The wonderful world of sherry, port and Madeira wines

By Richard Esling BSc DipWSET

Blandys Madeira with Mince Pies and Cake SUS-161212-104752001
Blandys Madeira with Mince Pies and Cake SUS-161212-104752001

Richard is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. 

Most the wines which we drink on a regular basis, we do so throughout the year, be they still or sparkling.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

But there are certain other wines which we tend to consume only at this time of year, with the Christmas and New Year celebrations. I am referring to the fortified wines from Spain and Portugal - Sherry, Port and Madeira. Often thought of as wines for the aperitif or for an after-dinner tipple, they are in fact some of the best ‘food wines’ you can find. They are complex, aged, high quality wines with deep flavour profiles, which can be paired with a wide variety of dishes and should be considered on your own wine buying list throughout the year, not just at Christmas. For the quality, they are also extraordinarily good value for money. Having said that, with all the wonderful culinary treats which are cooked, roasted and baked during the end of year festivities, fortified wines can really come into their own. Sherry and Port are probably on most peoples’ agenda at some stage during this time, but a range which is often sadly and erroneously neglected is that of Madeira.

Wines have been exported from the island of Madeira for nearly 600 years and in their current form for over 200 years. Sat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, some 400 miles off the coast of North Africa, the Portuguese owned island benefits from a sub-tropical climate, but with enough other climatic and topographical conditions to allow the production of quality wine. The peculiarity of Madeira wine is that it is produced in oxidative (presence of air) conditions and subjected to heating during the production process.

Madeira wine is a unique product that has been appreciated by many world leaders over the centuries. George Washington drank it to toast Independence Day in 1776 and it was equally appreciated by Thomas Jefferson and much later by Winston Churchill. As far back as 1478, a popular story tells of the fate of the Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV. When sentenced to death, he chose to be drowned in a vat of Malmsey Madeira. I suppose there are worse ways to go. Blandys is the oldest Madeira wine company still in existence and is currently run by the seventh generation of the Blandy family. They have named one range of their wines after a number of Dukes - Sussex, Cumberland and for the Malmsey, Clarence of course. Blandys Madeiras are amongst the best that the island produces and range from the dry Sercial through to the rich and sweet Malmsey. They also produce a range of wines which have been aged in wooden casks for much longer in the warm storage buildings called ‘canteiros’. These wines are finer, with greater, depth of flavour, concentration and length on the palate. The 10-year-old Bual which is medium sweet, with flavours of dried fruits, prunes, almonds and toffee, is the perfect accompaniment to mince pies, whilst the richer, sweeter Malmsey with its, nutty, honeyed, caramel flavours, is sublime with both Christmas cake and Christmas pudding. Interestingly, Malmsey Madeira is one of the few wines which pair very well with dark chocolate desserts. Sunken chocolate torte with a glass of Blandys Malmsey Madeira. A marriage made in heaven or the work of the devil himself? Depends on your take on it, but worth the risk whatever!