On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Joanna Sciarrino and Zach Geballe deliberate about fortified wine’s future amongst drinkers. These classic categories — sherry, port, and Madeira — have a rich history, but can they keep up with modern trends?

For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try two examples of Madeira. Join them as they taste
the Medium-Dry 5-Year from Miles and the “Savannah” Verdelho from Rare Wine Co. Tune in to learn more.

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Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.

Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, it’s just you and me this week, man.

Z: Oh, it’s nice to have a little intimate podcast.

J: Yeah, I think it’ll be good. But we miss Adam, of course.

Z: Yeah, hurry back.

J: Do you want to intro what we’re going to be talking about?

Z: Sure. I think that we ran a piece on the site relatively recently by Nicole Kliest about this question that’s out there about three categories –– and in a broader category, three specific examples within it – and is there any hope for fortified wines with younger consumers? We’ve talked a lot about millennials and our drinking habits, especially as it regards wine and this category that had been really, really, really struggling. You had seen diminished sales categorically across Sherry, Port, and vermouth, to some extent. You’d seen the Sherry industry largely being kept afloat by Scotch, which just wants the barrels. They don’t care what happens to the liquid inside them. Basically, are there some signs of hope, some signs of life in younger consumers being intrigued by these categories? So I thought it’d be an interesting thing for us to talk about. Plus, it gives us something to drink, which I always appreciate.

J: Yes.

Z: I want to start with this question for you, Joanna, and then we can kind of talk a little more about this. Do you feel like you have an interest as a drinker with anything in the fortified wine category?

J: As specific categories themselves, the headline here says vermouth, Sherry and Port and we’re drinking Madeira. I don’t have any specific interest in any of them alone. Do you know what I mean? I’m not like, “Oh man, Sherry is so exciting to me. I want to know all about it. I want to really explore it.” And I know that people do this. I know that for many years there’s been this argument that Sherry is going to happen. Everybody in the industry likes Sherry, it’s going to happen for the greater drinking world. I don’t think that’s happened quite yet, but I do like these wines included in other things. But I’ve never had the impulse to explore any one of them on their own.

Z: Let’s set vermouth aside for a little bit, because vermouth has its understood role as a cocktail ingredient. It’s obviously used widely in bars in a number of classic cocktails and we’re not willing to go down that path. But when it comes to Sherry and Port and the whole fortified wine category, I think it’s that whole “fortified” thing right off the jump that scares people away. When we think about fortified wine, we think about either very, very low quality things that people buy because it offers a high amount of alcohol for a low dollar cost, and/or there’s a sense that the wine has somehow been adulterated.

J: I think people just don’t know what it means. On a more basic level, they just don’t know what fortified wine means.

Z: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of the challenge that the category faces. I’ve come across a lot as a wine director and as a sommelier and as just someone who does find these categories stereotypically. I do find these categories interesting and I find them to be appealing. The other piece of this is that in addition to not knowing what fortified means, you see this in particular with Sherry and Port, is the assumption that is at times pretty erroneous. I think for Port, that’s actually a relatively safe assumption because part of the Port style and the process of making it is that you’re using the liquor that you’re fortifying with to stop fermentation midway through. So you’re preserving some of the sugar that was present in the grapes at harvest. But with Sherry, you’re not. You’re fortifying after fermentation. So you’re really using that to elevate the alcohol level, to do things to the wine. Then if it’s a sweeter style, you’re getting there not through the residual sugar but from the initial fermentation. I do find it to be misunderstood. The other thing I was going to say, and I’m wondering if this element of it resonates at all with you, Joanna, and maybe resonates with millennials more broadly is, I do think that what’s cool about these categories is they offer two things that might be appealing. One is that, in part because of their long sales slump, they’re actually generally very affordable. Sherry in particular is kind of comically cheap in a lot of cases, even for very high quality stuff. Also, because of the fortification, they range. But they are much more shelf stable and suitable for a kind of occasional break than still wine or table wine.

J: I agree with that. But I also just think another issue is that people don’t really know when to drink them. Sure, I’ll have a bottle of Sherry or I’ll have a bottle of Sherry on hand. But what are those occasions to drink it? They’re such old school beverages, right? You see all these mid-century shows and they’re having their Sherry before dinner or after. Or they’re having Port after because it’s sweet. When I was growing up, my parents would have a Port after dinner occasionally. But I just think that in today’s drinking culture, we have restaurants who are offering Sherry before a meal or Port after a meal. But people don’t necessarily know when to drink these to have them at home on their own.

Z: For sure. And I think that that’s obviously a challenge that comes with Sherry, in particular, but even with Port. Well, Sherry and Madeira, actually, which we’ll talk about a little later. It’s maybe a little less true with Port that the style that you’re looking at is going to have a very, very different use.

J: Exactly.

Z: And they’re going to have a different time you’re going to want to consume it. Because they really run the gamut from extremely dry apéritif-style or wines that are suitable for pairing with certain kinds of food all the way to very sweet dessert style after dinner type drinks. If you just say, “I want to try Sherry,” what are you even going to get?

J: Exactly. I think the most interesting part of this piece is that their respective use in cocktails is what’s bringing more people to them. There’s another part of this piece which is trying to make the argument that people drinking more Sherry and Port in cocktails will make them wine drinkers, which I don’t know that I agree with, because they just seem so vastly different. I’m not going to have a cocktail with Sherry and be like, “Oh, I really want a Pinot Noir now.” But I do think that it’s interesting to see more bar operators and bartenders including these wines in their cocktails.

Z: Part of it, too, is that when you look at it from the side of a restaurant or bar, incorporating these wines into your bar program may allow you to keep them on hand for someone to have on their own.

J: Right.

Z: You can stock them. Even though, as I mentioned before, they stay viable as drinks, especially if refrigerated for longer than a table wine would. But they still have a shelf life. You can’t keep them open forever. With the possible exception of Madeira, and we’ll get to that. But what you can do is you can use them on both sides. You can offer them in your regular wine program and also use them in cocktails in ways that maybe allow you to offset the costs to some extent, reduce spoilage or waste, and maybe also offer a fresher experience for your guests than if you just have a dusty bottle of Sherry. Because every three weeks someone orders one glass of Sherry, which can happen for sure. I’d be very curious to know another part of this, because this is something that is talked about a lot with these drinks. Does the history of it matter, whether it’s the history of the production or its relevance and importance in drinking history? Do people care? I find that stuff interesting, but with these things, I often worry that I’m one of eight people who gives a sh*t.

J: Not to dismiss you. I don’t think people really care, honestly. I think that people only care as it relates to popular culture, if that makes sense. I’ve never seen “Bridgerton.” Is there Sherry in “Bridgerton?” I have no idea. If there was, maybe people would care. Or I think about “Downton Abbey” and drinking brandy. That’s a personal one for me, I find that very compelling. So I’m like, “Well, I want brandy now.” But not because I necessarily care about the history of these or how they’re made or how they were popularized or anything like that. I’m sure there are people who care about that, though. But I don’t think it’s leading to a wave of people who are drinking more of these wines.

Z: It’d be interesting if we could know more about where these upticks in sales are really coming from and whether it’s a blip. Or whether there are people who do find the history compelling in some sense and do find some resonance. It’s not you, and maybe less extreme than me. I think one thing that’s also potentially appealing about some of these beverages is that they can convey an air of authenticity because they have become so unfashionable that being into them can be kind of a thing. You know that the producers are not really chasing a market trend. They’re still making their Amontillado Sherry or whatever the same way they have been because that’s just how it’s done. So you’re not worrying that they’re actually making it with wild yeast or they’re using 100% new oak barrels because that’s what’s on trend for this year. It’s the same as it ever was in some way. And while that can obviously work to these drinks’ detriment in some sense, maybe there’s a way in which being detached from trends can actually work in it’s favor.

J: It’s forever unfashionable, yes. Yeah. I think there is some appeal in liking something that’s so uncool.

Z: One last thing on my end before we get into tasting. The other thing that’s both a challenge and an opportunity is, as I mentioned, the diversity of the category and also the price. One thing that we’ve talked about on the podcast in a different lens before, but that is actually very cool for some of this is that if you are the kind of person who maybe gets a little into wine and you find an appeal finding old bottles or want birth year stuff, Port, Sherry, and to some extent, Madeira are areas where you can find vintage bottles or models. And they’re not cheap, but they are way more affordable than most still wine from those eras would be. And again, because they’re fortified, they are vastly more certain to be in good drinking condition than still wine. They’re more resilient. They can have been through slightly rougher treatment and they just last longer. I mean, Madeira in particular lasts forever, because of the combination of fortification and in Madeira’s case, the production methodology. That’s a cool thing. And for someone who is kind of interested in dipping their toe into that, it can be a safer and less fraught way to get into older bottles. Safer, both from an experience and also a price stamp.

J: To your earlier point, I think a lot of the places where we’re seeing more of these wines in cocktails are the places that have more robust wine programs. You already have people there who are interested in that and know that that’s the offering. So they’re probably more willing to try things like that. And like you said, if you’re somebody who’s very curious about wine or interested in it, then you’re going to be more open to exploring these than somebody who’s not necessarily a wine person.

Z: All right, we should drink something.

J: So what are we drinking? What are you drinking?

Z: I have a Madeira from the Rare Wine Co. Historic Series, which I think are really great examples of the style. Not to get into a whole thing about Madeira. Has there been a “Wine 101” about Madeira yet? I should probably know this.

J: Nope.

Z: Well, Keith can put it on the list.

J: There is one on fortified wines, but not Madeira specifically.

Z: With Madeira, you have these four noble varieties; Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia. In that order, they go from drier to sweeter. So this is slightly off dry, it’s not nearly as sweet as bual.

J: Which one is it?

Z: Sorry, I have the Verdelho. I always want to say it like it’s Spanish and it’s actually Portuguese. They call this “Savannah” because Rare Wine Co. names all their different bottlings in the series from famous cities that were hugely important to the Madeira trade in the U.S. in the early days of said Madeira trade. Which was around the time of the colonies. So I have that. What do you have?

J: I have Miles 5-Year Madeira, Tinta Negra. Which is not one of the noble, as I understand it.

Z: No, it’s the commoner.

J: It’s the commoner. And this is medium dry. Is that right?

Z: Sounds like a thing to me.

J: Keith is looking at my bottle.

Z: You should tell me what you think because I’m familiar with this wine.

J: I think this is delicious. I really like it. I said this to you earlier, Zach. I don’t know a ton about Madeira. Obviously I don’t have a ton of experience drinking it, but I think this is supposed to be medium dry. It’s pretty sweet. So I’d be interested in trying something drier just out of curiosity, to taste them side by side.

Z: Yeah. One of the critical things to understanding Madeira is understanding the production method, and I’m not going to get deep into this. But basically the wine is both oxidized and heated. Madeira was kind of born out of these fortified wines being placed in the holds of ships during the age of exploration and the transatlantic trade and all that. Between the oxidative environment of barrels and being out in the elements for a while and the heating and cooling that came with being out on the ocean and sometimes traveling to tropical climates, they found this helped these varieties in particular and the style. As opposed to most wine, which would be really ruined by that and undrinkable. For these, it actually brought out this very interesting style of wine that retains some of the characteristics of the varieties, while also being very distinctly Madeira. So it has a pronounced nuttiness that comes from the oxidation. There’s a roundness to it that comes from the heating element. And then, of course, the fortification of the wine with a neutral spirit. But the Sercials, the really dry styles, can be reminiscent of dry Sherry in their salinity and very acidic and dry impression. But with this added sort of cooked element, frankly. And the sweet styles are very, very luxurious and very unctuous.

J: It really coats the palate.

Z: They’re not as fully mouth coating as, I would say, Pedro Ximénez Sherry would be. Or a really, really rich Port. But they have a similar characteristic to them, again, leaning much more into those cooked flavors. It’s like toffee pudding and stuff like that.

J: I’d love to play with this in cocktails and I think it would be really delicious. This is interesting. I’m really curious to see how this plays out across cocktail menus and in NYC and across the country as well.

Z: Yeah, for sure. It’d be interesting to hear from listeners podcast at [email protected] if you guys have thoughts. Obviously many of you are in the industry and may dearly love these drinks and these wines. Let us know what you think. But I’d be more curious in some ways if you’re people who have not tried these or are skeptical. There is some space for you if you’re interested in trying them or you’re just unfamiliar. You may not be skeptical. You’re just unfamiliar. You’re the people that these producers and that these regions are trying to reach in some way. And I’d be curious to know if you have any openness or thoughts on how they might do that.

J: Well, Zach, thank you so much. And I’ll talk to you next week.

Z: Sounds great.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.