If there was one section in most wine shops that is confusing, it's the port and dessert wine section. I see people stand and stare at the shelf wait for a port to jump out into their cart. What's the difference between "Port" and fortified wines made elsewhere? Isn't Madeira a cheap cooking wine found on the bottom shelf? I used to say, "whatever" and drink the dessert wine in my glass without thinking about what was in the glass. But that's because I was young and foolish. Now that I'm older and foolish, I at least like to take time to explore the history of these wines. After all, most dessert wines are opulent with a higher alcohol content. By the time port comes out, people are probably feeling pretty good already if there was wine served at dinner.
I had the privilege of sitting down with one of the world's foremost experts on Port and Madeira, Bartholomew Broadbent. Bartholomew's father is Michael Broadbent, one of the most influential people in the world of wine, auctioneer at Christie's Auction house and Senior Writer for Decanter magazine. Bartholomew is almost single handedly responsible for the growth of Port and Madeira in the United States. His knowledge about Portuguese wines made me want to curl up in the fetal position and cry mama. He's wicked smart, and is a walking encyclopedia. Wikipedia's port page can be found here. Here's a brief primer on what I learned from Bartholomew:
PORT: Port originated in Portugal's Douro Valley. "But under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port. In the United States, Federal law mandates that the Portuguese-made product be labeled Porto or Vinho do Porto." from wikipedia. There are English port houses and there are Portuguese port houses. English port houses like Churchill's and Warre's can make as much wine as they want from grapes from as many vineyards as they like. That's a big reason why those brands are so big. Portuguese port houses, or Quintas, can only make the port from their vineyards, nothing more. That's why there aren't as many well known Portuguese port brands.
One of the main things that determines port quality are the vineyards. Portuguese vineyards are rated like grades in school. There are A, B, C and D vineyards. The more grapes come from an 'A' vineyard, the better the wine will probably be. Port is fortified with brandy to help stop fermentation. Port and Madeira are both fortified with about 16% Brandy, but they're made with different grapes. Final alcohol content usually ends up around 20%. A few glasses will have you feeling like you can dance like MC Hammer, but chances are you can't. Here's the lowdown on port:
Ruby Port- Basically, it's port that made, aged in barrel for about 3-5 years, then put in bottle. It's meant to be enjoyed at a young age (The wine, not you). Tawny Port- Basically, it's port that's made, then aged in a barrel. Then put in a bottle. A 10-year Tawny was aged on average 10 years. A 20-year is aged and average of 20 years. Colheita Port- A Tawny port from a single vintage. Not made every year, usually in good vintages. Vintage Port- Port made from a single vintage. Vintage ports are only made in the best vintages, about 3 times a decade. This is the best of the best. White Port- Made with a variety of white grapes in the same style, white ports work well as an aperitif. Late Bottle Vintage Port- As if you needed more choices and confusion, LBV ports are like the 8th salad dressing on a salad bar. You might wonder what the hell it's doing there. LBV ports are made from a single vintage, but are filtered and meant to be consumed at a young age. Again, the wine... not you. They are a good way to buy a port that has vintage quality without the vintage price.
In an effort to try to keep thins simple, that's about all I'm going to share. If you're looking for something other than what's listed, you probably know enough about port and are wondering why you've read this far. The rest is just rubbish. When it comes to ports made in the U.S., Australia and other places, the process is pretty much the same, however, there aren't governing European laws, graded vineyards or the other requirements.
For complete ratings by a man who is synonymous with (and very passionate about) port, and port ratings, check out Roy Hersh's site For the Love of Port.
MADEIRA: Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Madeira: the cheap stuff you cook with, and the stuff made to be enjoyed. If you know what to look for, there are some wonderful Madeira's made for drinking enjoyment, and can be had for less than $15-$20.
Another generalization I'm going to make is Madeira is the ultimate dessert wine. I've found a decent Madeira will go with just about any dessert from Creme Brulée to Bananas Foster to Chocolate Molten Cake or even cheesecake...Over the past ten years or so, I've tried to find a dessert Madeira didn't go with, but have been unsuccessful. The reason why is Madeira has enough acidity to stand up to (and cut through) rich flavors without being overpowering. A tribute to Madeira's ability to stand up to intense flavors is best demonstrated by the tasting we did one night using bread dipped in balsamic vinegar, then took a sip of Madeira. If you can imagine how strong the taste of balsamic is, now imagine the flavors of caramel and nutmeg "cutting through" that taste in a subtle, yet complimentary way. But it's lighter, almost like a Tawny port. There's some nice caramel and maple syrup -esque flavors in a good Madeira. Here's another little tidbit you might want to bust out next time you want to impress your friends. Madeira is oxidized, so it won't go bad. That's right, if you open a bottle you won't have to worry about finishing it quickly. You could pour a glass, then cork it and put it away for a year. After a year you could pull the cork and the Madeira would still be good.
Madeira is made in a similar style as Port, but it is made with different grapes and comes from the island of Madeira. Oddly enough, the United States is responsible for the creation of Madeira, then its near extinction, then its resurrection. In the 1700's ships used to weight down the fronts of their ships with barrels of wine. One year a ship came over to the states and forgot the unload the wines on board. The ship went back over the Europe, then came back to the states again. I can just picture the captain and his crew looking at each other wondering why someone didn't unload the wine. That whole time on the ship, the wine cooked. They though it was ruined, but they decided to open up a barrel and try it anyway. What they discovered was a happy accident known as Madeira. The wine oxidized that whole time. To this day, wine is made in a similar manner where the barrels are sealed, then "cooked" for a long period of time. Madeira was the first beverage of choice in the U.S. Before there was Coca-Cola, Madeira was the drink of choice. When Betsy Ross was sewing the first American flag, she was sipping Madeira. When the founding fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence, they were sipping Madeira. Here's the basic Madeira's:
Rainwater- Think of it as entry level Madeira. Rainwater is generally aged for 3 years and can be served as an aperitif. 3 Year Fine Rich- Also aged for 3 years, but made with a better grade of grape. 5 Year Fine Rich- Aged for 5 yeas in barrel and is a wonderful option for Madeira newbies. Gives a good idea of quality, but can be found for under $15. 10 Year Malmsey- Now we're starting to get into the good stuff. A richer style with lovely subtle flavors, starting to resemble a Tawny port.
Madeira is easier, and probably will fall into one of those categories at your local wine store. Older vintage Madeira's redefine what a dessert wine can be. At that point, it becomes an event in its own and becomes the main course. Lower end cooking Madeira's are just that. They're made to cook with, and not to enjoy in glass. Unfortunately, most people identify those bottles as Madeira. So there you have it, a basic primer on Port and Madeira. If you read all the way through, you're probably ready for a glass of port. Please leave a comment if you have any good experiences or food pairings for your favorite Port or Madeira. Cheers!