Fortified Wines Practice Tasting... A Lesson In Structure...


Tasting fortified wines on Saturday, the point that wine structure really is key for recognition in a blind situation was once again reinforced in a major way.

if you put side by side, and Amontillado, an Oloroso, a Sercial, and even a Verdelho, you will see that the colour is pretty much the same.  All are clearly "rancio" on the 1st sniff. And, with alcohol ranging from 18.5 to 19. to 20%, it is evident that you are in the presence of a fortified wine.

And so, what sets them apart.  Structure is the key.  The Amontillado and the Oloroso both have a much lower level of acidity compared to the Sercial and Verdelho.  In fact, acidity is what clearly sets the Madeiras from the Sherries...

Let's see now, with a flight of each type, how the different wines compare and contrast each other...

Before we do, a note on "rancio".  This is a term generally used to describe a complex fruit character that comes from deliberate and controlled oxidation of the wine.  It encompass aromatic notes reminiscent of mixed nuts with roasted almond, hazelnuts, walnut included together with a touch of vanilla, exotic spices, caramel, toffee, and panforte.  A lovely lovely smell that is archetypical of cognac, armagnac and the like... 

Tio Pepe Fino Sherry

Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa Sherry

Side by side the color is rather similar. In theory, the Manzanilla should be paler, a clue that it should also be a more delicate wine.  However here, the wines do not show such a difference, both being very pale lemon green.  The first clue that we are dealing either with a fino or a manzanilla when we know that we are squarely in the fortified wine category... 

The second clue is on the nose.  Both are clearly pungent with yeasty, tangy, and sea weed character.  The Manzanilla is more "sea-salty" with intense notes of iodine, sea-breeze, oyster-shell, citrus, and almond.  There is a definite clarity and focus in this wine.  The Fino seems to be a little bit more "oily".  There is a a "brine-ness" quality reminiscent of the liquid used to preserve olives.  Clearly more nutty in character.

On the palate, both are on the lowish side of alcoholic fortification with 15% each.  Both also display a lowish acidity, yet they are smooth & fresh.  The Manzanilla is the lightest in body.  Slightly ethereal.  The Fino slightly heavier with an somewhat "oilier" feeling.

Both have a good length.  Complex.  For me, the Manzanilla was showing more expression and intensity on the after-taste.

Lustau Dry Amontillado Los Arcos  

Lustau Dry Oloroso Don Nuno Sherry  

Lustau Deluxe Cream Capataz Andres  

Here, in the blind exam situation, it would be easy to mix-up the Amontillado and the Oloroso.  The color, alcohol level and rancio fruit character are not that far apart.  

However, on close inspection, the Amontillado is a clean pale amber color while the Oloroso is a darker medium amber with a brown/olive tinge.

On the nose, the Amontillado displays a slightly pungent character reminiscent of the time spent under flor a long time ago.  It also shows very delicate rancio notes with orange peels and spices.  The Oloroso, is intensely fragrant.  Much more floral and nuttier in character than the Amontillado.  In fact notes reminiscent of orange blossom are delightfully evident.  Cognac like, the nose also shows more caramel notes and a slightly more accessible nose but overall it is very elegant and complex.

On the palate, the Amontillado is lighter than the Oloroso with 18.5% alcohol compared to the 20% of the other.  In fact, the Oloroso is clearly the fuller and rounder of these 2.  Both have a lowish acidity, a further clue that we are in the sherry category.

Again, both with a long length and complex character.  Both very good wines.

The Cream, compared to the Oloroso, is darker with a deep amber color and a brown tinge.  The nose is clearly more caramel in character with clear "PX" influence.  Intense rancio with prune, coffee, nuts and floral notes.  The lowish acidity and 20% alcohol are consistant with an Oloroso.  However it is the sweetness with about 120 g/l of residual sugar that firmly sets it apart.  Well integrated, complex, and long finish makes this one a good wine as well.

Lustau Pedro Ximenez San Emilio

A style very much on its own.  With a 17.5% alcohol level and a lowish acidity we are again in the sherry category.  Here is the wine shows a deep brown color and thick viscosity on the bowl of the glass clearly indicating it is made from semi-dried grapes and aged in a solera for some time.  The wine is luscious with 220 g/l of residual sugar.  Intense and complex aromas of caramel, raisin, chocolate, figs, and dark honey.  Unmistakably Pedro Ximenez.  Long finish and integrated.  Very good wine.

Sercial, 10 yr old, Vinhos Barbeito

Verdelho, 10 yr old, Vinhos Barbeito

Malvasia, 20-year-old, Vinhos Barbeito

Here the Sercial and the Verdelho are similar in color compared to the Malvasia.  Both lighter, certainly a clue that both are made without any skin contact while the Malvasia actually see some.  Compared to an Amontillado, their color are somewhat more golden in hue showing a clear deep gold color.  The Malvasia however is very similar to an Oloroso with a medium amber color.

What sets these 3 wines firmly apart from the Sherry category is their acidity.  Very crisp, even almost searing.  Another clue is the nose.  Here we find clearly more citrussy notes but also, and more importantly, a kind of torrefied character.  A clear indication that the wines have been aged in special heated conditions for 10 years.  Finally, all Madeira wines have noticeable amounts of residual sugar while not all Sherries have them.

The Sercial compared with the Verdelho shows a somewhat fresher fruit character.  Notes of fresh almonds, dried flowers and citrus.  The Verdelho is slightly "fatter" in character showing more dried fruits and nuts.  Both are clearly roasted with a touch of smoke.  Both at 20% alcohol and high acidity, they are consistent with the category.  What sets them apart here is the residual sugar.  The Sercial has about 12 g/l while the Verdelho has about 30 g/l.  Both are smooth with a slightly sour, "grapefruity" mouthfeel. Long length.  Good wines.  

The Malvasia is not only darker than the others but also sweeter with about 70 g/l.  The 20% alcohol and high acidity are consistant with the category.  The nose displays very intense citrus and rancio notes, clearly torrified.  More so that the other 2.  The wine is complex and elegant with its aromas delicately integrated.  The palate is smooth and the finish is long and intense.  A very good wine.

Fonseca Aged Tawny Port 10 Year Old

Fonseca Aged Tawny Port 20 Year Old

Fonseca Late Bottled Vintage Unfiltered

Fonseca Vintage Port 2007

In a blind situation, with its pale tawny color, even if the 20 years old Tawny can somewhat be confused to perhaps the Oloroso or the Malvasia, it is the clearly red hues that should give the game away.  Of the fortified wines analysed until now, Port is the only one made with red grapes.  On the nose, the Port is certainly more "grapey" and certainly the palate displays tannins, even is lowish and super silky.  And so.  Clearly, color is a poor friend when it comes to blind tasting.

The 10 Years Old is certainly more garnet in color than the 20 Years Old showing clear red hues, certainly indicative of things to come.  As much as the 20 Years old is clearly rancio in character as much the 10 Years old displays red fruits and is certainly more approachable.  Somewhat more straightforward and easy the 10 Years Old shows baked & jammy black forest fruits, a touch of leather and coffee.  The 20 Years old is more nutty, more oxidative.  Certainly more complex.  

On the palate, both show a medium acidity, a fortified level of alcohol at 19.5%.  Residual sugar in the 10 Years Old is 90 g/l while the 20 Years Old feels more like 100 g/l.  The 20 Years Old is certainly more concentrated and its tannins smoother, lighter.  Both have a good length.  Good wines.

it is very easy to confuse the LBV and the Vintage Port in a blind exam situation.  Very easy in fact.  Both show opaque purple color.  Both display dense and concentrated fruits on the nose.  Fresher black & red fruits than the Tawnies.  Both without any rancio character.  And both are certainly high in quality.

However, the absolute key here is that the LBV is ready to drink while the Vintage Port is not.  Casked aged for 4-6 years, the process helps the tannin and the fruit integrate so that the LBV is smoother and approachable earlier.  The Vintage Port is firmly tannic and certainly will benefit from more time in the bottle to smoothen its edges.

The 2nd clue is the quality of the fruit character.  The LBV is somewhat mellower, somewhat more subdued, testament to the time spent in cask before bottling.  Here, the Vintage Port is clearly more vivacious, showing a fruit liveliness that is different than the other. 

Third clue is that, on careful analysis, the Vintage Port is much denser in fruit aromas and also in fruit concentration on the palate.

Lastly and more importantly, even if the Vintage Port does not reveal itself much on the nose, perhaps because it is so dense, it is on the finish that we discover the incredible potential for complexity it has over the long term.  Very long finish, even if tannic.  Outstanding wine.

Maury Mas Amiel Vintage 2008

I always like to taste a Maury after the Port.  In appearance, it is very much like a LBV.  But the similarities stop there really. 

On the nose, the Maury is clearly red fruit in character with slightly roasted notes.  This is certainly a clue that it is made from Grenache and with special heated condition to "roast" the fruit.  Here, the wines display lovely and delicate roasted strawberries, baked charries, chocolate, and sweet spices.  Mouthwatering.

On the palate, the difference is also clear.  Only 15% alcohol compared to 20% for the LBV.  Lowish acidity and tannin, again testament of Grenache as the fruit to make the wine.  Certainly less concentration than the LBV.

The wine is complex, delicate, savoury and lip-smacking.  A very good length of the after-taste makes is a very good wine!