Winter invites hotel and restaurant customers to seek out warmth and comfort and so at this time of year, the market for fortified wines, port and sherry reaches its peak.
Port and sherry drinkers tend to be knowledgeable when it comes to choosing brands and vintages and in order to optimise sales therefore a training session for serving staff is well worthwhile.
For a variety of historical reasons, the service and consumption of port, for instance, is tied up with etiquette, styles and rituals.
Who, but our beloved near neighbours in Britain, would ask a dining companion if he ‘knew the Bishop of Norwich’, when what he really wanted was a refill of his port glass. Yet that still happens at tables in many parts of the world.
The rigmarole is based on the tradition of ‘Passing the Port’, which began in the British Navy where officers meticulously passed the decanter ‘from port to port’ or clockwise. Traditionally, the decanter of port is placed in front of the host who then serves the guest to his right and then passes the decanter to the guest on his left. The port is then passed to the left all the way back to the host.
In the event that the decanter does not come full circle, it is considered to be bad ‘port-iquette’ to ask for it directly. The host instead is to ask the individual closest to the decanter, if he ‘knows the Bishop of Norwich’. The question is not meant to get an answer but action – namely the immediate passing of the port. If however, the unfortunate offender should answer the question by saying ‘No’, he is told that ’The Bishop is an awfully good fellow, but he never passes the port’.
Knowing Port is easier said than done. It comes in a range of styles, vintages and brands which might be specially contrived to confuse the customer. However two broad categories define Port – bottle aged or cask aged. The two processes produce distinctly different wines. Bottle aged Ports keep their colour and generally their fruitiness into their maturity They are aged for a short time in wood and are bottled without filtration where they are meant to mature. Cask aged Ports lose much of their colour and become tawny. These are aged in wood and then filtered and bottled. They are ready to drink right away.
Ruby is the most basic and least expensive style of Port. It is a blend from the produce of several harvests, that spends two to three years in stainless steel or wood before it is bottled.
Tawny is aged at least six years in the cask before it is bottled. The flavour becomes drier and nuttier from the oxidation.
Aged Tawny are the best tawny Ports. They give the average age of the wines that have gone into making the blends. They are available in 10, 20, 30 and 40 year versions with a corresponding increase in price.
Colheita is a tawny but from a single vintage. It must receive a minimum of seven years in wood, but most are aged much longer.
White Ports range from very dry to very sweet. The sweetest is designated as Lagrima. These are served straight up or on the rocks, most often as an apéritif.
Crusted Port is named for the crust of sediment it forms in the bottle. It is a blend of port from several vintages that is bottled after three years in cask.
Vintage Character Ports might also be referred to as Super or Premium Ruby. These are usually marketed under brand names like Sandeman's ‘Founders Reserve’ or Taylor's ‘First Estate’.
Single-Quinta Ports are made in both tawny and vintage styles but with the distinction that they come from only one vineyard.
Late Bottled Vintage or LBV are the produce of a single vintage. A vintage not deemed good enough to make a Vintage Port, will go into the making of an LBV.
Vintage Port is the finest and most expensive of the Port styles. At most, it accounts for about 2% of all production and is one of the most sought after wines in the world. Vintage Port comes from a single harvest of exceptional quality, as stated on the bottle, and is bottled after two to three years of cask ageing. The wine then spends many years maturing in the bottle. It may take 15 to 50 years for a good Vintage Port to be ready for drinking. Each shipper must decided within two years of a harvest year if that particular year will be of enough quality to be released as a Vintage Port. This is known as ‘declaring the vintage’. The first vintages were declared around 1734. The best vintages from the 20th. century include 1994, 1992, 1991, 1985, 1977, 1970, 1963, 1955, 1948, 1945, 1935, 1931, 1927, and 1912.
Rare and Popular Sherry
While the ‘Sherry Reception’ is now something of a rarity in Irish hospitality, this fortified wine from Jerez in the South of Spain retains its admirers and can be served as an attractive apertitif.
It is produced in bodegas from Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes grown in chalky soil using the ‘solera’ process. A succession of casks are filled with the wine over a number of year. At the end of each year, the oldest cask in the solera is tapped for part of its content, which is bottled. Then that cask is refilled from the next oldest and the process continues down to the youngest cask , which is refilled with new wine .
Sherry is produced in a variety of styles, ranging from dry, light versions such as Fino to darker and heavier versions known as Oloroso. Sweet dessert wine Sherry is made from Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes or blended with Palomino.
Sherry is a branded product and the name of the producer is often the determining factor when choosing a brand. Harveys, Sandeman, Tio Pepe and Croft are well established on the Irish market and account for the lions share of sales. When it came to choosing a favourite sherry however Irish sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine retailers came up with some interesting choices at a pre-Christmas tasting last year. Among the dry wines, most votes went to Antique Palo Cortado imported by Searsons. Second spot went to ‘La Guita’ from Classic Drinks and it was followed by Manzanilla La Goya imported by Vinostito. Tio Pepe (Barry Fitzwilliam) took fourth place and Marqués de Rodil Especial Palo Cortado from the Celtic Whiskey Shop was fifth. Among the sweet sherries Valdivia Pedro Ximénez from Febvre took top spot, ‘Rare Cream Superior’ from Mitchells was second, Dry Sack Solera especial from Findlater Wines was third, Pedro Ximenez Delgado Zuleta from Vinostito was fourth and fifth place went to the curiously-named Pedro Ximénez Sticky Pudding imported by Greenlea Wines
Most of these sherries are virtually unknown to mainstream consumers, but they do represent an opportunity to offer diners something interesting and novel over the Festive Season.
Other wines are also fortified including Madeira which has its own special characteristics. Again it is brand-based and Febvre imports the excellent Blandy’s.
Vermouths including Martini and Cinzano dominate the market for lighter fortified wines. Once the ‘chic’ drinks of the glitterati they now feature most prominently as ingredients in cocktails. They are nevertheless a light aperitif with a capacity to whet the taste buds.
It is therefore possible- and pleasant- to both begin and end a meal with fortified wines and by promoting Vermouth, Port and Sherry this Christmas restaurants and bars can enhance not only the experience of diners, but also their own sales and profits.