They’re both part of the wine family aren’t they?
Well, after a fashion, yes. Most wines are unfortified, that is to say they have only the alcohol provided by God in the form of sun and grapes. But some wines, like Port, Sherry, Madeira and the two venerable old white wines, Marsala and Malaga, are strengthened by the addition of anything from brandy to industrial alcohol. Fortified wines, like fortified towns, are not to be taken lightly. They get you buzzing more quickly but can land you with the most appalling after-effects, if you’re not careful.
Port and Sherry may both be fortified wines, but that is where the similarities end. The biggest difference – the reason why Sherry is sometimes crisp and dry while Port is exclusively sweet – has to do with when these wines are fortified with grape spirit. Sherry is fortified after the wine has finished fermenting, after yeast has consumed the sugar in the grape juice. With Port, however, grape spirit is added before the wine has finished fermenting, before all the grape sugars have been devoured by yeast.
Bluffers should also note that Port is from the Douro Valley of Portugal, and Sherry is mainly from the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucia, Spain. As far as the latter is concerned ‘Sherry’ is an anglicization of the name ‘Jerez’ (but not a very faithful one, bearing in mind that Jerez is pronounced ‘Herreth’).
What else is different about Sherry?
Proper wine buffs wear their appreciation of Sherry as a badge of connoisseurship, so even if you find the peculiar salty tang of dry fino Sherry an acquired taste, you must at least pretend you have acquired it if you wish to appear sophisticated. You must serve it chilled, perhaps with a dish of salted almonds or slivers of Ibérico ham, sliced from the bone, of course.
All types of Sherry are aged for at least three years and are made in the solera system. Essentially, a bodega (or cellar to the average Joe) contains rows of barrels holding Sherries of different ages. About a third of the contents of the oldest barrels are bottled. This is topped up with wine from the second-oldest barrels, and so on. The youngest barrels contain the current vintage, and there must be a minimum of three sets of barrels. Thus, young and old wines are blended together and the blend is constantly refreshed. It’s a bit like playing with Russian dolls, only with barrels.
There are two principle types of Sherry: pale, dry styles such as fino and manzanilla, which age under a thin film of natural yeast called flor; and dark, dry oloroso, which is made without flor.
The fine film of flor (whilst also being pleasingly alliterative), protects the maturing wines from contact with the air, which gives them their typically sharp, pungent tang – a quality you can describe as rancio, which is perfectly polite in wine circles even though it basically means ‘rancid’. As mentioned, Oloroso is matured without any flor, meaning it has contact with air throughout the entire maturation process. It is fuller-bodied than Fino/Manzanilla but remains dry. It tends to be ‘nutty’, but you can add the requisite ‘raisiny’ adjective.
Pedro Ximénez Sherry, a thick, black, syrupy Sherry, is made from the sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grape. Call it simply ‘PX’ for maximum bluffing points. Not only are you allowed to pour this over vanilla ice cream with a handful of raisins, it is actively encouraged by certain wine writers. Do as they do – and bask in their reflected glory.
What do I need to know about Port?
If you thought Sherry was complicated, Port can really make your brain hurt, both figuratively and literally with the almighty hangovers it produces. The big deal with Port is whether it’s wood-aged (in a barrel) or bottle-aged; wood-aged is generally lighter in colour, spicier and nuttier, than the deeply coloured, overtly fruity, bottle-aged styles. White Port does exist, but as the wine writer Ernest Cockburn once remarked, ‘The first duty of Port is to be red, the second is to be drunk.’
Proper vintage Port is the poshest Port of all, with prices to match. Made from only the finest grapes from the best vineyards, it accounts for no more than 1% of Port production. Dark-purple, heavily tannic, intensely rich and fruity, it can take 20 years before it starts to reach its best. Because vintage Port takes so long to ‘come round’, it was a traditional christening present for boys, as child and wine would come of age at roughly the same time.
Which brings us, mercifully, to the wood-aged Ports.
Pour yourself a drink and we’ll get through this together…
Wood-aged Ports do their ageing in barrels, or cement tanks, and are bottled – usually filtered – when they’re ready to drink. The style known as aged tawny is matured in cask for at least six years, and named after its amber-brown tawny hue. Comment that the 30- and 40-year old wines aren’t always worth the premium they command over the perfectly delicious 10- and 20-year-olds. Tawny’s nutty, fig-like flavours are best enjoyed slightly chilled, making it the Port producer’s everyday tipple of choice.
Ruby Port is the cheap-and-cheerful wood-aged option, aged in bulk for one to three years, then filtered and bottled while still young and fiery with a deep-ruby colour. Best consumed with lemonade.
Wine buffs get very excited about whether a Port is filtered or unfiltered, the latter being dense with residual solids that give flavour and body to the wine and help it to improve with age. When the gunk sinks to the bottom of the bottle, the wine is said to have ‘thrown a deposit’, which requires the rigmarole of decanting it to separate it from the wine (this is a perfect opportunity for some elaborate bluffing).
DON’T SAY: ‘Sherry often leaves me on the flor.’
DO SAY: ‘I think it’s reasonable to suppose that if I’m over 21, my vintage Port must have come round by now.’