Four reasons to get fortified

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It’s easy to think of sherry and port as timeless, traditional categories where very little changes. But there are plenty of recent developments which have helped give both a new lease of life. By David Williams

 

Most people I know in the wine trade speak of fortified wine in almost wistful terms.

Whether it’s their first sip of a great vintage port, the rediscovery of sherry as an intensely savoury dry wine, or an encounter with a decades- (or centuries-) old Madeira, more often than not it’s a fortified wine that has provided the formative, rites of passage moment that turns someone from being curious about wine to being deeply, passionately involved.

You get a sense of just how well loved fortified wine is by wine professionals at the annual Big Fortified Tasting, an event that many people seem to go to simply for the pleasure of tasting and recapturing the joy of wine enthusiasm.

Of course, the flipside of this gentleman-amateur kind of enjoyment is that not enough people take fortified wine seriously as a commercial proposition. The BFT can be an away day for some because they’re never going to buy or sell all that much of what’s on display.

Or so I’d thought. Talking to retailers over the past year or two I’ve noticed a stark change in attitude: many merchants, unprompted, report an increased interest in fortified wines, notably dry sherry and various types of premium port – and they follow that up with an analysis of the audience for fortified wines that is a long way from the stereotype.

It’s notably younger, for one thing, but also coming at the drink from a wine angle: these are people interested in terroir, grape varieties, traditions and authenticity, not just drinking fortified wines because that’s what social occasions demand.

What follows, here, are a few tentative suggestions for my, admittedly anecdote-informed sense that fortified wine is finding a whole new audience.

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The Colheita – or Single-Harvest – boom

When I first visited the Douro back in 1999, the concept of vintage-dated tawny port was still very much the preserve of the Portuguese houses. Even the name given to the category, colheita, was Portuguese, which made it stand out from pretty much every other piece of port category nomenclature which, from vintage to LBV to tawny itself, was set by the British shippers.

One of the more interesting developments in the region’s fortified wine culture in the years since, and one that has accelerated rapidly in the past decade, is the way the big British names have at last embraced the concept of a wood-aged port from a single-vintage, and begun to use the category for some of their most eye-catching releases.

Both the Fladgate Partnership (Taylor’s, Croft, Fonseca) and the Symingtons (Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s) have tended to use the term “single harvest” for what are often very special and limited releases – reflecting the fact that, in many cases, the wines come from vintages when the houses in question were still thinking in terms of blended tawnies, both with and without age statements.

The rise in interest in single-vintage wines among the British houses reflects the growth in demand and interest among British drinkers for the wider tawny category. That, in turn, is the result of clever marketing by the British houses and significant improvements in quality, with much better conditions for ageing in both Vila Nova de Gaia and upriver in the Douro.

Of course, the British houses will never have this part of the market to themselves. One of the most significant figures in shaping the new British appetite for premium tawny port is the Sogevinus group, whose brands, notably Kopke and Calem, have some of the best stocks of old, high-quality, age-dated tawny ports around, and whose releases have become a fixture of independents’ ranges throughout the UK.

Vintage and terroir sherry

Vintage is also playing a small part in sherry’s ongoing premiumisation.

The revival of single-vintage sherries – aka Jerez de Añada – began in the 1990s when Gonzalez Byass and Williams & Humbert released some tiny-production oloroso and amontillado from casks that had been kept apart from the solera system in their bodegas.

Other bodegas – among them Lustau and Hidalgo – followed suit with the same styles in the 2000s. But the idea has been given new life recently by the arrival of single-vintage fino and manzanilla wines that are explicitly pitched at white-wine drinkers.

Again, it’s been Williams & Humbert leading the way, with the company releasing a fino en rama from the 2006 vintage in the mid-2010s, and then following that up with a series of later releases, including an organic 2015, launched in 2018. The bodega’s winemaker, Paola Medina, has been widely lauded for her experiments in flor-ageing outside the solera system, with her single-vintage fino sherries bottled once the flor has died away naturally.

Paola Medina

Meanwhile, in Sanlúcar de Barremeda, Bodega Callejuela has taken the concept even further. The bodega was the first to bottle a single-vintage manzanilla; but with the fruit all sourced from a plot adjacent to the winery, it’s also single-vineyard.

That’s no surprise, since Pepe and Paco Blanco, the brothers behind Callejuela, are also very much involved in the new movement to make wines that better reflect the region’s terroir.

The brothers now work some 28ha of vines in Jerez and Sanlúcar, which they use to make flor-aged light wines as well as traditional fortified sherry. In this they are joined by influential winemakers such as local star Ramiro Ibañez of Cota 45 and the man behind Ribera del Duero’s Pingus, Peter Sisseck, who has a sherry project, Bodega San Francisco, focused on making fino from two of the region’s most famous sites: Balbaina and Marcharnado.

Vintage port’s run of greatness

If quality age-dated (and single-harvest) port may now be fully accepted by British port lovers as a style that can be every bit as luxuriously complex as ruby styles, vintage port has also been enjoying something of a golden age in the past decade.

Indeed, the end of the 2010s brought with them a once-in-a-century occurrence: universal back-to-back declarations for the 2016 and 2017 vintages – with a number of houses (Taylor’s and compulsive-declarers Noval among them) making it a hat-trick with the 2018s.

Improvements in the quality of fortification spirit over the past 20 years (it is now much softer, more grape-like in fragrance) mean the wines no longer require years of ageing for the alcoholic heat and sting to integrate into the finished wine. That makes them much more likely to be drunk in the American way, as soon as they’re bottled and bought.

Still, for more tradition-minded British port lovers who would see the consumption of vintage ports of any less than 20 years of age as a kind of vinous infanticide, the very different qualities of the 2016 and 2017 vintages are now making their way onto the ready-to-drink LBV market in time for Christmas.

Mixing it up

There is a persistent notion that fortified wine is a somewhat fusty trade, peopled by fundamentally conservative types who are some years behind the times when it comes to marketing and NPD.

But that image – shaped by popular depictions of port being passed by red-faced men and sherry being tippled in vicarages – tends to fall away when you look at some of the recent activity by brands in both trades in recent years.

One of the more significant developments has been the intervention of port and sherry brands into the growing and lucrative (and younger-drinker-capturing) pre-mixed category.

This year has seen the launch of not one but two variations on the port tonic mix from the Fladgate Partnership. The company brought out a Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port & Tonic in a can in May, and followed it up with a rosé variation on the same theme in Croft Pink & Tonic in June.

Not to be outdone, Sogrape’s Offley launched a white and a rosé port & tonic mix under the Clink brand.

In a sense, these port producers are actually playing catch-up with their counterparts in Jerez. Croft has had its Croft Twist brand, a mix of fino sherry, elderflower, lemon, mint and sparkling water, on the market since 2017. And, in a sign of sherry’s burgeoning popularity with a younger demographic, the British aperitif brand Pedrino added a Sherry & Tonic Spritz to a range of three “Mediterranean themed” pre-mixes that also includes a Vermouth & Tonic Spritz and a Campari or Aperol-like Ruby & Tonic Spritz.

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