Last month, as part of the Masters of Wine’s 60th birthday celebrations, a very special tasting was organised of some of the most exciting wines I have ever encountered. They were grouped by country and, if I were to undertake an analysis as crass as averaging my scores out of 20 (and excepting a slightly underwhelming South African Hanepoot Jerepigo 1969), bottom of the heap would, unusually, be France with 16.7 while Greece would be at the top with 19.
Admittedly there was only one Greek wine among the total of 41, and it is not commercially available. Just one barrel was 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 specially selected small-berried Muscat grapes. The result was a bright reddish tawny liquid that smelt of butterscotch and hinted at being sickly before flicking delightfully into bracing refreshment mode, thanks to beautifully balanced acidity. Unlike most of the other wines (some were up to 21 per cent alcohol) this one was only 14.2 per cent, but I don’t think the low alcohol played a part in my high score. Many of my other favourites were almost half as strong again as this.
Twenty-first-century vintages of Samos Nectar from the same source are widely available and are great value at under £10 a half bottle, but they 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 worthy of a 60th anniversary celebration. In a way, the fact that fortified and other strong and sweet wines are relatively unfashionable worked in our favour. For many of these wines there is no irresistible commercial demand, and they tend to be inherently robust. Caches of the finest wines – to judge from the tasting – are to be found all over the world, languishing far from 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”: a madeira made from a collection of wine begun in year “X”, but frequently refreshed, will be known as an “X” Solera, and these 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 set 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 mahogany and history.
That may have been the oldest wine (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, similarly florally perfumed and less than 16 per cent 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 – with its super-sticky 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 famous for sherry. In fact the sherry name Amontillado means “in the style of Montilla”, and this 19 per cent alcohol wine from the region’s leading exporter showed why. The Pedro Ximénez grapes characteristic of Montilla-Moriles give a much more raisiny edge than the Palomino grapes of Jerez, but the overall effect of this wine – aged, initially under flor yeast, for 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 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 and 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.
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I gave all of the following truly great fortified wines that are available commercially a score of at least 18 out of 20. Prices are 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 (£250)
• Valdespino, Toneles Moscatel NV Jerez (£320)
• González Byass, Finca Moncloa Tintilla de
Rota 2009 VT de Cádiz (about €25)