Drink Magazine

Spluring On Fortified Wines

By Lmarmon


A review of the Zion Miharmartif and several Port-finished Whiskies.


By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon


Washington Jewish Week  April 17, 2013


Balvenie Portwood
While we love a bargain wine, every so often it is fun to splurge, especially when the bottle remains drinkable for a long time after the cork has been pulled. This is the domain of the fortified wine, that middle ground between wine and spirit. Some fortified wines, such as Port and Madeira, can provide pleasure for weeks after opening while others retain their flavors only if kept refrigerated. These wines are typically costly to produce and available in limited quantities, hence the generally higher price tag.

There is no kosher Madeira, alas, but there is kosher Port. Indeed, in the past we’ve reviewed all of the available, authentic kosher Port. We use the term “authentic” because, of course, true Port comes only from Portugal. Also known as “vinho do porto” or “porto,” the name comes from Oporto, the city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped.

Port wine is made from various varieties of very foreign-sounding grapes grown in the Douro Valley region of Portugal. There are more than 100 grape varietals officially sanctioned for Port wine production, but the five most typical are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (the local name for Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao.

Port is a typically heavy, rich, sweet, high-alcohol (usually 18-20 percent abv) wine not only due to the type of grapes used, but also because it is fortified – the winemakers add some measure of distilled grape spirits (a local brandy called aguardente) to fortify the wine with an artificially higher alcohol content which, in turn, immediately kills the yeast cells, halting the fermentation process before the grapes’ remaining sugar is converted into alcohol. The wine then gets aged in oak barrels or vats of concrete or stainless steel, depending on style (and eventual price).

Port comes in an off-puttingly confusing variety of styles – including “Vintage,” which only comes from the best vintages and requires many years of further maturation in bottle, Tawny, which has spent at least two years in oak barrels, Colheita, LBV (or “late bottle vintage”), Ruby, White – and can also be produced as a semi-dry or even an extra-dry wine, but generally, sweet is what the market and tradition calls for. Whatever the style, Port is usually served at the end of a meal, with dessert or as the dessert.

While the Portuguese would undoubtedly prefer that only their wines be called “Port” similarly labeled and similarly styled fortified wines are produced throughout the winemaking world including Australia, U.S., South Africa and Israel.

The kosher Zion Miharmartif ($98) is made from of blend of different grape varietals in a Tawny Port style, with some of the constituent varietals seeing up to 32 years of oak aging. Beginning with raisin and nutty aromas, it develops layers of dried apricots, citrus, butterscotch, caramel and almond flavors with nice balance and a long finish. A decadent way to end a meal or to enjoy on a cool spring evening.

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d carry on with the Port theme, but in the more familiar realm of whisk(e)y. Here are a few worthy offerings.

The Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Angel’s Envy American Whiskey, Kedem Port Barrel Finish Edition (43.3 percent abv; $48), for example, is a wonderful and dangerously easy drinking bourbon whiskey that was finished for six months in barrels that previously held OU certified port-style wine from the Kedem winery in N.Y. While a little different from the initial release of Angel’s Envy that used actual ex-wine barrels from Portugal, rather than kosher port-style wine from N.Y.’s Finger Lakes region, this version is a similarly well-rounded, rich, and almost silky offering with charming sweet berry and sweet citrus notes integrated into the more familiar maple syrup, toffee, and vanilla and all with some distinct if light spicy cinnamon and nutmeg. Truly lovely.

The Glenmorangie, “The Quinta Ruban,” 12 Year Old, Port Cask Matured, Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky (46 percent abv; $60 – though often found for less) spent its first 10 years in used bourbon barrels and then transferred for a further two years of maturation in used “authentic” Ruby Port wine barrels (large casks known as “Pipes”). This charming, warming whisky offers aromatic notes of dark berries, citrus fruits, dark chocolate, oak, toasted walnuts, a little incense and subtle, yet definite, sweet malt. The sweet, rich almost creamy palate follows the aromas beautifully, upping the sweet malt, citrus and dark fruit content while adding additional flavors of caramel and even a little ginger and pepper that helps prevent it from becoming cloying. The finish is long, velvety and sweet.

Or consider the Arran Malt “Port Cask Finish” Single Malt Scotch Whisky (50 percent abv; $80), an intriguing though not entirely balanced no-age statement whisky from the only distillery on Scotland’s Isle of Arran (the largest island in the Firth of Clyde, between Ayr and Kintyre). Opens with a very sweet yet slightly musty and acrid nose, not unlike the momentary smell of a just-lit match, mixed with overripe berries and syrup, the whisky takes time to develop, with a little vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg joining the party, followed by some nuts, more dark fruits (plums, cherries and raspberries) and citrus – a little water really helps here, too. These notes are followed on the palate with additional rich and pleasing fruit and malt, with a touch more spice (ginger and black pepper), and caramel. Ultimately, the finish seems to slightly smother the whisky a bit, but the results are interesting and rewarding, even if not entirely polished. Well worth trying.

Then there is the exceptional Balvenie PortWood, 21 year old (40 percent ABV; $190) which was also initially aged in used bourbon barrel and transferred for additional maturation in 30-year-old Port Pipes (the whisky is even better when bought at Duty Free shops as that edition is non chill-filtered and bottled at 47.6 percent abv). With wonderful depth and concentration, this whisky offers elegant and generous aromas of white peach, sultanas, candied fruit, marzipan, cocoa and a whisper of smoke, the whisky presents an enjoyably complex and silky medley of flavors including vanilla, Tupelo honey, oily malted barley, mouth-drying nuttiness, buttered scones, raisins, poached pear, caramel apple, red fruits, anise, cinnamon, cocoa and a distinct yet pleasant wine-cellar mustiness in the background, with a slightly bitter, agreeably graceful finish. This is a marvelously indulgent and rewarding postprandial dram. L’Chaim!

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