Truly fortifying


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

See my tasting notes on all 41 great fortified wines.

Last month, as part of the Institute of Masters of Wine's sixtieth birthday celebrations, a very special tasting was organised of a collection of some of the most exciting wines I have ever encountered. They were grouped by country of origin and if I were to undertake an analysis as crass as averaging my scores out of 20, and excepted a slightly underwhelming South African Hanepoot Jerepigo 1969, France (unusually) would come bottom of the heap with 16.7 while Greece is at the top with 19. 

Admittedly there was only one Greek wine among the total of 41, and it is not commercially available. Only one barrel was ever made of the romantically named Union of Winemaking Co-operatives of Samos's 1980 Nectar and, like several other wines, it did not strictly qualify as a fortified wine, the stated theme for the tasting. Fortified wines are strengthened by the addition of alcohol, whereas this rarity from the island of Samos was made by sun-drying for 15 days specially selected small-berried Muscat grapes grown at high altitude, then macerating the resulting raisins for a week before ageing the fermented liquid in oak for 28 years before it was bottled late in 2008. This produced a bright reddish tawny liquid that smelt of butterscotch and hinted at being sickly before flicking delightfully into bracing refreshment mode, thanks to quite beautifully balanced acidity. Unlike most of the other wines – some were up to 21% alcohol – this one was only 14.2%, but I don't think the low alcohol played a part in my abnormally high score. Many of my other favourites were almost half as strong again as this one.

Twenty-first century vintages of Samos Nectar from the same source are currently widely available and are great value at under £10 a half bottle, but are nothing like as complex and life-affirming as this 1980 example – which underlines the purpose of the tasting. Producers were urged to select 'legendary' wines truly worthy of a 60th anniversary celebration. In a way, the fact that fortified and other strong and sweet wines are so relatively unfashionable worked in our favour. For many of these wines there is no irresistible commercial demand, and they tend to be inherently robust. All over the world, to judge from this tasting, lurk caches of some of the world's finest wines, languishing far from view and the spotlight of hype – too strong or too sweet for widespread attention.

The delightful result of the call for such wines was that in some cases we were treated to fragments of family history. Chester Osborn shared his Daddy Long Legs Extremely Rare tawny-port-like Grenache that had lain in barrel in a cobwebbed corner of his family's D'Arenberg winery in South Australia for 40 years. Chris Blandy, the young man now at the helm of the eponymous madeira company, trumped this with an 1887 Verdelho. I kept turning the bottle round in search of the word 'solera' since madeiras made from a frequently refreshed collection of wine begun in year X, known as an X Solera, are not that uncommon. But this really was the produce of the 1887 vintage. When he joined the family company in 2011, Chris Blandy became increasingly intrigued by a series of 27 glass demijohns stored in their wine lodges in Funchal. On examination, one of the 14 different wines in them turned out to be this beauty, a wine bottled only in August this year. It had the most extraordinary vitality in the mouth, was dry, as madeira made from the Verdelho grape usually is, yet extremely tangy and somehow tasted of liquid mahogany and history.

The 1887 madeira may have been the oldest wine in the collection – although Barbadillo's Reliquia Amontillado was filled from a single cask thought to contain at least centenarian sherry – but it certainly wasn't the most educational. We MWs are meant to be masters of the wine universe yet I'm sure I wasn't the only taster to encounter my first-ever example of a sweet red fortified wine made in vineyards round Cadiz from a grape known locally as Tintilla de Rota and identified by DNA analysis as the Graciano of Rioja, Morrastel of southern France, and Bovale Sardo of Sardinia. This 2009 vintage of González Byass's Finca Moncloa Tintilla de Rota is the first to have been released commercially and tasted like beautifully sweet, rose-scented claret – not heavy at all.

It was served alongside another eye-opening Spanish bargain, which was similarly florally perfumed and less than 16% alcohol. The Espolla co-op's Solera Gran Reserva NV Empordà is a Costa Brava riposte to the Grenache-based vins doux naturels of Roussillon over the Pyrenees. Made from grapes of all three colours fermented and matured for at least 10 years in a 70-year-old solera, this is a fraction of the price of, say, the equally impressive, and even older, French Domaine Cazes, Cuvée Aimé Cazes 1978 Rivesaltes. 

Although Portugal and Australia, the latter with her super-stickie fortified Muscats and Tokays, fielded the greatest number of heart-stopping wines, Spain definitely won the prize for value. A third, quite outstanding and by no means classic bargain was Pérez Barquero's Gran Barquero Amontillado from Andalucia's 'other' strong wine region, Montilla-Moriles to the east of the Jerez region that is so famous for sherry. In fact the sherry name Amontillado means 'in the style of Montilla' and this 19% alcohol wine from the region's leading exporter showed why. Although the Pedro Ximénez grapes characteristic of Montilla-Moriles give a much more raisiny edge to the wine than the Palomino gapes of Jerez, the overall effect of this wine – aged, initially under flor yeast, for a total of almost 30 years in an ancient solera – is dry, pungent, and deeply satisfying. You can pick up a bottle for just €12 in Spain, $15 in the US or under £20 in the UK – yet more proof of the lack of correlation between price and quality in the world of wine 

We were treated to some wines, other than the Greek and the forgotten 1887 madeira, that are simply not available commercially. Orlando's 1947 tawny (rebranded Jacob's Creek) is no longer available, nor is Graham's delicious 1935 Colheita port. Taylor have never put the 1970 port made on their home farm of Quinta de Vargellas on the market. Instead they reserve it for guests, and celebrating Masters of Wine. Tickets for this tasting at £80 (half price for MWs) were one of the year's great bargains.




No. of wines

Average score out of 20


























S Africa




I gave all of the following truly great fortified wines that are available commercially a score of at least 18. Prices are very approximate and per bottle unless stated otherwise.

Campbell, Isabella Rare Topaque NV Rutherglen (£50 a half)
Bailey's of Glenrowan, Rare Muscat NV Glenrowan (£40 a half) 

Quinta do Noval, Nacional 1994 port (£1,000)
Taylor 1955 port (£325)
Graham 1970 port (£125) 

Equipo Navazos, La Bota de Manzanilla 42 NV sherry (£30)
Barbadillo, Reliquia Amontillado 'Manuel y Aurora' NV sherry (not available – yet)
Valdespino, Toneles Moscatel NV Jerez (£320)
González Byass, Finca Moncloa Tintilla de Rota 2009 VT de Cádiz (about €25) 

See my tasting notes on all 41 great fortified wines.