A look on the high side

Fino is often more approachable thanks to a streak of fruitiness which is almost always absent from manzanilla
Fino is often more approachable thanks to a streak of fruitiness which is almost always absent from manzanilla

Throwing political correctness to the wind we dived into some high-alcohol wines. Think classic fortified styles of port, sherry and Madeira, and Italy’s fashionable Amarone



13 September 2008

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Fino is often more approachable thanks to a streak of fruitiness which is almost always absent from manzanilla

The current market push is to persuade consumers to trade up from regular rubies to Late Bottled Vintage and 10 Year Old Tawnies and, beyond those, to the top tawnies and vintage styles. A number of port houses have begun to package selected tawnies in 50cl styles to make them more consumer friendly. These tawnies should be chilled slightly and offered to consumers as an aperitif choice as well as an after dinner drink.

A port for every girl

Fortified wine sales are highest in winter but producers are keen to promote summer drinking of their wines as well. They have been trying for years, though with limited success, to “de-Christmas” their products. The port houses are aiming to encourage year round sales by increasing the quantities and visibility of white port and lately, of course, there has been Croft Pink.

Some time ago we tasted the version produced for Marks and Spencer and found it just a tad too sweet. The mainstream Croft Pink is drier with more sophisticated flavours. White port is an even better summer option and it makes a good long drink too, over ice or with soda and citrus fruit slices.

Sherry nice

Sherry has been following the same marketing trail. Getting the wine out of the Christmas rut has been a challenge, as has the ageing profile of existing customers, most of whom favour sweet styles. Salvation has been widely seen to lie in the promotion of lighter and drier styles, such as fino and manzanilla, to younger drinkers. Success here has been mixed and sales continue low in these categories but for those who like them, there has been an increase in the choices available.

Piece of cake

Madeira, from the Portugese off-shore island of the same name, has also had its stabs at modernity but its image remains decidedly traditional. There are four noble grape varieties, labelled in ascending order of sweetness; Sercial, Verdhelho, Bual and Malvasia (Malmsey). A native red variety, Negra Tinta Mole, may be present in small proportions but will not be stated.

The noble varieties are the basis of the aged blends, five, 10 and 15 years old, in which the youngest wine must be at least the age on the label. There are also vintage Madeiras which must mature in cask for at least 20 years. Madeiras with generalised labelling terms, seco, sweet, rich and so on, denote wines made mainly from non-noble varieties.

Italian stallion

Italian Amarone di Valpolicella is not a fortified style. Left to themselves its grape varities, rondinella, corvina and molinara, are moderate rather than excessively high in alcohol. However, the grapes for Amarone undergo several months of drying. This concentrates the juice and flavours but means that alcohol levels in the wines rise to as much as 16% and sometimes more.

Well concentrated with some leathery spice to enrich the lively fruits

Well concentrated with some leathery spice to enrich the lively fruits

Here’s a selection of high kicking wines. Prices are approximate retail:

  1. Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino (Barry Fitzwilliam Maxxium €7.95 half).Reliably classic, with dry citrus and stony minerality.

    Cockburns Late Bottle Vintage 2000 (Barry Fitzwilliam Maxxium €19.99). Bottled after 6 years in wood, with soft, vanilla-laced fruit pie aromas and beautifully balanced alcohol. Great value.

  2. Cockburns 2003 Vintage (Barry Fitzwilliam Maxxium €60). Tasted this last Christmas and, if anything, it’s even better now. Balanced alchohol, lots of blackcurrant and plum, and just a trace of satisfyingly savoury earthinss. A real treat.
  3. Lustau Jarana Fino Sherry (Michell, €8.50.half). Elegant fino with just a touch of fresh citrus fruits to round out the white nut and green olive flavours. Great with nutty nibbles but also works with light first courses.
  4. Herederos de Argueso San Leon Manzanilla Pasada (Karwig €7.45). Wonderfully classic, with a blade-sharp thrust of nuttiness and stony, slightly salty aftertaste.
  5. Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla (Nicholson €7.45). Clean as a whistle with slightly tangy nut and salt finish.
  6. Lustau Old East India Solera Sherry (Mitchell, €12.50 half). Dried figs and dates with an apricot laced juiciness, this is the best pudding wine I know.
  7. Warres 1995 Late Bottle Vintage Port (Febvre €16.95 Trade). A satisfyingly leathery touch to refined dark fruit and spice flavours; decent weight and finish and not over sweet. Perfect with cheese.
  8. Henriques and Henriques 10 Year Old Sercial Madeira (United Wine €23) Quite heady nuts and lemon aromas and the palate is similar with almond notes and tightly strung, citrus fruit. Fine acid and alcohol balance and noticeable length.
  9. Henriques and Henriques 10 Year Old Malmsey Madeira (United Wine €23). Raisin, mocha and toffee flavours are a great match for pudding but try it out with cheese and walnuts  too.
  10. Blandy’s 5 Year Old Malmsey Madeira (Febvre €30). Think toasty toffee, marmalade oranges and walnuts all coming together in a surprisingly refreshing finish. For any fruit dessert, especially things involving oranges.
  11. Sartori Amarone della Valpolicella 2003 (Cassidy €28). At 14% alcohol this is a lightish Amarone but it does allow a sampling of this special category in a wine still manageable enough for two people at dinner. Smooth cherry fruits with a lacing of leather. Try this with rabbit, hearty chicken casseroles and beef.
  12. Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella 2004 (Cassidy €40). You might want that third person for this one. Lots of dried fruit, vanilla and cherry flavours. Would overpower white meats but good with beef and excellent with venison. Well balanced acidity makes it useful for cheese.


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