My first experience with fortified wines consisted of a Ruby Port while looking at the Vila Nova de Gaia coastline in Porto. It was sublime! Actually, the experience was so memorable that upon my return to Madrid, I built an insatiable desire to explore fortified wines. It’s a world I new very little about, a world previously limited to Sherry, but now included Madeira, Port, Vermouth and various dessert wines.
With arctic temperatures barreling upon us, and the holidays just around the corner, I figured it was high time to share my passion with a fortified menu pairing: a little risqué, but worthy of the challenge. The question being, would it be well received? Would my loved ones accept a change of tradition, a new way of approaching holiday fare? (photo by Ryan Opaz)
The only way to find out was to simply dive in!
Our Christmas evening kicked off with an aperitif alongside various Spanish tapas to stimulate the appetite, including: green and black olives, salted almonds, shrimp in garlic sauce, tortilla squares, sharp Manchego cheese and buttery Ibérico ham. Honoring my Southern Italian origins, I threw in some fried Crespelle (little handmade fried dough balls) filled with anchovies. Why? Because it’s a brilliant pairing with Fino Sherry – my first surprise of the evening! My grandmother, the best Crespelle’s maker in the world, was admittedly, a little shocked. “How can you pair our traditional plates with Spanish wine?” It was a fair question, but one I chose not to answer. I suggested she take a sip, and another, before a slow smile creeped across her face. She was in love!
Watching my guest’s faces with glee, I sat them down for the main course: a rich and flavorful porcini risotto with smoked salmon and grilled artichokes paired with Emilio Hidalgo’s El Tresillo 1874” Amontillado Viejo, which holds a special place in my heart after my first visit to Jerez. Eyeing me suspiciously, they didn’t completely comprehend what a nightmare vegetable artichoke is to pair with any wine, but even tough-to-pair vegetables can find their sought-after lover in an Amontillado. Nutty, creamy and damn tasty, it’s hard not to fall in love. Now, was it the perfect pairing, no, but who cares. Amontillado is lovely all the same, with or without food!
A table of gorgeously stinky blue cheeses pre-announced the dessert, layered with Spanish Cabrales, Italian Gorgonzola and an English Stilton. An Emilio Lustau “Don Nuno” Dry Oloroso and a deeply fruity-driven Ferreira LBV Port 2009 sat regally in the middle of the table, as my guests finally eased into the experience. Fortified wines and cheese made perfect sense to them, but what a contrast of flavors! The truffle and walnut notes of the first, and the fiery tannins and lively acidity of the latter, helped cleanse the palate and offer a lingering, unforgettable finish. Where I may have failed a bit was adding the Queso de Burgos unpasteurized cheese for a bit of contrast. May not have been my finest moment, because the creamy, light flavor was completely absconded by the wine. Contrast is fine when wine and food enhance each other’s qualities, but horrific if they totally overpower them.
Dinner couldn’t end without dessert, or at least in my world. I’ve always enjoyed my family’s tradition of serving various kinds of sweets to end a holiday meal. So I went old-school, and offered an Italian Panettone, alongside Spanish Turrón, almond biscuits, Roscón de Reyes and big chunks of artisanal dark chocolate, paired with a dried apricot and honey flavored Moscatel de Setúbal, an elegant Taylor’s Vintage Port and a lusciously sweet Malmsey Madeira. The perfect finish! (photo by Ryan Opaz)
So what’s the take away? Easy! Make fortified wine your 2015 resolution. Cook with it, taste it, savor it! The range of flavors, of styles, is too numerous to lay out, which means that there’s a gem just waiting for you. Get out there and start tasting!