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Summer Beach Reads: Top Books on Fortified Wine

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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I Drink, Therefore I Am (Part III): Why Every Family Needs a Vintage Port Collector

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As if the two vin santos hadn’t already added a special (albeit fuzzy) glow to the evening our host returned from her wine stash holding a bottle of 1977 Warre’s vintage port. Turns out she’s been collecting vintage ports for about 25 years. This bottle was one of her early purchases and definitely a wise one. Founded in 1670, Warre’s is the oldest British-owned port house in the Douro and one of the most esteemed. The 1977 is considered by many critics to be one of the more outstanding vintages from the last century.

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Vintage ports don’t lend themselves to spur-of-moment drinking. Since they’re bottled without being filtered, a heavy sediment builds up over the years. Although the grit isn’t harmful it does make for an unpleasant mouthful. Decanting, therefore, is essential, but that takes time. Since most bottles are stored on their side, standing them upright for a few days allows all the sediment to settle at the bottom, which greatly facilitates the decanting process. And ideally, decanting should be done at least 3 hours before pouring.

While all that sediment may complicate the opening process, it is also part of what makes vintage ports so complex, so long lived, and so unique. At its heart port is a red wine, a blend of five grape varieties: Touriga National, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Traditionally the grapes were trod on by foot in long stone troughs called legares. Today, most producers use automated versions, which provide a similar amount of pressure and extraction as the human foot. Fermentation is halted with the addition of grape spirit before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, resulting in a sweet wine with around 20% abv. Only the best grapes from the top vineyards go into vintage ports, and even then, only when the quality meets certain criteria is a vintage “declared.” This happens on average only three years out of every decade.

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The wine then spends two years aging in barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Most of its development, therefore, happens in the bottle and requires at least 15 to 20 years before being ready to drink. Recently it’s become acceptable/borderline trendy to drink vintage ports after 10 or even 5 years of aging. One explanation given is that changes in the vineyard have made the wines much more approachable at an earlier age. Until about 30 years ago, the main grapes that go into port, along with scores of other varieties (more than 100 are allowed) were often grown side by side in the same vineyard. Not surprisingly, however, they don’t all ripen at the same time. At harvest some grapes would be underripe, while others might be super ripe. It was the harsh tannins from the underripe grapes that needed 20 years to soften. In the 1980s vineyard management began to change, and these field blends started to disappear. Plots were planted with the same grape varieties and harvested and vinified separately. This meant that each variety was harvested at perfect ripeness. No more underripe grapes. Another explanation has been that in America, at least, people’s palates have grown accustomed to big, bold, tannic wines, which is essentially what a younger port would be. Still others point to marketing by port shippers wanting to move inventory.

 

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Photos from a trip to the Douro in 2012

None of that, however, applies to our bottle of Warre’s, which at 37 years old is hitting its stride. What has given this wine its longevity can be traced to the vineyard and the weather that year. In 1977 grapes for Warre’s vintage port came from vineyards along the banks of the Rio Torto, which lies about 30 miles north of Pinhão, a small village that sits snug along the banks of the Douro 50 miles inland from Porto. The growing season of 1977 began with a chill. A cold and rainy winter lingered well into spring. Vines were even hit by frost in May. Summer remained unseasonably cool until September when a final burst of sunshine and warmth finally ripened the grapes. That long,cool growing season, however, gave the wines structure: firm tannins and high acidity. The wines were so tannic some critics wondered whether or not they would ever calm down. After nearly four decades, however, our bottle of Warre’s proved silky smooth. The wine was still a bright ruby color but somewhat opaque and offered up notes of dried cherries and raisins with toffee and cloves. It had all signature elements of a Warre vintage port: rich but elegant, powerful but complex. It was a truly exceptional evening, one that we will always remember/have foggy recollections of with great fondness. Thank you Paul and Susan.

And finally, because we were in Scotland, there was this . . .

 

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Scenes from beautiful Scotland:

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