Ports, fortified wine and Sherry tasting better than ever

MASTER OF Wine and Guild of Food Writers’ member Sarah Jane Evans is on a mission – to convince a sceptical British public that sherry and fortified wines are far better than reputations suggest. Sherry need not be that sweet liquid lurking at the back fridge and bought out for special occasions, she says. With this in mind, Sarah Jane led a fortified wine tasting and food-matching workshop for a group of eager Guild members in mid-October, promising the group an ‘extravaganza of flavours’.

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Taking a fresh view of Sherry

With December fast approaching, thoughts of these Guild members were turning on to mixing and matching food for their Christmas meals. They were looking for inspiration and unusual and unsung heroes from the vineyards of southern Spain, Portugal, Madeira, Greece and Australia.

The members came armed with questions ranging from is Tawny Port better than Vintage Port with blue cheese (yes)? Is Madeira just for gravy (no!), or can it work with hard cheese, or sea-salt milk chocolate (yes, yes)? The group also discussed way of turning friends and family onto the delicious range of Sherries now produced, with little relationship to the warm, sweet or tasteless, dry wine that we drank in our grandmothers’ sitting rooms arranged around the Christmas tree.

Sarah Jane Evans MW
Sarah Jane Evans MW

The workshop was held at Sainsbury’s HQ in Holborn, central London. By day, the tasting room operates as a demonstration kitchen, hidden amongst a maze of freezer rooms, specialty kitchens and prep rooms, all spotlessly clean and awaiting the next day’s tasting and new product development.

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Blandy’s Madeira

Food to complement and enhance the tasting was supplied by the supermarket group and included cheeses and cold cuts. Cheeses included the creamy Blue Monday (very popular) from the farm of Alex James, bass player from Brit Pop sensations Blur; a mature, own brand cheddar and another blue, Brighton Belle. Other nibbles included Mokolata chocolates from Godiva, Christmas pudding, mince pies and Christmas cake.

The tasting started with a mature, single vineyard Manzanilla sherry. Sarah Jane explained that although some fortified wines may be single vineyard wines and may have an average age of 20, 30 or even 40 years prices remained low (£10-£50) per bottle. The lack of demand over the years keeps a lid on prices. In the world of Fino and Manzanilla Sherry traditionally consumers have opted for the paler coloured, highly filtered drinks with little depth in taste or flavour. But today, tastes are maturing and less-filtered varieties are becoming popular. Restrained filtering means deep colouring colour and a more profound, longer lasting complex taste.

Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana’s Manzanilla sherry Pasada Pastrana, are aged very close to the Sea, which is said to give them a salty flavour. Stored in ‘filthy’ looking black oak barrels, Sarah Jane said it was amazing that something so delicious could come from such ancient barrels; “the gold standard of how wine should be’.

Cheese and wine, with Alex James' Blue Monday (top left)
Cheese and wine, with Alex James’ Blue Monday (top left)

The Oloroso from Lustau in Jerez was altogether darker in colour and deeper in flavour with a nutty character. Guild members described the sherries as ‘like sucking limes’ with ‘piercing freshness’ to ‘buttery, complex and salty’ and like ‘licking a stone’. Although sherry is widely believed to be acidic, it is actually alkaline, with sweetness being associated with a darker colour. While few Guild members admitted they had licked a stone, the tasting note was understood.

Blandy’s 10yr old Verdelho from Madeira had a clear and bright topaz colour and a distinct orangey tang. Its fermentation and bottling story is fascinating. Known as the Canteiro system, the new wine is casked and placed in the attic area of the company’s warehouses where temperatures can reach into the 45deg+ C in hot summer months. The liquid is racked, transferred by gravity to lower floors and cooler temperatures where it is finally bottled. This natural aging process means that the Madeira is ‘practically indestructible’.

Sarah Jane implored us not to use good quality Madeira for gravy. She said she had success roasting lamb in a bottle of oloroso though she warned us to avoid overheating and caramelising the sugars in the wine.

One of the most popular drinks of the workshop was the Castaño family’s 2011 vintage sweet fortified red wine from the Monastrell grape. With an intense ruby colour, the wine reminded us of raisins (great to match with mince pies or Christmas cake, although it might be a bit sweet for some tastes), or honey and dried figs. It was both fresh and sweet with a rounded mouth-feel and pleasing balance of acidity and sweetness. Perhaps Sarah Jane’s personal description of it being like ‘Ribena on steroids’, gives an indication of the deliciousness of the drink.

The Tawny Port paired with the coffee chocolate Mokolata was a popular match. Meanwhile, from the Greek island of Samos, in the eastern Aegean Sea an island-wide co-operative produces a sweet fortified Muscat wine, which also proved popular and the best match with the Christmas pudding and the mince pies.

Sarah Jane then poured a ‘rare and lovely beast’, a Muscat from the Rutherglen area of northern Victoria, Australia. The sweet wine is rarely bottled as a single vintage, with the vineyard using a modified production method known as solera. The process is similar to ageing system in Jerez in which the wine is transferred slowly from barrel to barrel over years before finally being bottled.

Guild members finished the evening promising to be more open minded about choosing from the improving choice of sherry and fortified wines, and swapping recipes for Madeira-infused gravy.

Wines tasted:

  • Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana Sherry, 15% ABV. (Widely available, from Sainsbury’s, supermarkets and independents).
  • Taste the Difference 12 year old Dry Oloroso Sherry, Sainsbury’s Blandy’s 10 yr old Verdelho, medium dry and full bodied, Madeira, 19% ABV. (The Wine Society, thedrinkshop.com).
  • Castaño Dulce Monastrell2011, Yecla, Spain. 16% ABV. (Prohibition Wines, slurp.co.uk).
  • Taste The Difference Vintage Port, 1999, Douro, Portugal, 20%. (Sainsbury’s)
  • Ramos Pinto 30yr old Tawny Port, Douro, Portugal. (Harvey Nichols, Selfridges)
  • Samos Anthemis Muscat2005, Greece. (Waitrose, The Wine Society).
  • Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat, Australia. 17.5%. (Waitrose and independents).

This article was written on behalf of the Guild of Food Writers for their membership newsletter.

Bruce McMichael

I am freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise; culture and travel. I have also written about the global upstream oil and gas industry, shipping and current affairs. Based in London, I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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