The magic of vintage fortified wines

Complex and beguiling, very old port, sherry and madeira can pack an emotional – and financial – punchTaylor’s 1896 Single Harvest Port, Douro, Portugal (£3,950, enquire at Mentzendorff) What makes a wine worth nearly £4,000? This, inevitably, is the first question the venerable Port shipper Taylor’s latest release brings to mind. And having been lucky enough to receive a small test tube filled with a few precious sample drops of this very rare (1,700 bottles have been made) elixir, I can suggest some kind of answer. It’s an overwhelmingly sensual experience, where cedary wooden scents give way to Chinese spices, caramel, orange zest, and a wisp of incense, while the wine caresses the tongue with a texture like suede, its flavours lingering ghostlike long after you’ve swallowed. These properties would be beguiling enough were you to taste the wine blind; but they’re intensified, magnified, with the wonder of knowing they come from grapes grown in the century before last. Yes, yes, but is all that worth £4,000? All I’d say is if you were ever lucky enough to have that kind of disposable cash lying around, there would certainly be worse ways of spending it.Valdespino Solera 1842 Oloroso VOS Sherry, Spain (£37.50, Lea & Sandeman) There is a tendency to fetishise old wines, as if the mere fact of age were proof of quality. In reality, very few wines made today are built to last, and even those that are sometimes taste much better in youth. As ever, it depends on your taste: some of us lean towards the more savoury, leathery, woody and earthy flavours that come with keeping a wine for years or decades, while some of us might find more pleasure in the fresh fruit and flowers, the livelier, sharper feel, of wines in the first year or two after vintage. As with the Taylor’s 1896, what those purely sensual descriptions don’t account for is the emotional component of drinking older wines – I don’t think I’m the only one who gets a little dreamy and contemplative at the thought of drinking a wine from the 19th century – or, in the case of Valdespino’s magnificently intense, nutty, sherry, drawn from a solera (a continuously replenished set of barrels) that was started in 1842. Continue reading...

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