Becky Sue Epstein, Strong, Sweet & Dry: A guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala. Reaktion Books, November 2019.
What do Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala wines have in common? They are all fortified wines (the “strong” part of the book title). You probably have bottles of several if not all of them stashed away somewhere in the back of the wine closet, although you might not have thought about them in a while.
And they are all delicious. Time you brought them out of the closet and onto the table where they belong! Becky Sue Epstein’s entertaining and informative new book is just the nudge you need to do it.
There are two themes that run through the chapters on the different wines. The first is a classic rise, fall, rise again arc. Each wine was once the object of intense interest and widespread celebration. Then, for reasons that are sometimes the same (phylloxera vine devastation) and sometimes unique to the particular situation, interest declined and production faded away.
Now, however, these wines are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Back to the future! Why now? Well, this leads to the second theme. As they declined, each of the wines was reduced to a stereotype (think stuffy Port and cigars or your grandmother’s sticky sweet sherry). Now, however, there is more interest in exploring the diversity of these wines and returning to their roots.
Controversially, there is also a trend toward using these fortified wines as the base for cocktails. Wine cocktails? OMG. How could you do that to a nice wine? Yes, I know there are purists who turn their noses up at this idea, motivated perhaps by the fear that it is a slippery slope that leads all the way down to Vintage Port and Coca Cola. Shudder!
But Epstein embraces the idea, pointing out that fortified wine cocktails are part of the history of these wines. People made cocktails a hundred years ago using whatever products were available. And fortified wines were often more readily available than Gin or Vodka, for example. No reason why such a drink can’t be tasty. And it is probably lower in alcohol than many spirits concoctions.
Sogrape, the Portuguese producer of the Sandeman wines, has embraced the old/new trend. My 2016 column on Port wine developments noted that the Sandeman Tawny Ports were packaged into new bottles designed to look at home behind the bar. What do you think? The shape is more like a whisky bottle and very different from the traditional black Port bottle with its stenciled label.
Sue and I have a strong interest in fortified wines and have been fortunate to be able to sample many of them — including some unusual ones like Commandaria from Cyprus — at the source. But for some reason we’ve never explored Vermouth. Until now.
Epstein’s chapter on Vermouth convinced us we had to learn more. So now we are working our way through the local selection and look forward to adding this wine to our travel agenda list.
Becky Sue Epstein’s Strong, Sweet & Dry inspired us and I think it will inspire you to try something new that’s also something old. Highly recommended.
Fascinating, can’t wait to explore…
I’ll use the book as a guide!
I bought the book on the strength of this review. I agree it’s comprehensive and informative, and would have been a great asset on a trip to Porto we made just a couple of weeks ago. My only criticism would be that the book comes across rather as a well-researched but dispassionate collection of essays, rather than an expression of love for fortified wines that makes you want to rush out and try them! I think also that there could have been an entire chapter devoted to ‘bitters’ as well, of which there are many, including such common drinks as Campari and Aperol, and which are not vermouths, as well as those such as Angostura and Peychaud’s which we normally associate with the term.