It is not lost on me that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Likely Valentine plans are in place and purchases have been made for significant others, but if still struggling for a gift, then consider one of the holy trinity of fortified wines: Sherry, Madeira or Port.
Why one of these? Because they are unctuously sweet dessert wines that should be served in small amounts as dessert or along with a simple dessert. They are long-lived, making them a gift that keeps on giving because they can be recorked for enjoyment over the course of several evenings.
I think of the holy trinity as antique wines, not necessarily because they are old, although some are capability of lengthy aging. Recently, a quart bottle — said to be impressively sound — of The Lenox Madeira imported to Philadelphia in 1796 by Robert Lenox sold at Christie’s in New York for $15,925.
Such wines pepper historical novels and period pieces. These are the wines poured from Georgian decanters into fine crystal stemware by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and the fictitious Earl of Grantham of “Downton Abbey.”
Sherry, Madeira and Port are entirely different wines, but have much in common.
None started out as fortified wines. They garnered little attention until the late 17th century and early 18th century, when hefty doses of distilled alcohol were added to them.
Port is a product of Portugal, Sherry a product of Spain and Madeira a product of the Portuguese-held island of Madeira, located out in the Atlantic Ocean some 500 miles from the mother country.
When the British were unable to secure their favored French wines in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (because their respective countries were frequently at war), they turned to Spain and Portugal to supply their table wines.
Wines from Portugal, Spain and Madeira had to travel great distances to reach Great Britain and later the New World, often spoiling enroute, until enterprising individuals realized that adding a good dose of alcohol stabilized the wines for travel.
The addition of alcohol stopped fermentation before yeasts ate up all the sugar. This resulted in high-alcohol, sweet wines that did not spoil on long sea voyages. In actuality, these types of wines actually improved with less-than-ideal shipping arrangements.
Even today, methods for making these fortified wines flies in the face of modern-day winemaking, particularly in the area of temperature control. Madeira is actually heated. Its caramel color comes from placing the wine in barrels or vats where it is then heated to 105 degrees for three to six months.
Before modern-day heating devices were installed, Madeira wines were heated and aged by sending vats of the stuff on long sea journeys to tropical climates. The most prized Madeira of our nation’s founders was vinho da roda, Madeira that had made a trip around the world.
Port wines, particularly tawny Port, are aged in un-refrigerated lodges for multiple years.
Sherry is aged in un-airconditioned bodegas the locals refer to as “cathedrals” because of their vaulted ceilings. Barrels are stacked in five rows like pyramids, with the top row highest up in the cathedral, exposed to the most heat.
Essentially, these wines can stand up to heat. They are long-lived and they are all blends of several native grapes and vintages, held together by the addition of the all-important dose of approximately 80 proof alcohol.
Each wine of the holy trinity comes in a range of styles and hues, from dry to the rich, unctuous, sweet antique styles that age well and make a statement when served from a decanter.
Outstanding examples of the holy trinity are available locally at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Anniston. Consider the following:
Miles 5 year old Rich Madeira. $21.50. Creamy, honeyed, caramelly richness. Great with creamy desserts, dried golden raisins and soft cheeses.
PX 1987 Reserva Bodegas T Abala Sherry. $37.50 for a 375 ml bottle. Rich toffee, nutty flavors. Unctuously sweet. Excellent in a hard sauce for bread pudding.
Niepoort Tawny Port. $19. Ruby Port is most commonly available in our market area, but tawny is different because it spends more time in oak casks and loses its ruby color, becoming more tawny in color as it ages. Great with fresh fruit, toasted nuts and Valentine chocolate.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.