After this interminable, bone-chilling winter, has the approach of summer ever been so welcome? I’m guessing it’s pretty unanimous, at least on the East Coast, that we’re all eager to burn our parkas and head to the beach already. Now, what to read? With the growing popularity of fortified wines, a new crop of books has been published (some updated and reissued) on sherry, madeira and port. Whether you’ve been meaning to finally get your amontillados straight from your manzanillas or want some guidance on buying vintage ports these are the best reference books available. And, while you’re honing your fortified wine knowledge you might as well enjoy a glass of what you’re reading about. Here then are the best books on fortified wines along with recommended pours.
Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes (2014) by Talia Baiocchi Ten Speed Press, $24.99
Even if you never read a word of Talia Baiocchi’s guide to sherry just perusing the gorgeous photos is likely to inspire a craving for a glass of fino if not trigger a sudden urge to check airfares to Spain. It’s an eye-catching book, a lovely little object d’art whose presence in anyone’s drinks library will signify its owner as very au courant on the wine scene. It is, however, also a book worth reading as it happens to be chock full of useful information about the different styles of sherry and how each is made. You can also read about the history, towns and bodegas, as well as find recipes for cocktails and a few southern Spanish dishes.
Baiocchi is the editor of the online drinks magazine PUNCH and writes from a personal vantage point with a fun, lively tone. My only quibble is with the cocktail section. I know all the mixologists are doing it these days, and she has enlisted the help of some of the best bartenders out there, but I confess that I’m a purist. Sherries are delicious wines in their own right, and it pains me to think of them mixed with rum or tequila among a myriad other things. It’s maybe not as cringe-worthy as mixing Coke and Chateau Latour, but close. Perhaps by integrating it into the current cocktail craze more sherry will be sold, but I don’t think it does sherry’s reputation any favors in the long run. That aside, this is a well-researched enjoyable book and well deserving of its nomination as a James Beard award finalist.
What to drink: Fino Inocente from Valdespino, $23.99 (750 ml); Barbadillo Manzanilla Solear En Rama Primavera, $15.99 (375 ml).
Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla: A guide to the traditional wines of Andalucia by Peter Liem & Jesús Barquín (2012) Manutius, $29.95
Ever wonder which strains of yeast make up the flor in biologically aged sherries? How about the calcium carbonate content of Jerez’s albariza soil? Then this is the book for you. Not all the information in this book is that technical, but the content is definitely targeted toward serious oenophiles, sommeliers and those in the trade. Published two years ago, this was the first new sherry book to come out in a decade and was received with universal praise and a sigh of relief “at last.” It’s a thorough and authoritative exploration of the history, wines, soils, and bodegas of the Jerez region. What the book lacks in color photos, it more than makes up for with in-depth information.
Although Peter Liem gained a following for his expertise on Champagne, he has been an extraordinary champion for sherry and is a co-founder of Sherryfest, an annual tasting event in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. His co-author, Jesús Barquín, is one of the principals of Equipo Navazos, a relatively new sherry label (basically a negoçiant that buys individually selected aged wines from bodegas), which has developed a cult-like following. Together they bring both a breadth and depth of knowledge to the subject. If you have a serious interest in sherry this is a must.
What to drink: Equipo Navazos La Bota de Amontillado #37, $67.97 (750 ml); Bodegas Tradicion Palo Cortado VORS, $99.95 (750 ml).
Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine (2014) By Alex Liddell Hurst & Company, $29.95
Hard on the heels of the recent sherry renaissance comes the revival of yet another fortified wine that also spent decades languishing in the back of liquor cabinets everywhere: madeira. As with sherry, up-to-date publications have lagged behind the wine’s popularity and are therefore pretty scant. Thankfully, Alex Liddell has revised and reissued his thorough, authoritative book “Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine,” which was first published in 1998. Liddell began his career in academia and brings a scholarly approach to the subject. The result is a thorough, meticulously researched book.
The island of Madeira, situated in the Mid-Atlantic, provided the perfect stopping off point for ships sailing to North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa or points further east such as India and the Spice Islands. Madeira wine became a popular commodity. It was, in fact, the very act of shipping wines on long, hot journeys that created the style of Madeira wines as we know them today. Liddell not only tells this story wonderfully, he also delves into the soil, grapes, viticulture, vinification and the producers. There is enough basic information here to entice the amateur enthusiast but it also has the level of detail for professionals.
What to drink: Blandy’s 1998 Colheita Sercial, $54.99 500 ml.; Broadbent 10 year old Bual, $39.99, 500 ml.
Port and the Douro (2013) By Richard Mayson Infinite Ideas, $50
Whether or not you are a long-time port collector or struggle to discern an LBV from a colheita, Richard Mayson’s “Port and the Douro” is an indispensable guide to the region’s fortified wines. He’s been in the wine business for more than 30 years and written numerous books on port, madeira and the wines of Iberia as well as making his own wine in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal. The last few decades have seen a lot of changes in the Douro and Mayson has been there chronicling every development. In this third edition we’re brought right up to 2011.
Mayson begins with the fascinating history of the region, which was originally settled by the Romans, and the beginnings of the Port trade, which flourished as a result of war between England and France. He provides a thorough description of the numerous grape varieties allowed in Port as well as the viticulture and vinification processes. He provides information on some of the major quintas and for those with a deep interest in vintage ports, he provides an invaluable account of vintages from 2011 back to 1844.
What to drink: 2008 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port, $19.00, 750 ml; Quinta do Noval Black, $19.97, 750 ml.
‘Tis the season for Thanksgiving wine lists when experts recommend their best bets for what to pair with the meal’s myriad, complicated flavors: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce. Favorites include Beaujolais crus, Rieslings, and Pinot Noirs, all wonderful choices, but that is where the lists usually end. So what to serve with the pumpkin pie? Give your holiday that extra special touch by serving a dessert wine that’s been specially chosen for the holiday’s signature desserts?
Pumpkin pie is by far my all-time favorite and even when I don’t think I have any room left I will find a way for a slice of this. Pumpkin pie is creamy, not to mention the dollop of whipped cream on top, and wonderfully rich with autumnal spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice. What’s needed is a wine that blends with the spices and isn’t too over-the-top sweet.
- Blandy’s Five Year Old Verdelho, $25. Madeira is a great choice due to its signature high acidity that cuts through all that richness. A drier style such as Verdelho with it’s nutty, dried fruit flavors would work well. These wines tend to be less sweet than the Malmseys or Boals, but still have a fair amount of residual sugar. In the world of fortified wines this is relatively light bodied with notes of dried fruits (raisins, punes and figs) and toffee, caramel and candied ginger. Its acidity not only cuts through the rich creaminess but also has the surprising effect of refreshing the palate, which, at this point in the meal, comes as a welcome relief. Its burnt orange color, too, couldn’t be better coordinated. And if you don’t manage to finish the bottle, no worries, due to the intentional oxidation and heating during the aging process, these will keep for next year’s celebration, or the one after that or the one after that. Blandy’makes wines that are readily available here in the U.S.
- Falchini Podere Casale I Vin Santo del Chianti, $25. This wine is made from Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes that have been dried and aged in oak and cherry casks for many years. It is softer and more viscous than the Madeira but still has a bright acidity to keep it from being cloying. Flavors of candied orange, caramel, cloves and almonds work perfectly with the sweet spices of the pumpkin pie.
With its rich nutty sweetness pecan pie calls for something that can stand up to its intensity.
- Lustau Pedro Ximenez “San Emilio” Sherry, $29. Lusciously sweet, with silky, rich flavors of raisins, dried figs, dates, molasses and walnuts, this wine gets its concentration from Pedro Ximenez grapes that have been dried out in the sun for 4 to 10 days. The flavors are further concentrated by aging in the solera system that allows for controlled oxidation in barrels. If you wanted to forego pie altogether and just sip your dessert this would be the wine to have.
- Graham’s 20-year-old Tawny Port, $55. Rich and smooth, with notes of roasted walnuts, dried fruits and butterscotch, a 20-year tawny is the pinnacle of this style. The age indicated on the bottle is the average amount of time the wines have spent in wood casks. Extended wood aging slowly turns the wine a pale amber or brown, and its flavors develop from bright red fruit to concentrated dried fruit and caramel. Twenty years is the peak of a tawny’s evolution, when the tannins soften and the flavors come together to create a complex yet harmonious wine. Once opened these can be kept for about a month or two in the refrigerator (recorked of course).
There are many wines that pair well with apple pie, but if you want to keep things all American (or how about at least all North American?) than two choices come easily to mind.
- Inniskillin Vidal Icewine Niagara Pearl 2008, $54 for a half bottle (375 ml). Made from frozen grapes, icewine was originally a specialty of Germany and Austria, where it’s known as eiswein, but has turned out to be a popular wine to make in the cold climates of Canada and northern New York and Michigan. The grapes are picked while frozen on the vine, thus removing most of the water and concentrating the sugar and flavors of the grape. Some of Inniskillin’s icewines are oak aged, but his one is not, retaining the grapes fresh fruit flavors. This golden wine is silky sweet but with a refreshing amount of acidity and tastes of apricots, pears and honey.
- Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest Finger Lakes 2012, $30. More time on the vine translates into a sweeter, richer wine with deeper, more concentrated flavors. The Riesling grape is famous for retaining its acidity, which is critical for dessert wines, keeping them wine fresh and lively. Hermann J. Wiemer is a well-known producer from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the wine’s flavors of ripe apple, pear and honey pair perfectly with that quintessential American dessert—apple pie.