The Settlers Cartel taste all things Fortified!

The participants: The Settlers Liquor Store Tasting Collective – or Cartel for this month (S.L.S.T.C), guided by Charlotte N.

The mission: To taste all things Fortified!

Time: Wednesday night

Place: Reputable Margaret River drinking establishment (upstairs)

So, this month the Settlers Tasting Cartel sat down and turned back the clock to drink some wines of yesteryear. . . A variety of dry and sweet delights – Sherry, Marsala, Madeira, Port, Tawny Port, Muscat and Topaque to be specific. These are the sort of wines that your Grandad used to drink and your Grandma used to cook with. Grandad used to buy them off the local booze bootlegger. Told you he had to walk a few miles each way to get them in. Uphill both ways of course. . .

These wines have been around the block more than most. Although they may sound like your Grandad’s (or Ma’s) drink, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be your drink too. Because the secret is: they are all bloody good, affordable and suit more occasions in your booze diary than you might think.

And while much of the new wine world is busy chugging hipster stalky Pinot Meunier in their ironic tweed jackets, in a bar they clearly aren’t cool enough for, sometimes you need to sit back, relax and enjoy the sweeter, slower sip. Because, here’s the thing, that op shop tweed might look cool, but it ain’t always that comfortable. Meanwhile, with these sweet (and not so sweet) nectars, you are drinking in a proverbial mink robe – and underneath you’re wearing Adidas sweatpants and slippers. . .  ‘cos what is old and comfortable, may actually be getting hip. . . right under your nose.

Look no further than Sherry. . . For many people, the word ‘sherry’ is still associated with the faded bottle in the back of the spirits cupboard that came out only for the Christmas cake. But these days this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Sherry is undergoing the same kind of image reinvention that has gripped gin, vermouth and craft beer – so much so that even the hipster sommeliers in tweed are taking notice.

Primarily made from white Palomino grapes grown in the very south of Spain, Sherry needs the formation of a layer of naturally occurring yeasts or ‘flor’ in the barrel. It’s this ‘flor yeast’ that makes Sherry a total flavour trip. As a trained winemaker, to me Sherry is everything that wine almost shouldn’t be. A bevy of conventional wine faults that somehow, combine to balance each other out to make absolute delicious flavour country.

When done well Sherry is fresh, lively, salty and moreish with a nutty roast almond vibe. The drier Fino Sherry the cartel drank(Valdespino Incocente Fino, Jerez, Spain $17.99) transported them to the Pichos bars of Spain. It’s the perfect aperitif food wine – and we’re not talking sherry trifle! We are talking serious tapas. Think salty, crispy fish and seafood, olives, cheese and jamon. . . all the jamon. While the slightly sweeter Oloroso (Marques de Poley Oloroso, Montilla Moriles, Spain $30.99) is a flamenco of flavour by itself, or you can partner it with a bowl of roasted nuts and dried fruit and your taste buds and mind will be melting like a Salvador Dali clock.

The cartel then had a sneaky Marsala (Martinez Riserva Marsala Sicily, Italy $23.99). This southern Italian stallion had flavours of raisins with some subtle caramel licks. A richer fortified style, it retained some good acidity which kept the finish in balance. I think it would be darn tasty with some sharp cheddar cheese, but some of the cartel thought it shouldn’t be seen outside of a tiramisu. . . Sweet toothed heathens.

Next up was some Madeira (Justinos 5yr old fine rich Madeira, Portugal $29.00). An island far flung off the coast of Portugal, Maderia is so isolated, and their winemaking techniques so unique, that it reminds me of a literal Galapagos Island of booze.

Legend has it that back in the 1600’s the island of Madeira was an important stopover for ships passing through, who naturally would load up on some of the Island’s local liquor. Wine often spoiled and needed to be fortified with some Brandy to survive the long voyage at sea. Old, salty, sensory seadogs noticed how the wine’s flavor deepened and became better after this ‘sea-aging’ with flavours of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, toffee, hazelnut, orange peel and burnt sugar.Drink chilled with salty morsels and watch your friends marvel at how much of a sophisticated booze pirate you’ve become.

Then the cartel turned their attention to trusty ‘ol Port. . . and its band of merry offshoots.

Port, the Original Gangster, is named after Portugal’s city of Oporto. This fortified wine is exclusively from the designated region in the Douro Valley made with a bunch of varieties starting with T (Touriga, Tinto, Tinta, Tempranillo blah blah blah). First up was Ramos Pinto Porto $32.99,it’s the big band of wine – a complex ensemble of harmoniously arranged flavours that are rich and smooth with tight upbeats of tannin. True to its O.G roots this was a classic – decadent and indulgent yet not too sweet. The cartel was onboard.

Then we had Australia’s version of Portugal’s finest . . . the popular, irrepressible, trusty Aussie Tawny Port.

With the term ‘Port’ now used exclusively by the Portuguese, Australian Tawny is as unique as this wide brown land. It is generally produced from French varieties including Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon, although sometimes a bit of sneaky Touriga can be found as a nod to the Big Portuguese Poppa. These varieties are grown in the warm Barossa and Rutherglen which give Australian Tawny a richer, sweeter character than its Porto counterparts.

Traditional Tawny Ports are usually barrel-aged, sourced from multiple vintages and blended together to attain the ‘house style’ that each producer desires.The longer in barrel the more prevalent the nuttier and aged charactersbecome.The cartel tasted the Galway Pipe 12yr Grand Tawny $33.99 and theDe Bortoli Old Boys 21 Barrel aged Tawny $46.99 which were both outshone by the Seppeltsfield Para Grand Tawny $37.99. It smelt like hope and tasted like sweet dreams.

Then it was Muscat time. Muscat is a bit of national treasure here in Australia. Vines were first planted at Rutherglen in the 1850’s, making it one of Australia’s oldest wine regions. It’s pretty much liquid history on the bottle shop shelf. Our very own O.G if you will. We tasted the De Bortoli Show Muscat $25.99 which hadraisin aromas, melted toffee, maple syrup and subtle spice. . . history that you can drink, that ain’t boring.

Then last, but not least, was Campbells Topaque Rutherglen $21.99. Made from Muscadelle, the flavour profile of Topaque is often considered to be a lighter, finer wine than Muscat with flavours of candied fruits, honey, toffee and a distinctive cold tea character. A tip of the Akubra from the cartel.

With all of these sweeter delights, it’s obvious they can stand up to richer flavours of coffee, caramel, a CWA rum ‘n raisin cake and the like. But you guessed it, these bad boys can work with savoury items too. Kick start the party with these Aussie gems and some savoury terrines, pâté, charcuterie, roasted figs and powerful blue cheeses and watch your friends marvel at your Ned Kelly-esque disregard for flavour law and convention.

So, there you have it. . . a never-ending journey for you to discover next time you visit the local. For every booze enthusiast there should be a time when you discover this kaleidoscope of fortified wines. Sure, they might be ‘out of fashion’ to some but you’re ahead of the curve anyway, right? You don’t want to follow the rest of the hipsters in tweed to drown in the mainstream, do you? Thought not.

Because the secret is, for the love and sheer ageing time that goes into each of these wines, their unpopularity means they are still as cheap as chips. And while the fascination remains for all but a minority like me, (who want to keep the prices low), we are happy to let you in on the secret to keep these beauties on the shelf. . .

Now, where is my mink robe?