Summer fortified wines: strength in depth

Most of us in the trade have experienced the unalloyed thrill of a chilled Fino on a scorching summer’s day, or a cold white Port with a bowl of salted almonds. These are pleasures we have a duty to share with consumers – and the versatility of fortified wines for summer drinking is broader than even wine pros sometimes realise.

By David Williams, July 2020

There’s no doubt that selling fortified wines in the summer is a little counter-intuitive.
All merchants will have customers – perhaps even most of their customers – who confine their fortified wine drinking to a two-week window at the end of the year.

The rest of the customer base may be more open-minded. But are they willing to trade in their Sauvignon Blanc and rosé – even, heaven forbid, their Riesling – for wines that could well have as much as 50% more alcohol, when the sun’s high and hot in the sky?

Well, why not? Nobody would deny there’s a tendency to seek out lower alcohol and refreshment in wines in the summer. But we are also living in a time in which, among other higher strength drinks, the gin and tonic, the Negroni, the Aperol spritz and vermouth both straight and mixed have arguably never been more popular.

With just the slightest of nudges from a trusted merchant, fortified styles – but specifically those made from white grapes – could find a happy home with the exactly those sorts of drinker and occasion.

What follows, then, is a handful of suggestions for drawing attention to these overlooked glories of the wine world, and some examples of the best of the breed.

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A tonic for sales
Everyone enjoys a white wine spritzer from time to time. But we have to admit that it’s not the world’s most exciting long drink. Too often it tastes like what it is: diluted wine.

You couldn’t say the same about a white Port and tonic. Indeed, a better point of comparison would be the gin and tonic. The complexity of flavour and viscous richness in classic white Ports – blended as they are from intriguing, aromatic Douro grape varieties led by Malvasia Fina – are such that a WP&T offers a similarly fragrant, crisp experience to a G&T but at a fraction of the ABV. Is there a possibility for a promotion here? Free tonic with every bottle bought?

Two to convert your customers:
Graham’s Blend No 5 White (Fells) is a super-aromatic, medium-dry, tiny production blend of Malvasia Fina and Moscatel Gallego specifically designed with tonic-mixing in mind.
Taylor’s Chip Dry Port (Mentzendorff): a classic dry white Port from a classic shipper that makes for a classic aperitif with or without tonic.

Beyond the shipper’s sundowner
As good as it can be, the WP&T – a drink that is strongly identified with the traditional shippers of Vila Nova de Gaia – is by no means the only long drink in which white Port can play a starring role.

The team behind Quinta da Pedra Alta – a producer that has been revitalised by new ownership since 2018 and which is making a range of modern wines and Ports from its old vineyards high up in the Cima Corgo – recommends its very stylish white Port as a stand-in for gin in a range of cocktails and long drinks.

We thought it got a little lost in a Negroni. But its citrussy crispness was brilliantly effective in other gin classics such as the Tom Collins, and Gin (or rather, White Port) Fizz.

One to convert your customers:
Quinta da Pedra Alta Pedra No 3 White Port NV (Winetraders): bright, almost racy but with impressive exotic lushness, it’s a flavoursome stand-in for gin.

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Chilling and keeping
The process of learning that fortified wines are not at their best if they’re served warm from a bottle that’s been opened for months or years into a tiny thimble of a glass is a rite of passage in the wine trade.

But we initiates sometimes forget just how alien the wine trade’s socially acceptable serving and storing suggestions can feel when you come across them for the first time.

If you’re used to a schooner of lukewarm Bristol Cream, for example, being served a proper white wine glass of cool Fino straight from the fridge will, initially at least, feel as confoundingly odd as the first-ever experience of iced gazpacho after a life of hot soup.

And if your sole experience of Port is of the red variety, it’s always going to be strange to be offered a glass of something that looks like a white Burgundy – all the more so if there’s a couple of ice cubes and a mint leaf in there.

A counter tasting that compares and contrasts these serving styles – the old and the new – can work wonders in opening palates to white fortifieds, showing them to be as different as listening to music live or on a tiny, tinny mobile phone speaker.

Two to convert your customers: The feeling of watching a sceptic’s heart melt after they’ve compared a warm schooner and a chilled glass of both Krohn Lágrima White Port and Fernando de Castilla Classic Fino is one of those moments that makes working in the wine trade worthwhile. (Boutinot)

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White fortifieds as “proper wines”
For all that white Port and Fino or Manzanilla Sherry may be much better suited to mixing than light wines, what’s sometimes forgotten by wine drinkers is that these styles are every bit as complex and crafted as their unfortified relations – and that they have the same capacity for conjuring up a sense of place.

In the case of white Port, that sense of place might be built on indigenous grape varieties. A wine such as Kopke Dry White Port (Hayward Bros), for example, uses Arinto, Viosinho, Gouveio and Malvasia Fina, in its elegant blend – just the sort of varieties that your more adventurous punters love to experiment with and learn about.

Or it may be more a matter of winemaking and the terroir of the winery. Certainly that’s the case with flor-aged Sherry. The yeasty veil never fails to intrigue novice wine-drinkers – it’s just the sort of easy-to-digest nugget of expert knowledge that customers like to take away from a tasting.

Add in such nuances as “en rama”, where the minimal filtration amplifies the savoury glories of biological ageing – plus the potential for comparing flor wines with Oloroso or the fascinatingly inbetweeny Palo Cortado – and you have the beginning of an obsession.

And if all that fails, there is another way to seal the deal and fully persuade your customers that summer fortifieds are quality “wines” rather than something from the back of a dusty pub bar – food.

We all know how well Fino and Manzanilla Sherry go with ham, almonds, olives and garlicky prawns. But white Port too is great with green olives, bacalhau and – in its sweeter styles – fruity desserts or simple fruit salads.

One to convert your customers: Quinta do Noval Lágrima White Port (Gonzalez Byass) – from a master of Douro terroir wines and Ports, a blend of Malvasia Fina, Gouveio, Rabigato and Códega among others, with an average of three to five years’ ageing, is distinctively, sweetly rich, exotic and gorgeous with blue cheese.

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