In Greenbrier Valley, April is the time when we all begin to start thinking with our sweet tooth and head into downtown Lewisburg for the annual Chocolate Festival (see page 10!). Just when you thought you’ve had your fill on all things chocolate and start to head for home, make sure you take a little of the chocolate with you for one of my favorite combinations; wine and chocolate! Specifically, a type of wine called “fortified”.
Most wine drinkers are familiar with Port as an after-dinner libation and while the flavor wheel of ports offers complimentary pairings for chocolate, there is a much wider world of fortified wines beyond Port. The following alternative options can provide a longer-lasting product, greater diversity and are comparable to a higher quality product for a similar price tag.
Madeira is probably the most underappreciated fortified wine with the highest upside and diversity of styles. A little history lesson… Madeira is a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa that was historically used as a shipping port for British vessels heading to the
“new world.” While “tawny” port is made by oxidizing the wine in barrels over time, Madeira is made through a process of aging wine in very hot conditions, such as the top rafters of a barrel house. This gives Madeira a major edge because it can withstand being open at room temperature for longer periods of time while holding onto its flavor
and texture. People who are unfamiliar with the different styles of Madeira may associate it with the cheap cooking wines you can find in the middle aisles at your local grocery store. However, the fine wines of Madeira have much more depth and are better consumed on their own or with food rather than thrown in a sauce with cream and mushrooms for a weekday meal.
Bottles of premium Madeira are labeled with the grape variety and minimum age which gives the buyer an idea of the style and quality of the product. Madeira has four “noble” grapes which can be the key to finding a specified style. Sercial is the least sweet, has a citrus flavor and is great to drink as an aperitif or with its traditional pairing of turtle soup (or any other dark roux-based stew). Verdelho is the next level of sweetness and pairs lovely with creamy cheeses and nuts. Bual is classified as medium-sweet and has nuances of candied oranges and raisins. It is a great pairing with chocolate-based desserts in the brownie or cake family. This style is the first one to consider if you’re a lover of tawny ports. The sugar content is very similar to a tawny, however once opened, the Bual will last for several months before fading while the tawny is best served within a few weeks. The last of the noble varietals is Malmsey. Malmsey is that sweet, nutty fortified wine that is screaming to be paired with dark chocolate. It has a sweetness level higher than ports but also brighter acidity to balance it out, so it doesn’t overwhelm you with sweetness.
A bottle of 10 year tawny port is made with wine that is an AVERAGE of 10 years old while a bottle of 10 year Madeira is made with wine that is aged a MINIMUM of 10 years giving the consumer an idea of the integration of flavors they should expect. You can find single vintage Madeira on the market which will have a little more individual character at a higher price point but for a dependable bottle to keep stocked in your home, look for the 10 or 15 year labeled wines. Broadbent is a great producer of Madeira and is highly recommended due to its consistent quality and overall availability in many wine shops. At The Greenbrier, we have an expansive selection of Broadbent’s Madeira dating all the way back to 1933, the first vintage under Broadbent!
If you are a fan of ruby ports with more fruity flavors than nuttiness, look for the Vins Doux Naturel from France. A great entry into these fortified wines comes from Southern France in the Banyuls region where they are made with the Grenache grape. Grenache is a wine with flavors of ripe red and black fruit with a minimal amount of tannin making it easy to stop the fermentation process early. This leaves the wine with higher alcohol content and sweeter, richer flavors. If you are a fan of raspberry or blackberry with dark chocolate, you will love this with your leftovers from the festival. These wines are made with stopped fermentation meaning the producer adds a base spirit (usually a form of brandy) into the wine to prevent the sugars from being turned into alcohol. They are around 16% abv and have a sweetness to balance everything out.
The previously mentioned fortified wines are great to have after dinner either with dessert or as a dessert on their own. They are very approachable for the consumer who is looking to venture away from the selection of port and find a new product with which to fall in love. Anyone looking to explore these and other options in fortified wines have the best resource at your disposal in the sommelier at your next restaurant, who are there to help you discover these new and exciting products and sometimes even provide you with a little history lesson.
So, at this year’s Chocolate Festival, and for years to come, after you’re through wandering around downtown getting your sugar rush, make sure you bring home some chocolate to enjoy with some of the Madeiras or VDN’s you just purchased. It may just become your favorite accompaniment with all the delicious chocolate.
– Ginger LaSalle, Main Dining Room Manager and Sommelier at The Greenbrier. Hashtag #100, April 2018.