Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Fortified selection.
Fortified wines once held a far more important position in the world of wine than they do now. In the warm climates where they hail from they were mostly originally produced as a means to give stability to the wine before exporting, usually after a happy accident led them to this production method. Sadly, despite being delicious and some of the great bargains of the fine wine world, the demise in popularity of fortified wines can be seen in the trading figures from Port, Sherry & Madeira. There is a vast array of styles from numerous regions and countries, in order to keep this reader friendly we’ll focus on the top three styles of Port, Sherry and Madeira, although this isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty to be discussed where Vin doux Naturel and Liqueur Muscats are concerned. So strap yourself in, and maybe grab a decent wedge of cheese or two while you’re reading this, as I know afterwards you’re going to want to add some fortified wines to your next order – we are in the lead up to Christmas after all…
Grapes have been grown in Portugal since around 2000BC, however it was the romans who arrived in Portugal in the second century BC who first grew vines and made wine along the banks of the Douro River where Port is produced today. In 1386 the Treaty of Windsor established a close political, military and commercial alliance between England and Portugal. Trading links developed between the two countries and many English merchants settled in Portugal with a significant amount of Portuguese wine being exported to England by the fifteenth century. As with most regional histories, Portugal was devasted by Phylloxera in the nineteenth century, but in 1820 the method of adding grape spirit to Port to stop fermentation was introduced and became widespread in 1852 when ports began to take on similar characteristics to ports drank today.
The small island of Madeira has been producing and exporting its wines since shortly after its discovery by the Portuguese in 1419. The production of madeira came about by accident when a ship full of wine endured a rough passage with the wine being tossed and thrown about caused the wine to condense, vaporize and aerate. This coupled with the days of heat endured while crossing the equator produced a wine like modern day Madeira. The sailors were instructed to dispose of the wine, however never ones to waste a drink the sailors drank this, thought to be ruined’ wine and realised it was actually pretty delicious. In 1776 madeira became very popular in US mostly thanks to Thomas Jefferson who wrote length, praiseworthy treaties on Madeira. However, between the 1850 -70s: phylloxera nearly wiped out the wine industry before US vines species were planted in 1870s.
Jerez is one of the oldest wine producing towns in Spain, but it was in 1578 when Drake (not to be confused with current rap sensation) fled Jerez with wine that Sherry became popular in the UK. However, in 1625 Lord Wimbledon attempted a second attack on Cádiz, this time unsuccessful, which led the English, Scots and Irish to guarantee their supplies of sherry through the usual trading channels by establishing their own businesses in the Region. It was between the 1950s-1980s, when Ruiz Mateo and his Rumasa empire contributed to Sherry’s success but also drove prices down, today Sherry is still some of the best value premium wines available. Cream sherry has been in decline since mid 80s in the UK due to a dwindling market (read into that what you will).
Port, Madeira & Sherry: The Sub-Regions
The port trade has important bases in the coastal towns of Oporto & Vila Nova de Gaia, with the Douro Valley located approximately 100 miles in land from Oporto. Wines are aged in the port of Villa Nova de Gaia but it is the Douro Valley is where Port grapes are grown. There are 3 main areas within the Valley;
- Baixo Corgo: This is where vineyards were first developed. It is the wettest and flattest area which produces higher yields but less quality. The Vineyards are planted on extremely steep slopes along the banks of the Douro river.
- Cima Corgo: It wasn’t until rapids in the Douro river were cleared away using dynamite that this area could be developed. It produces high quality wines and contains the greatest concentration of top vineyards. The vineyards are also planted on the steep slopes on banks of the Douro river.
- Douro Superior: This is the driest area in the Douro and a Unesco protected area. It’s sparsely planted, also a source of top-quality wine. However, it has the highest percentage of flatter vineyards, which means mechanisation is more widely used. This is attractive o producers as it decreases cost of production, however the low rainfall is an issue.
Land ownership is very fragmented and of the producers only H&H owns vineyards. Very mountainous, viticulture only possible on very steep & often terraced slopes on the North & South coasts. Mechanisation is virtually impossible. Irrigation channels (levadas) leading from mountains support the warmer, drier coastal areas. Traditional method is pergola – associated issues with fungal disease mean the cordon VSP is the preferred method for new plantings – only on flatter terrain
Jerez de la Frontera is the town which gives sherry its name, while the shippers headquarters and bodegas can be found in 3 sherry towns – Sanlúcar, El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez. The total area of vineyards in Jerez is just over 10,000 Ha and depending on the location, vineyards can be divided into two quality distinctions;
- Jerez Superior Area: around 95% of the area, with the best soils & climate, mostly located in the sherry triangle
- Simply Zona: formed by clay and sandy soils – more or less abandoned now.
Jerez is traditionally divided into “Pagos” (districts) of similar climate and land – Carrascal, Macharnudo, Aniña and Balbaina are some examples. The region of Montilla-Moriles (its name incorporates 2 of its towns) used to blend its wines in Jerez, however 50 years ago they moved it back to its own region and focus on Pedro Ximénez.
The soil in the Douro Valley is a mixture of clay and broken schist. Schist is a metamorphic rock that has been created by erosion then subjected to heat. It is very hard and very brittle which means vines can easily penetrate down to the water table beneath. Soil penetrates between the vertical layers of rock, and it is the rock which protects the soil from erosion. It is because of this rock (and the steepness of some of the vineyards) that it is very difficult to machine harvest in the Douro.
The soils in Madeira are fertile and volcanic, in fact some soils are so fertile they are unsuitable for viticulture.
The soils in Jerez can be divided into 3 main types:
- Albarizas: White organic loam formed by sediment from the sea, it is rich in calcium carbonate, clay and silica and highly moisture retentive although there is also a greater risk of chlorosis. Tends to give more of a “fino” character with clear pungency on the nose.
- Barros: A dark brown clay soil with less limestone content, but rich in decomposed organic matter. It tends to give fuller bodied musts.
- Arenas: A combination of sand and clay which is reddish in colour with a high content of aluminate and silica. Musts from this soil are coarser than the rest.
The Douro valley generally is a warm continental climate with rain in winter. However, the climate becomes drier & hotter the further east up Douro as these areas are increasingly protected from rain bearing winds by the Serra do Marão mountain. The different areas within the Douro record different amounts of rain;
- Baixo Corgo: 900mm
- Cima Corgo: 700mm
- Douro Superior: 400mm
In summer temperatures can exceed 35c, with some of the best vineyard sites facing North as this helps limit the effect of the sun. However, this heat also means there is a low risk of mildew.
Madeira enjoys a temperate climate with hot humid summers and mild winters. Rainfall varies from 3000mm at high altitudes to 500mm near sea level with more rain falling on the cooler Northern side of the island. With all this rainfall and humidity damp and fungal diseases pose a problem.
Jerez enjoys a very warm Mediterranean climate with high levels of sunshine. The temperatures are moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean & The Mediterranean Sea and also the Guadalete & Guadalquivir rivers. There are two major winds which have an impact; the Poniente, which is temperate and humid and the levante which is hot and dry. The average temperature is 17.5c and there are almost 300 days of sun/year. However, rainfall is high compared to most of Spain with an average of 600l/m2, mostly falling in autumn and winter.
The Grape Varieties
There are over 80 varieties authorised for port production, however there are only 29 varieties actually recommended for port production. Below covers some of the major indigenous varieties found in Port production.
- Touriga Nacional: An intense black variety with natural acidity and excellent colour. It is intensely aromatic with firm tannins. Considered the most important and highest quality of the Douro varieties. However, it is not popular with growers due to low yields and it is expensive to cultivate
- Touriga Franca: Produces floral aromas and blackberry fruit with velvety tannins and good colour.
- Tinta Barroca: Provides weight, structure, sweetness and red berry fruit characters.
- Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo): An aromatic variety with thick tannins which can aid long aging of wines.
- Tinta Cão: Tannin, tannin and more tannin!
- White Port Grape Varieties – Sercial (Esgana Cão) & Malvasia
There are 4 noble varieties of Madeira, however they only account for 25% of plantings. The other hybrids planted in Madeira cannot be used in production of Madeira. In order of increasing sweetness, the noble grape varieties in Madeira are;
- Sercial: Planted in the north of the island, although there is some in the south at high altitudes. Produces dry wines with high acidity, clean mineral characters with hints of fruits and nuts.
- Verdelho: Planted in the north of the island at lower altitudes than Sercial. It is the most widely planted of the noble varieties. It produces aromatic medium-dry wines with marked acidity with hints of caramel.
- Boal: Planted in warm locations in the south of the island. It produces medium-sweet wines with nutty, vanilla characteristics with raisin and fruit notes while retaining high acidity.
- Malmsey: Planted in the south of the island with a small amount planted in the north at low altitude. This variety requires plenty of sun to ripen and produces the sweetest wines full of honey, raisin and caramel flavours.
- Tinta Negra (Red Variety): Accounts for majority of V.Vinifera plantings & planted all over the island. Can produce a range of sweetness unlike noble varieties, however, cannot be varietally labelled.
The principle grapes used in the production of Sherry are Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel.
- Palomino Fino: A drought resistant variety which produces large bunches of medium sized well rounded delicate skinned grapes. Rapid harvesting is necessary as it has a very low natural acidity.
- Pedro Ximénez: Used to produce sweet wines, although plantings are decreasing. The grapes once picked are left in the sun to they lose moisture by evaporation concentrating sugars.
- Moscatel: Mostly planted close to the beach of sandy soils. Produces aromatic wines with fruity notes.
Traditional styles are golden in colour with low acidity, some honey and nut aromas of deliberate oxidation. They can range from off dry to sweet. Generally, all are Non-Vintage with a minimum 16.5% ABV. There are new styles appearing on the market more suited to mixing with tonic to produce a fresh and fruit aperitif.
There are a number of styles of Ruby Ports, but the majority are deeply coloured, fruity and bottled ready to drink with few benefiting from further aging.
- Basic Ruby Port: inexpensive, young, NV, full bodied, generally less than 3 years age.
- Reserve Ruby Port
- Blend of higher quality wine from 1 or more vintages
- Cask matured for up to 5 years before bottling
- Filtered so does not need decanting
- Specific vintage, aged between4 – 6 years before bottling
- Modern Styles: fined and filtered before bottling – does not age in bottle
- Bottle Matured Styles (less common): unfined and unfiltered – improves in bottle. They are released only after a further 3 years aging in bottle with a tannic structure & fruit complexity similar to vintage port.
Tawny Ports are paler & browner in colour with complex aromas as a result of their oxidative aging. They are bottled ready to drink and fully matured.
- Basic Tawny Port: produced from lighter coloured, less extracted wines from Baixo Corgo
- Reserve Tawny Port
- At least 7 years maturation in wood.
- Far more complex, very soft & smooth, more russet or tawny colour
- Blend of wine from different vintages
- Tawny Port with Age Indication (10, 20, 30 or over 40 year old)
- To qualify for a label, shipper must register stock of wine at that age
- Wines lose freshness after bottling
- Colheita Port
- Rare, single vintage, aged in wood until just before release
- Minimum aging of 8 years
These are the best wines only produced in the best years which are intended for aging in the bottle so they have a short maturation of less than 18 – 36 months. They undergo no fining of filtration.
- Vintage Port: 2 years in oak then much longer in bottle, produced from best vineyards in best years.
- Single Quinta: Same as vintage but a product of a single estate and generally made more frequently than vintage ports.
The wines have given their names to the technique of producing Madeira by using heat in the maturation process to render a wine practically indestructible. The different styles of Madeira are produced by following either the port of sherry systems.
- Sweet: port method of adding grape spirit to halt the fermentation
- Dry: Sherry method allowing the yeasts to complete fermentation
Sercial and Verdelho are fermented off the skins, while Boal and Malmsey undergo skin contact which in part accounts for the fuller styles. The maturation of a Madeira wine also impacts the style;
- Canteiros: casks left in lofts heated by the sun to temperatures greater than 30c, single varietal and vintage styles must age like this for at least 3 years.
- Estufa: wines are pumped into stainless steel containers and heated for a minimum of 3 months at 45-50c, commercial styles must age like this for at least 2 years.
Wines with Age Identification:
- 3 Year Old/Finest: Estufa aged Tinta Negra, Labelled according to sweetness.
- 5 Year Old/Reserva: Mainly Tinta Negra, some labelled noble grapes & blends.
- 10 Year Old/Reserva Especial: Canteiro blends, varietally labelled.
- 15 Year Old/Reserva Extra: Canteiro blends, varietally labelled.
- Vintage Dated Wines: Wines produced from fractional blending. A suitable wine is Canteiro aged for 5 years then 10% of the wine can be bottled & volume replaced with a wine of similar quality. A maximum of 10 bottlings are permitted before all wine must be bottled each bottling must show the vintage of the original wine.
- Colheita/Harvest: min 5 years aged, tinta negra blend or varietally labelled.
- Frasquera/Vintage: Varietally labelled noble variety, aged for min 20 years.
Dry Sherry Wines
- Fino: Generally light in alcohol and matured under flor. A distinctive bone-dry wine which requires minimum blending.
- Manzanilla: A lighter and drier sherry than a Fino. Aged just like a Fino (under flor) but must be aged in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (by the sea) which gives it its signature salty tang.
- Amontillado: Starts aging process with flor, then the yeasts fade leaving the wine to age oxidatively becoming a darker more complicated wine. The best amontillados are technically old finos which lacked the zing for drinking young and put on weight with age.
- Oloroso: The higher ABV doesn’t allow development of flor so fully matured in contact with air.
- Palo Cortado: A failed fino which combines aromas of an amontillado wine with the body of an Oloroso – rich-yet-dry.
Sweet Natural Sherry Wines
- Pedro Xinenez: Sun dried PX grapes
- Moscatel: Sun dried Moscatel grapes
Blended Sherry Wines
- Pale Cream: A blend of fino & sweetened Palomino musts. After blending the wine ages for some time to obtain consistency. Bristol Pale Cream remains a best seller of this style.
- Abocado/Medium: A blend of Oloroso or Amontillado wines & sweet PX wine. After blending the wine ages for some time to obtain consistency.
- Oloroso Dulce/Cream: A blend of Oloroso & PX wines. After blending the wine ages for some time to obtain consistency.
- Sherry with Age Indication: 12 & 15 years, and certifications only given to individual soleras of a certain age and quality, however not applicable to Fino and Manzanilla.
- The Regulatory Council has created categories of Sherry with a qualified age which is only applicable to Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado & Pedro Ximénez:
- VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum): 20 Years old
- VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum): 30 Years old
Like all fortified wine categories Port is struggling for market share, although there are have been a number of innovations in recent years to find new consumers. E.g. Warre’s repacked their 10yo tawny port as Otima, Croft taking advantage of the pink revolution with the development of rosé port, and more recently Graham’s have produced a white port designed for mixing to produce an aperitif style beverage. However, Port exports are still in decline while non fortified Portuguese wines are experiencing a steady increase. France is a key market for Port wines, however this is mainly young tawny styles, while the US, UK and Canada prefer the premium styles.
Over the centuries the Madeira economy has gone through ups and downs, alternating periods of great prosperity with other crisis associated with trade cycles of sugar and wine worldwide. It was the plagues of vineyards, aka Phylloxera, which almost eliminated the wine trade. The following decades saw exports continue to decline until Madeira wine was almost only used in the kitchen. However, the situation has improved with investment in new export markets and the accession to the European Union providing technological improvement in the production process.
Sales of Sherry have all but collapsed in the category’s top five markets over the last decade, with global exports nearly halving since 2002. The UK used to be Sherry’s largest export market until 2010 has almost halved in recent years, a similar story can be seen in the Dutch market as well. Showing that the taste for Sherry outside Spain is in a seemingly irreversible decline. The drop in sales is mirrored by the shrinking area under vine in Jerez and the smaller Sherry producing areas, which in total are now only two-thirds of the size they were in 2002. However, it is not all doom and gloom with premium sherry enjoying a renaissance in the UK, riding on the coat tails of more premium Spanish restaurants popping up, and the trend towards drinking less but better.
1985: Some variability across houses, the best are intense and aromatic.
1987: Balanced and Elegant.
1991: Balanced and rich with good acidity.
1992: Very concentrated with lots of tannin and fruit power.
1994: A super classic vintage.
1995: Fruit driven well structed wines Extremely fruity, well-structured, with fine tannins, good length.
1997: Textbook Vintage Ports produced.
2000: Loads of structure yet still aromatic and ripe.
2003: Some classic wines produced, fresh and aromatic, with ripe fruit and powerful tannins.
2007: An elegant yet structured vintage.
2011: A benchmark vintage with concentrated fruit and plenty of tannin.
2014: Not widely declared, lots of rain.
2015: Not generally declared, most houses releasing only single-quinta bottlings.
2016: Most declared, with the wines showing plenty of fruit, acidity and structure.
2017: Back-to-back general declaration thanks to a very warm & dry vintage producing concentrated wines.