The terroir-driven strength of sherry, port and madeira translates into great cocktails
It’s impossible to pass a day in Portugal, Spain or Madeira without being offered a glass of one of their famous fortified wines. Often presented in cocktails and mixed drinks, these local terroir-driven sherries, ports and Madeiras are as natural to drink as (and in some cases more than) water. Because of their blend of wine and spirit, fortifieds are highly useful and versatile in mixed drinks and cocktails, providing just enough of that spirited touch without all the booze of a straight spirit.
With production dating back hundreds of years, these strong wines have been entrenched into their respective cultures. Historically, the added — fortifying — spirit would help preserve the wines from spoilage on long voyages, making them drinkable for longer. Most hover between 15 to 19 per cent alcohol.
They’re a taste of place and people, an inseparable merge of the social aspect of terroir as much as the geographical definition. Even though port, sherry and Madeira are transformed entirely by process (lengthy aging, fortification, blending, and in the case of Madeira, heating) these legendary wines are as much a part of a place as the dirt in which the grapes grow. I spent the better part of last year on the road, visiting vineyards and vignerons across Europe, enjoying these ancient wines presented in modern ways.
In Portugal, light and refreshing Porto Tonicos kick off most evenings, with dry white port topped with tonic and tipped with fresh mint and slices of lime or lemon.
The dusty, tropical mountainous roads of Madeira were dotted with tiny cafés serving up chilled tumblers of Poncha, the island’s traditional drink made with local sugarcane aguardente, honey, sugar, lemon rind and ample fresh lemon juice. But there was also Sangaree, the colonial-era precursor of Sangria that has regained popularity recently, made with a sweeter Madeira and built into a single-serve, slightly brooding cocktail with lemon juice, sugar and nutmeg.
It’s traditional to sip chilled Fino or Manzanilla with pintxos and tapas all across Spain, but young hipsters in Madrid and Barcelona are slinging the Adonis, a throwback cocktail from the late 1800s that mixes dry sherry with sweet vermouth, orange bitters and ice into a briskly bitter refresher to kick off the evening.
With centuries of entrenched tradition, how do we incorporate these classic wines into today’s modern life and bar? I tasked three next generation bartenders at Victoria’s Café Mexico with doing just that: take one fortified wine each and create a new cocktail inspired by its history, provenance and profile.
—by Treve Ring