Does all fortified wine taste like raisins?
February 26, 2009 5:06 AM   Subscribe

Help me find a fortified wine that doesn't taste like raisins!

So typically I'm a cocktail guy, but recently I've decided I want to find at least one sort of fortified wine that I'll like. Something to have after dinner, as a dessert beverage. To that end, I've been sampling the bottom-shelf offerings of my local Wine & Spirits store to get an idea of my options.

Marsala was the first stop on the fortified wine adventure, and it was so sickly sweet and raisin-y that half the bottle got thrown away. Next, a cream Sherry (might have been Bristol Cream), with high hopes. Nope, this tasted very similar. Madeira? Pretty much like the Marsala. Finally, a five-dollar bottle of ruby Port. This was... slightly better, but nothing I'd buy again.

So my question is this: am I giving myself a totally wrong idea of these wines by buying only the cheap stuff? I'm sure some aficionados will chime in with "absolutely, yes!", but clearly there's some relationship between the taste of $5 ruby port, and $75 vintage port, in the same way that Ten High and Pappy Van Winkle -- while hugely different in quality -- are both still recognizable as bourbon.

Lastly, should I go down other alleys? White Port, fino Sherry? I like the idea of drier and paler, but these are harder to find, at least in Pennsylvania liquor stores.
posted by DeucesHigh to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Try to find some Porto Kopke Colheita. Even the inexpensive bottles are very good.
posted by Fleebnork at 5:25 AM on February 26, 2009

Best answer: My assumption's always been that bottom-shelf marsala is for cooking. Likewise with bottom-shelf ruby port, that's something grandma would use to make cheese spread.

The couple of times I've had "white port" it's been pretty sweet. There may be some out there that I haven't had.

A step up from the low-price ports is "Late Bottled Vintage" port. It's slightly better quality, typically in the low $20 range, and filtered to make it "user friendly" so it doesn't throw a sediment. You might try well-known port shippers (Dow's, Warre's, Taylor, Cockburn) and products that are actually from Portugal.

Tawny ports are, to my tastes, similar to sherry, so you might not like them either. But, some can be kind of dry, too, so maybe one would be worth a shot.

For more expensive stuff, you might try looking for wine tastings in your area, or restaurants that offer wine flights. Jackpot would be to find someone offering a vintage port tasting--you could sample several without having to spend a lot of speculative cash.

Note that for a really, really good port experience, it helps if it's old. The best I've ever had was almost 30 years old at the time (and, it was one I had as part of a restaurant wine flight). In my area, there are three options for buying better vintage port off-the-shelf:

1. Buy something about 5 years old or so, age it yourself for several years. Not hard to find.

2. Buy something about 10-15 years old. Harder to find off the shelf, could be opened now, probably better aged. This is what I usually aim for.

3. Buy something 20-30 years old, maybe more. Only one local chain in my area might reliably have something like this. Very expensive ("May we invite you into our collector's room?").

Online offerings are going to be better, but of course then you have deal with all the stupid state-to-state shipping restrictions. I'm not up-to-date on PA, I'm guessing it's not an option?
posted by gimonca at 5:42 AM on February 26, 2009

Best answer: You want a dry or medium-dry sherry. Cream sherries and cheap ports all taste sweet, as in many cases, they're actually sweetened. Cream sherries are supposed to be sweetened with muscatel, which is where the "raisin" taste comes from. (Muscat grapes are popular for raisin making) but some cheaper fortified wines use corn-syrup and flavoring agents.

Ports worth drinking start at $50, and move north from there in a hurry. Good sherries are easier to find for a reasonable sum, but stay away from anything south of $15/bottle.

To impress yourself and others, try an Amontillado. For one, it's the subject of a great E.A. Poe horror story. For another, it's medium-dry, which means it's not too sweet, but still drinkable. Excellent with cheese. Fino sherry is dryer still.

Also, don't be afraid to ask the guy behind the counter for a suggestion, especially at a store with a good wine selection.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:42 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cheap stuff should not be drank! Use it for cooking. Think of it this way, would you buy a dirty 30 of any type of beer for 12$ and expect it to be good? Same applies here.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:12 AM on February 26, 2009

I like port, but I'll admit it's sweet. That said, the good stuff is a lot better than the cheap stuff. I think there's a bigger difference between a $5 bottle of port and a $20 bottle than between similarly priced (unfortified) wines. Port starts getting good when you spend about $20 on it. If you decide to like that, you can ratchet up to vintage ports, although buying a vintage port that's already old enough to drink will be at least $50. The tawny and ruby ports are homogenous compared to the vintages, which can have a little personality.
posted by adamrice at 6:45 AM on February 26, 2009

I think you might like port, but not $5 port. The cheapest port I have ever drunk (and I am a very stingy person, and will happily drink $4 wine) was $15, and that was being sold at discount by a college bar. (They bought good port wholesale, sold it off for little to no mark-up). $20 sounds quite reasonable.

But it is sweet (that's why I like it).
posted by jb at 7:05 AM on February 26, 2009

A second vote for Kopke Colheita!

I know what you mean about "raisins." I agree. A friend of mine suggested a Kopke Colheita while we were smoking some Maduros and I found it to be absolutely fantastic! A real breath of fresh air from the "grape juice" ports I've had in the past. Give it a shot. It may be what you're looking for.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 7:16 AM on February 26, 2009 go a somewhat different direction, have you considered single malt Scotch? You don't have to go super-duper expensive to get something very nice. A recent favorite of mine is Balvenie "Double wood" - very smooth, no "burn down the throat," lovely woodsy/smoky flavor. Think it usually goes for about $50. Or there are ones from Glenmorangie and Macallan that are aged in Sherry casks to add a hint of sherry flavor.

OR, another thought - liqueurs. Drambuie is a favorite of mine, it's made from scotch and honey - it's sort of sweet and spicy. (Also strong!) Or something like Chambord, which is raspberry flavored. There's a whole world of different liqueurs out there that could make a nice post-meal sipper.
posted by dnash at 7:19 AM on February 26, 2009

Not quite a fortified wine, but a sweet, sparkling dessert wine that my family loves is Moscato -- it has the bubbliness of champagne but a much sweeter (but not cloying) taste. It's even better with a couple of raspberries tossed in the glass. There's also Icewine from the Niagara region in Canada that's sweet dessert wine. I love port too, but the $5 bottle is definitely not your best bet (and I say that as a non-aficionado of the stuff). You're going to have to spend probably at least $15 to $20 at the minimum to get something good that's sweet but not sickly sweet.
posted by pised at 8:49 AM on February 26, 2009

Dry white port is what you're describing, and fino is pretty close too, although sherry is normally drank as an aperitif rather than a digestif.
posted by essexjan at 9:36 AM on February 26, 2009

I'm just a total sucker for finos. A bottle of Valdespino Inocente is just 6 $ over here so it's cheap too.

It's hard for me to explain why I think sherry is just so awesome and even though it's technically a fortified wine the taste is more like any really great, dry white wine. If I could afford it I would drink more champagne but I can't so I drink sherry instead.

For something fun more in the character of a real fortified wine you can always try a Floc de Gascogne or something similar.
posted by uandt at 9:41 AM on February 26, 2009

try a muscat.
posted by muscat at 10:15 AM on February 26, 2009

Two after-dinner fortified wines that absolutely blew me away when I first had them were Vin Santo (Italian) and Pedro Ximenez (Spanish).
posted by turbodog at 10:21 AM on February 26, 2009

Penfold's Club Port is awesome and around $10. Its a nice brown color and does not taste like raisins. I enjoy their entire range of Port and actually drank the Grandfather Port at my wedding.

At the $25 price point is the Justin Obtuse, which I love. It's about $25.

Both are quality stuff.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:18 AM on February 26, 2009

(As an aside in reply to Mastercheddaar above: Don't cook with anything you wouldn't drink.)
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:20 AM on February 26, 2009

I'm at a friend's place, and she knows wines. Her suggestions:

- Alvear's Fino. It's a Montilla (Amontillado, for the love of God Montresor!). A dry sherry, treat as white wine, serve chilled. Has a bit of bitterness and fire with a nutty undertone. It's about $18/bottle in Canuckistan, not sure what it'll cost in the USA. Works with olives and shellfish if you're drinking it with food.

- Fonseca Porto. White port, drier than a ruby or tawny port. Matches with rich things like foie gras, also good for dessert which may make it a bit too sweet for you.

- Frigilianio. Spanish, sherry from a specific town in Spain. Medium-to-sweet digestif, drier than a port but slightly sweeter than a dry sherry.

She also suggests a rainwater sherry, made in Britain. Like a port or sherry, but half as thick/syrupy/sweet.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:38 AM on February 26, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, so many good suggestions... I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to query the hive. I didn't realize I would be doing myself such a disservice in trying the low-end choices, probably because I can't taste huge differences in wine by price. A $40 bottle is "ah, that's pretty nice!", but a $10 bottle is usually "hmm, that's not bad at all!". I suppose I should have been guided by how god-awfully bad rotgut spirits can be, compared to midrange brands.

Fleebnork, Lord Fancy Pants- Alas, Porto Kopke Colheita isn't carried in the PA stores, even by Special Liquor Order.

gimonca- Yeah, PA is one of those states that doesn't allow state-to-state shipping.

dnash- Haven't actually run into any whisk(e)y I really like. I've tried miniatures of Johnnie Walker and Glenlivet, as well as Jameson's, but wasn't a fan. I prefer bourbon and rye, but still more for mixing than for sipping. I'm a bigger fan of brandy and dark rum when it comes to drinking something straight. Liqueurs I definitely like (limoncello, Benedictine, Cointreau, Tuaca, Drambuie, Kahlua, etc) but I'm looking to branch out into the fortified wine realm.

dirtynumbangelboy- Alvear's Fino is $13/bottle here, but 12 bottle minimum order. The rest aren't carried at all. I did see a number of Rainwater Madeiras... any idea if those would be less sweet/syrupy like the Rainwater Sherry?

So it sounds like the consensus is leaning towards fino sherries and white ports, which I have yet to try. I searched everyone's suggestions on the PA Liquor Control Board site, and it's all either unavailable or by Special Liquor Order only (aka 6 bottle minimum). Its possible they are really obscure, but more likely that the the state monopoly just sucks that much...
posted by DeucesHigh at 12:13 PM on February 26, 2009

Alas, Porto Kopke Colheita isn't carried in the PA stores, even by Special Liquor Order.

I feel your pain. It's my wife's favorite, and I have to order it from a store in Colorado because it's not on the list of imported Ports for the state of Georgia.
posted by Fleebnork at 12:37 PM on February 26, 2009

You sure you want a fortified wine? When I think after dinner/dessert wine, I think of a nice sticky... Like a nice late harvest riesling, or ice wine.
posted by The Monkey at 6:35 PM on February 26, 2009

Best answer: Taylor Fladgate is even better than Kopke Colheita. It comes in 10, 20, 30, and 40 variety getting more expensive as you go up. I had the 10 and it was pretty fantastic.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 6:30 PM on February 27, 2009

I don't know. I've taken a shine to a Tawny Port from Austrailia called "Whisker's Blake Tawny Port", although I think these days they're calling it "Whisker's Blake Classic Tawny" because the wine producers in Portugal got their underwear in a bunch about the name "Port", like the anal-retentive French did over "Champagne" a while back...

(I know, I know, it's not a "real" port unless it's from Portugal and frankly IT'S JUST A NAME PEOPLE. Get over it. Sparkling wine, Champagne, Fortified Wine, Port, who the hell cares? But I digress...)

Anyway, in the midwest US it runs about $15 and maybe I'm a cheap date, but I love it.

As Gary Vaynerchuk always says, "Drink what you like, don't listen to the wine 'experts', and for God's sake don't pay any attention to the stupid number ratings..."
posted by Ashman at 9:57 PM on February 28, 2009

(I know, I know, it's not a "real" port unless it's from Portugal and frankly IT'S JUST A NAME PEOPLE. Get over it. Sparkling wine, Champagne, Fortified Wine, Port, who the hell cares? But I digress...)

Actually, it's important for a really huge number of reasons. Champagne, for example, is produced by certain people in a certain area using a specific method. Someone buying Champagne is going to expect a certain level of expertise, certain flavours, etc. These things do matter: truth in advertising.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:16 PM on February 28, 2009

Response by poster: Well Whisker's Blake is a strikeout, but it looks like I might be in luck with the Taylor Fladgate. Their "Special Reserve" 10-40 Year are all by special order, but "Tawny Port 10 Years Old", "LBV Port", and "First Estate NV" (whatever these are) seem to be available in the stores. Thanks for the tip!
posted by DeucesHigh at 2:23 PM on March 4, 2009

Actually, it's important for a really huge number of reasons.

Yes. Among other things, in many places it's the law.
posted by gimonca at 9:36 PM on March 4, 2009

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