Like Champagne, fortified wines are fun to drink but not everybody understands what they’re buying when they go to a wine store. I’m a big believer Madeira can match with just about any dessert, and good Madeira doesn’t cost that much. This particular 10-year Malmsey from Broadbent retails for about $20 at our local store.
Many Americans may not know it but America played a key role in the creation and existence of Madeira (not the cheap cooking Madeira on the bottom shelf, the stuff made to drink). Back when the founding fathers were writing the Declaration of Independence and Betsy Ross was sewing the first American flag, they were drinking Madeira. There wasn’t a lot of clean drinking water in the 1700’s—no drinking fountains, no bottled water like we have now. Nothing. So the choice of bacteria-free drink in the early days was limited.
As it turns out, wine barrels were used to weigh down the hulls of ships going back and forth across the Atlantic in the shipping lanes. On one voyage the wine barrels weren’t removed because somebody forgot, and the barrels stayed on the ship where they “cooked” or oxidized over the summer months. When the ships returned to America on a return trip, the cooked wine was discovered. Turns out the wine wasn’t half bad…in fact, through a happy accident it led to the creation of Madeira, which is still made in a similar style to this day.
One of the world’s experts on Port and Madeira is Bartholomew Broadbent. If his name sounds familiar, it should because he and his father, Michael Broadbent are legendary in the world of wine. From books to auctions to writing articles for Decanter, the Broadbents have been in the wine business for over 40 years. Bartholomew was recently in town, so I asked him to give us the an overview so Back to Bakas readers understand the differences between Madeira, Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Vintage Port and LBV Port.
Port was originally popularized in the 1600’s when England grew tired of being taxed on French wines. The English began adding in Brandy to the French wines in order to get the desired alcohol in purchased barrels. Because England has a trade agreement in place with Portugal, they began buying wine from Oporto, Portugal which is where Port got its name. Like Champagne, Port is called Port when it comes from Portugal. When it’s made elsewhere it’s called fortified wine, because it’s made the same way (fortified with Brandy).
Port is basically red table wine with about 17% Brandy added in during the fermentation process. The result is a bigger, richer drink that’s both delicious and enjoyable. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind when buying Madeira and Port:
Ruby Port/Vintage/LBV – Ruby Ports are aged for a few years in a barrel, then put into the bottle at a young age. The result is a deeper reddish, black color wine. Vintage means it’s the best wine made from that specific year, and vintage is only made in the best years rather than every year. LBV means Late Bottle Vintage, and is a great way to get vintage Port quality without the vintage Port price.
Tawny Port – If Ruby Port is put into bottle at a young age, Tawny Port is put into a bottle after decades of sitting in a barrel. Some Tawny Ports can sit in barrel anywhere from 10 to 40 years. That makes the wine browner and lighter in color, and starts to give the nutty flavors. A Tawny Port from a single vintage is referred to as Colheita.
English Port Houses – You might be familiar with Warre’s, Churchill or Dow’s. English port houses can make as much wine as they want because they can buy grapes from anyone.
Portuguese Port Houses – Also known as quintas, Portuguese port houses can only make wine from the grapes they grow. The vineyards are rated like grades in school with A-grade being the best grape source. Many quintas will make their ports from the higher grade vineyards and give the lower grade grapes the English for mass production.
Next time you go out to buy wine, I hope this guide helps give a better idea of what you’re buying and what you can serve it with.