The magic of vintage fortified wines

Taylor’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.

Henriques & Henriques Single Harvest Verdelho, Madeira, Portugal 2007 (£41, enquire at Mentzendorff) Vintage and tawny ports are among the longest-lived of wines. That 1896 vintage from Taylor’s isn’t even the oldest of its recent releases: the shipper has released an 1855 and an 1863 in the past few years. But for sheer longevity, it’s hard to beat that other great Portuguese fortified from the Atlantic island of Madeira. Something in the unique winemaking approach on Madeira – which, as well as fortification with grape spirit, traditionally involved gently heating the wines by placing the barrels under the eaves of sun-baked lofts – makes the wines almost indestructible. The island is the source of the oldest wines I’ve tasted, stretching far back into the mid-19th century and drinking not unlike wines at least 100 years younger. It’s possible to find very old wines, such as the 1900 Bual from one of the island’s best, historic producers, Henriques & Henriques. But there’s plenty of Madeira’s trademark mix of live-wire acidity, plus salty olives, nuts, citrus peel and dried fruit, in the same producer’s mere pup of a 2007 Verdelho.