Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals that include roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, and spices. It’s bitter (wormwood was the key original ingredient) and was originally used for medicinal purposes – bitters often being prescribed for ailments ranging from fever to worms. It became a fashionable aperitif in Turin during the late 18th Century – especially after a little sugar was added to the recipe – and from there was taken up as a basis for many of the earliest and most classical cocktails like the Martini. It remains more of a cocktail ingredient than a fortified wine to be drunk in its own right.
A Turin merchant, Antonio Benedetto Carpano marketed the first sweet vermouth in 1786 and Joseph Noilly the first pale, dry vermouth in France beginning about 20 years later. Its production hasn’t retained any close association to any particular region – although a lot still comes from Italy and France. The Carpano name is still proudly emblazoned on many Italian varieties.
It hasn’t retained a close association to any particular recipe either, with many variations developed around the world. Inconsistency in the formula was encouraged by the fact that wormwood was made illegal in many countries until fairly recently. It’s believed many producers continued to add it anyway, but it’s hard to be sure because vermouth recipes are usually heavily guarded secrets.
Other famous brands include Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, and Noilly Prat.
Dubonnet is a sweet aperitif, about15% alcohol – a blend of fortified wine, herbs, and spices (including quinine). The fermentation is stopped by adding extra alcohol in the same manner as most other fortified wines.
Joseph Dubonnet developed the drink in 1864 in response to a competition run by the French Government to find a way of persuading troops in the Foreign Legion to drink quinine! (to combat malaria). It’s often mixed with gin.
Dubonnet is also commonly mixed with lemonade or bitter lemon, and forms part of many cocktails. Sadly, a lot of classy people suffer from malaria…
It’s long been a favourite drink of both Queen Elizabeth II and the late Queen Mother (mixed with 1/3 gin and served with lemon).
It is now available in Rouge, Blanc and Gold (vanilla and orange) varieties – which means it won’t leave a stain if it gets spilled on those curtains.
From the Madeira Islands – a couple of hundred miles from the Portuguese coast and at one time a key stop-over port on the way to far flung Portuguese outposts around the world. Again, the point of fortifying the wines was almost certainly introduced as a way to preserve them before their long sea voyages (both extra alcohol and the extra sugar it leaves in the wine have this effect).
The story goes that one batch that was still on board a ship when it returned to port was found to have been greatly improved after being roasted by heat in the tropics. Thereafter the custom was introduced of heating the wine as part of the production method (for three continuous months – much like a voyage in a wooden ship in Tropical waters). This process makes it even better preserved and its worth mentioning that madeira can be kept for a long time after opening – although why you’d want to keep it instead of drinking it is hard to fathom.
As you may have read in our feature on Whisky, madeira was a major factor in the American revolution – beginning when cargo sloop The Liberty was impounded in Boston harbour for non-payment of duty on the 3000 gallons of madeira it was carrying – causing mass rioting by Boston residents. presumably desperate for drink. The later ditching of Tea into the harbor makes more sense in this historical context, alcohol taxes were really what it was all about.
George Washington symbolically toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with the same Madeira wine and is said to have drunk a pint of it with every meal thereafter – a fact which didn’t stop him taxing it for everybody else and marching on Kentucky with 17000 troops when the people rebelled against the new booze taxes all over again.
On land or at sea, the traditional custom, as with most wines, was to serve drier varieties as an aperitif before a meal and sweeter ones with the dessert. Since most of us in the modern UK don’t get to sit down for a civilized two hour lunch any more these customs have died the death.
Another thing to be aware of is that there are cheaper versions of Madeira that are intended for cooking only. You can’t drink them because they have salt and pepper added – so take a Portuguese dictionary when you go shopping for Madeira.
Let them eat cake
Three bad things have happened to madeira – cake, americans, and phylloxera.
Much to many people’s disappointment, there is no madeira in madeira cake – and never has been. The only connection the cake recipe seems to have to the wine is that they were often eaten together – and the name of one was cruelly and deceitfully transferred to the other. There is a traditional cake from Madeira – it’s now called bolo de mel – honey cake, but it was originally made from molasses, and not a drop of madeira wine goes into that either.
Also know that in defiance of European rules, the Americans sell stuff they label as “Madeira”, just as they do “Port” and “Sherry”. Needless to say they could contain anything except madeira (although some contain madeira).
Alas, the phylloxera epidemic that hit other wine growing regions of Europe so hard in the late 19th Century also struck Madeira – decimating the traditional grape varieties. So most of the madeira sold today is made from a different grape and will be subtly different that those that excited our forbears so much (as is true of nearly all wines today). However the original grape varieties are not completely extinct and it may still be possible to find madeira made from the Terrantez or Bastardo grape varieties.
Madeira comes in many varieties. The following is an introduction to the terminology.
Cuba de Calor – The name refers to 90 days of heat-aging. Armazém de Calor – uses a gentler heating process for a longer period of time (as much as a year). Canteiro – the highest quality method uses no unnatural heating at all but stores the wine in a warm room for as much as 20 years, or even much longer (100 year old canteiro is rumoured to exist). Sercial – is fermented until nearly dry before being fortified – it has almond flavours but is quite acidic. Verdelho – fermentation is stopped a little sooner so has a slightly sweeter smoky flavor (but still quite acidic). Bual (or Boal) – a little sooner still and you get a dark colour, medium-rich texture, and raisin flavours. Malmsey (or Malvasia or Malvazia) – sweet, dark, rich and with coffee or caramel flavours. Finest – is at least 3 years old and used for cooking (especially popular in cake – but what cake nobody knows – not madeira). Reserve – once bottled has been kept for at least 5 years Special Reserve – bottled for ten years Extra Reserve – 15 years Colheita (or Harvest) – wine from a single vintage (year), aged at least 5 years before bottling. In effect it is like a “late bottled vintage” port (although when the word colheita is applied to port it means it is at least 7 years old before bottling). Frasqueira (or Vintage) – wine from a single vintage that has been aged at least 19 years before bottling.
A bottle of madeira may be any combination of several of these terms, so the range is quite complex.
Well known in the US is a version popularly called “Rainwater” which is lighter, sweeter and made from a less approved grape – the Negra Mole – but popular as an aperitif (amongst that kind of people).
Marsala is based upon Sicilian white wine and is named after the Sicilian city of Marsala. That’s a very good start in my books because Sicilian wines – both red and white – are some of the most enjoyable wines in the world (and my personal favourites).
Curiously, once again we find that the British played a major hand in the development of a fortified product from these local wines. In 1773 an English trader John Woodhouse visited the port of Marsala and recognized a similarity between some of the local wines and those being used in Iberia to make sack (sherry) which was hugely popular in England. So he encouraged the native producers to age their wines in a similar way to the method being used in Spain – adopting the solera system of gradually adding fresh wines into a succession of more aged barrels (this is sometimes still used and sometimes not).
The huge advantage of processing it this way from his point of view as a trader was that the extra alcohol preserved the wine during the long sea voyages of the day to get it to market. The Woodhouse connection is still proudly attached to the product by its Sicilian inheritors.
Marsala is usually produced from white grape varieties like Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto but there are also red variations. There now exists quite a few varieties of marsala based mostly on aging and sweetness. You will see it labeled as either secco (dry), semi-secco or sweet. The words that denote aging and other variations are as follow –
Oro – a golden colour. Ambra – an amber colour derived from mosto cotto which sweetens it. Rubino – a ruby red colour, because it’s made from red instead of the usual white grapes. Fine – aged a minimum of just one year. Superiore – aged at least two. Superiore Riserva – aged at least four. Vergine e/o Soleras – at least five Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva – aged ten years or more.
In Sicily it’s usually served as an aperitif in the middle of a meal – often with cheese, such as Parmesan, and the younger varieties used a lot in the local cooking – it would still beat British “cooking sherry” if it weren’t for the added salt.
The supply of sherry between the 1930s and 1970s was upset by the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. As a friendly British outpost Cyprus already enjoyed a tax advantage over wine produced in unstable foreign Spain and this led to Cyprus re-organising its industry to produce “sherry” for export to the UK. It was almost entirely marketed in the form of “Emva cream Cyprus sherry”.
When Spain and the UK became EU partners it was a disaster for Cyprus sherry producers. For a while the word “sherry” was quietly dropped from the label but it continued to be marketed as sherry, but it wasn’t enough and the industry was finally banned in 1996.
Though in the short term this was a disaster for the Cyprus wine growing industry, in the long run, hopefully, it means Cyprus will return to doing what they do best – and produce more of the wonderful commandaria and the startling zivania.
Sherry is a name that can now only be applied to fortified wines produced in the Jerez region of Spain – from where it has taken its best known modern name “sherry” (because it was originally known as “sack”). The region centres on the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia and sherry is made from white grapes there, ideally the Palomino variety.
I have nothing bad to say about genuine Jerez sherry – it knocks spots off the kind of cheap sherry previously sold to the British market under brand names that included Harvey’s as well as Emva.
Basically, small local vineyards made the good stuff and kept it in Spain whilst cheap and relatively nasty surpluses were sold to the big companies to flog to the British. Even truly nasty “British wine” and chemicals went into some of those so called sherry bottles back in the 60s and 70s – helping to destroy the popular credibility of fortified wines among the British public.
Tighter EU regulation has reduced some of the worst of those atrocities against our stomach linings, but to truly appreciate sherry it’s essential to try some of the fare that is labelled in Spanish with its vineyard of origin – or at least comes by a supply-chain that by-passes the dreaded blending vats of the mass wholesalers.
Types of Sherry
Sherries range from light coloured wines – called Manzanilla and Fino (which don’t keep well after opening) – to darker heavier ones like Amontillado and Oloroso (which do). To create the latter ones, oxidation in the barrel is encouraged by preventing a yeast growth called “flor” that otherwise forms a protective layer. Amontillado has a flor to begin with but at some point it is removed – so that it is intermediate in colour. Oloroso is aged longer than Amontillado so is the darkest and also the strongest of them all.
If it says Manzanilla Pasada it is a well aged Manzanilla, or deliberately partially oxidized, and so is slightly darker, richer and nuttier – more like an Amontillado or between an Amontillado and an Oloroso. It is one of the few types that benefit from aging after bottling.
You may also see Jerez Dulce which is a sweeter sherry usually made from a different grape – Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez – often very dark.
Unlike Port, Sherry is allowed to more or less finish fermenting before the grape spirit is added and therefore they are all naturally dry and have to have sugar added to create a sweet variety, when they are called “Cream” sherry. Under current regulations any sherry that has been “artificially” sweetened with sugar or grape juice has to be called Cream – so you can’t readily tell which kind of sherry it was before it was sweetened.
A degree of blending was always traditional with sherry – with proportions of much older sherries mixed with younger brews. Because of this you will rarely find a sherry that declares a year on the bottle, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t old or high quality. In fact, the whole method is regimented in a kind of cascade called a solera system: a new barrel becomes part of a row of 3-9 older barrels and periodically small portions from each barrel are decanted into the next barrel in the row.
The only way to speak about age is therefore to use an average – thus if the average age is 20 years it can be labelled VOS, and if 30 years VORS. However, not all sherry improves with age, so often the “best” barrel may be one somewhere in the middle – there is a small connoisseur market for bottles filled from particular prized casks.
There is one more type of sherry you may have heard of – cooking sherry. I’m pretty sure you can’t get this under that name any more but in more civilized times you could get up at 6 in the morning, steal a pint of milk from someone’s doorstep, tip out the milk and take the bottle to the greengrocer to fill with a pint of “cooking sherry” from a keg. Half hour later you could be back in your squat rolled up in a nice cosy carpet. Ah those were the days.
Strange facts about sherry
It’s believed the reason fortified wines took off in Iberia is ultimately because of the invasion of the Moors. Moorish alchemists brought over the art of distillation sometime after, but it was only able to spread to Christian monks after the liberation of Spain in 1264, when Alfonso X of Castile seized Cadiz. Monasteries then spread it – for purely medicinal reasons of course – to other parts of Europe. The opportunity to invent brandy therefore existed in Spain well before it was available to enable the invention of gin, vodka and whisky. And of course any self-respecting alchemist knew how to mix his drinks – they called it “The Renaissance”.
“The Renaissance” became enormously popular in England after Sir Francis Drake sailed over and sacked Cadiz in 1587. Ostensibly he went there to thwart the Spanish Armada but in fact he spent most of his time there loading 2,900 barrels of “sack” onto his ship. The drink was so popular after he got back home with it that Britain subsequently became the world’s leading consumer of Spanish sherry – a craze that lasted for centuries.
Many Spanish vineyards became heavily dependent on the British craze for their produce. Over time many Spanish vineyards and cellars were taken over or set up by ex-pat British families to feed the home market – so in a strange way sherry is as much a phenomenon of British culture as it is a Spanish one.
Commandaria is a venerable, usually fortified, wine made in Cyprus – especially up in the Troodos mountains where it can often be bought at the roadside (and hasn’t always been entirely legal). The sellers will tell you that it’s an aphrodisiac. Improbable as this may sound don’t be too quick to scoff…
They tell you the same about their distilled spirit – Zivania – and that definitely is an aphrodisiac – leave the Viagra at home this is all you’re going to want trust me – Zivania for him and Commandaria for her.
Remember – Aphrodite was born from the surf on one of Cyprus’s wilder southern beaches and Cyprus first enters recorded history as a land prized for its wines (okay, and copper – try that if you prefer but don’t send me any pictures). In fact Cyprus was the ancient world’s first major wine exporter and the place from where wine growing most probably spread to all the other parts of Europe. This is often forgotten, until you’ve tried some of the country’s wonderful roadside contraband.
According to legend, it is the mythical (or possibly legendary) Dionysus who first introduced the vine to Greece from Cyprus for the very first time – and from there Greek settlers spread them to the rest of Europe. In any event Dionysus certainly raised the piss-up to its highest form – building a veritable religion out of it. Dionysus is also known as Eleutherios, the Liberator, and through the mystic state of eleutheria (madness, ecstasy, drunkenness and orgy) one is freed from ones normal earthbound condition. So they definitely brewed a good drop of jollop back then.
Official export quality Commandaria is, in my personal opinion, not as exciting as the fresh home brewed stuff from the small farms, nevertheless it’s a very pleasant drink and for some strange reason little known outside of Cyprus itself. Its obscurity is entirely undeserved, and much as I’d like to keep it a secret so I can keep it all for myself – you should treat yourself by trying a bottle, preferably direct from the mountains.
To guarantee the aphrodisiac effect – do what we did and take a 4×4 round some of those mountain roads to get there. You’ll be so glad to still be alive when you get to the booze it’s bound to work!
The long pedigree of Cyprus wines
Cyprus was exporting its wines wholesale far back in pre-history. We know this because in 1999 a shipwreck still loaded with amphorae was discovered – more than two and a half thousand of them! The wreck dated to 2,300 BC. Then in 2005, residues in some old broken pottery found on land was identified as wine – and dated to 3,500 BC. Although this is not quite as old as a wine-press discovered in Armenia (dated to 4000 BC), there is no evidence of cultivated grapes in Armenia – because vines naturally grow wild there – but the huge production in prehistoric Cyprus definitely required cultivated vineyards (it also has a frost-free winter – unlike Armenia).
At first, wines were traded eastwards into the old Middle Eastern cultures like Babylonia. The oldest laws governing the sale of alcohol are found in the Code of Hammurabi in about 2000 BC – they prescribe the punishment to be meted to any publican serving wine to a customer who is already unruly from intoxication – removal of a limb, unless it’s a repeat offense in which case execution. (To be fair, they were more reasonable about it back then than they are today – now they don’t even have to be drunk).
Watering down the beer was also a capital offence. It was a bloody tough life being a publican back then. However it was quite normal to get your customers drinking from a communal jug through long straws – saving all that glass collecting.
Vines reached France no earlier than 500 BC – brought by Greek merchants to Marseilles – but vineyards didn’t burgeon throughout France until the 15th Century. Cyprus wine is therefore about eleven times as old as the more famous wines of France.
The first ever (recorded) wine tasting competition in history was organised by the crusader King Philip Augustus in 13th century France – and it was won by a Cyprus wine – probably Commandaria (because the Knights Templar were at this time importing it on a large scale).
The words recalling it are “Premiers manda le vin de Cypre,” –written in the form of a poem by Henri d’Andeli circa 1240.
In an even earlier story, another crusader king, Richard the Lionheart, is said to have greatly enjoyed Commandaria at his wedding in Cyprus and pronounced it “The wine of kings and the king of wines.”
Commandaria existed as a strong sweet wine before the art of creating distilled brandy to fortify it with was available, but its tradition is unbroken and it is the oldest named wine in the world. Today it may be sold fortified or not fortified – it can still be called Commandaria. We definitely prefer ours hardcore.
Strangely, Cyprus has been most famous in recent history as a producer of an entirely different, and not indigenous, fortified wine – sherry. This came to a messy end after the Spanish campaigned ferociously to control the name – which finally became EU law in 1996. So whether you loved it or hated it, “Cyprus Cream Sherry” is no longer a thing. Why was it ever a thing when they have Commandaria?
The expression “fortified wine” includes Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Commandaria and Vermouth – and quite a lot of others that hardly anyone has heard of.
In the simplest terms, these are wines fortified with spirits – often a brandy made from compatible grapes – but they’re melded together in long skillful processes and acquire a character that is all their own..
In the production of wine, the fermentation process is the conversion of sugars in the must (squashed grapes in this case) into alcohol by the yeast, and normally it continues until the alcohol level reaches between 14%–17% at which point the build-up of alcohol overpowers the yeast, killing it and stopping the fermentation. Usually by the time this happens there is so little sugar left that you get a dry wine. For a sweeter wine you can either start with sweeter (e.g. riper) grapes or stop the fermentation earlier.
When added to wine before the fermentation process is complete, distilled alcohol kills the yeast while there is still sugar left behind – so the result is a fortified wine that is both sweeter and stronger (fortified wines are around 18-22% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 35-44 proof.
So adding distilled alcohol is one way of getting a sweeter wine, and this may well have been one of the original motives, rather than to increase the strength. The other motive was to preserve the wine so that it could be transported further or kept longer. The discovery that the process also produced wines of incomparable smoothness, richness and complexity was probably an accident.
Sweet grapes are often preferred for fortified wines as well as a shorter fermentation, but whether or not your port or sherry is sweet or dry, good quality fortified wine is much more than plonk with a vodka chucked in it. Try it – it won’t taste like sherry not even a bad one. Not only must appropriate grapes (or other fruits) be used to make the spirit, but the methods of wine production in order to get the specific qualities in the end result have taken centuries to master – they include storing it in the right vats. in the right kegs at the right temperature in the exact cellar conditions for the perfect amount of time.
There is an optimum alcoholic strength for a beverage to go straight into your bloodstream – beer is too weak, and spirits are too strong – the stomach actually adapts and thickens up to slow the absorption of spirit (which is why you suddenly get drunk when you mistakenly dilute it by rounding off the evening with a cup of coffee, or drink a glass of water the next morning and find yourself drunk again).
Fortified wines like Port and Sherry are at the perfect intermediary concentration – a few sherries on an empty stomach can have you reeling in minutes. Nevertheless, that’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing – so long as you are aware of it, (white port – for some reason – is surely the fastest route from bottle to brain short of injecting it).
Fortified wines – especially port for some reason – used to get a lot of blame for causing gout. Current thinking is that its just alcohol and rich living in general that can cause, or aggravate gout. I’m not so sure – mine comes and goes along with drinking port, but it’ll take a whole lot more bottles before I’m certain (beside if you’re stuck in a chair with your feet up what are you going to do with your hands?)
The earliest definite records of fortified wines in production in Western Europe are from around 1650 AD although the date was probably earlier in Spain as the art of distillation is believed to have been brought over by the Moors.
Over the centuries since then, hardly any variety of alcohol has excited as much connoisseurial devotion as fortified wines, especially vintage port and especially in Britain where it’s been more popular than anywhere else. But oddly, other than port and sherry few British people today even know the names of some of them any more. Navigate to the next page to learn all about these terrific drinks and their often strange histories.