dry and sweet versions, Marsala was originally devised by adding grape brandy to wines to help them last for long sea voyages in centuries past.
Marsala rose to fame in 1773, when a British wine merchant was visiting Sicily, and discovered the sweet wine served to sailors in the dockside tavern. Recognizing a business opportunity, he quickly purchased many of the local vineyards to export home to England. For a time, the British Royal Navy had a standing order of 500 barrels per year, as Marsala was served to all officers aboard ship while at sea.
Buckingham Palace soon caught wind of this new wine so favoured by the Royal Navy, which led to Marsala being stocked in the palace cellars, which in turn increased its popularity throughout the British Empire, and even that young upstart of a colony named America.
Marsala has remained popular to this day, and is widely available right here in Alberta, generally in the $20-$30 price range. While some will use Marsala as a flavouring agent in cooking dishes like Chicken Marsala, other enjoy the refined and complex flavours straight from a glass.
If your experience with fortified wines has been limited to Port, seek out one of these alternatives at your local bottle shop, or ask for one as a dessert pairing one your next dinner out.