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Fortifieds – not for the feint-hearted!

Fortified Wines

Port houses, Nova Gaia, Oporto, Portugal

Port houses, Nova Gaia, Oporto, Portugal

From the Latin ‘Fortis‘, we refer to strong wines as ‘Fortified’.

Fortifieds are wines to which high strength spirit (around 95%) or brandy spirit (around 80%) has been added to increase the alcohol level. Most fortifieds come in at around 17 to 20% alcohol by the time they are bottled.

The blending secrets of winemakers who venture into fortifieds have often been passed down through generations. In fact, some of the wines they are using in today’s blend were made by their grandfathers – partcularly in the case of Solera systems.

Many of these wines undergo comprehensive production methods. There are also styles of Fortifieds which are not listed here, such as the extremely luscious tokays and muscats.

For now, though, we’ll just overview three main types.

Best Grapes for Fortified Wines

Fortifieds can be white or red, and made from either grape colour. Not just any grape will do, though … they do need to have some specific characterists:

Sweet fortified wines need grapes that tend to shrivel, and achieve high sugar concentration on ripening – like Grenach, Shiraz, Muscadelle, Frontignac, Verdehlo.

Dry fortifieds like Sherry require neutral flavoured grapes – like Pedro Ximines or Palomino.

Solera Systems

Solera System, Jerez

Solera System, Jerez, Spain

Several fortified wines – most well-known, Sherry – are made through a Solera system, which consists of layers [criadera] of barrels stacked on top of each other. Each criadera holds a single vintage’s wine. The oldest vintage is naturally at the bottom layer [the solera], and the new vintage is placed on the top row.

A Solera system works like this: Several times a year, wine is removed from the bottom barrels for bottling/drinking. This is replaced by wine drawn out of the next layer of barrels, which are in turn topped up by the next layer.

This way, the wine in the bottom barrels represents a blend of all vintages, and remains refreshed. The Solera ensures consistency in house style.

Imagine the job it must be to replace the bottom barrels as they deteriorate with age … that a whole other page one day …

Sherry

Spanish vineyards, Jerez, Spain

Spanish vineyards, Jerez, Spain

Normally reserved as a tippling drink for little old ladies, it’s worth getting acquainted with Sherry. It really is a great alternative for summer afternoons.

Sherry originates in Spain – named after the city of Jerez [pronounced Hereth], and is made from Palomino or Pedro Ximenes grapes.

The minimun ripening degree for Palomino and Pedro Ximenes to make Sherry is 10.5 degrees baumé. The grapes also have low acidity, and the juice oxidises easily.

Pedro Ximenes (PX) is actually being replaced by Palomino in Spain, due to Palomino’s better tolerance of disease, and higher yields, although the high-end sherries all seem to continue to be PX.

But it’s not just grape choice that creates the unique aromas and flavours of Sherry. It’s the yeast, and the oxidation of the ethyl alcohol it produces.

Sherry under Flor, Jerez, Spain

Sherry under Flor, Jerez, Spain

Yeast used to ferment Sherry forms a surface-covering growth on the fermenting wine. This growth is called ‘flor’, and is a key production requirement of the finest Fino Sherries.

Flor isn’t like other yeasts. When it first meets the wine, it sinks to the bottom … then rises up to create a film around 3 to 6 mm thick on the surface. If this film is broken during fermentation period, the wine cannot be Fino anymore. It can go on to become Amontillado or Oloroso.

Fino is pale coloured, has a pungent almondy bouquet, smooth on the palate and dry on finish. As Fino ages in casks, it hopefully retains its delicate aromas and flavours. However, it can morph into Fino-amontillado or Amontillado if it gains body and develops a new bouquet.

If it grows coarser, it becomes reclassified as Oloroso. Oloroso is a style of Sherry that doesn’t require flor, so it’s not just a category left for failed Finos. Oloroso is darker in colour and is made from more fragrant grapes.

Cream Sherry is made in a number of ways, not necessarily having anything to do with the Solera. Sometimes it is made by sweetening and adding colouring wine to base wine.

Colouring wine is another interesting process. Termed ‘arrope-vino de color’ this is wine which has been reduced by boiling to one fifth of its original volume. It becomes caramelly and reaches around 37 degrees baumé. A seperate amount of grape juice is fermented and the reduced wine is slowly added. The end wine is around 12 degrees baumé, and is aged in casks in a Solera.

Port

Douro vineyards, Oporto, Portugal

Douro vineyards, Oporto, Portugal

Although authentic Port comes from Portugal, other countries, particularly Australia, make some sensational ports.

In Portugal, the grapes all come from the Douro Valley. In Australia, they can come from a variety of regions, however undoubtedly the Rutherglen region in North East Victoria produces exceptional fortifieds over all.

The minimum ripeness for Port is 12-13 degrees baumé. The main grape varieties used include Touriga, Bastardo, Grenache (tawny port in Australia), Shiraz, Mataro.

Authentic Portugese Port production is controlled in a similar way to the appellation laws in France and Germany. In Portugal, vineyards are graded [A to F] every four years by Government inspectors. The grading gives the vigneron a level of yield that he is allowed to turn into Port. A grade vineyards can use 100% yield, whereas F might only make 40%.

Port stacked in Port houses, Nova Gaia, Porto

Port stacked in Port houses, Nova Gaia, Porto

The big brother activity doesn’t stop there. During maturation, the wine is sujected to quality controls by the Camara de Provadores do Instituto do Vinho do Porto [Chamber of the Port Wine Institute Tasters].

In Portugal there are 80 different [yes, 80] grapes authorised for port production – but not all are identified. Most vineyards carry 20-30 different varieties. The five majors, though, are Touriga Nacional, Tina Barocca, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Ritz [Tempranillo].

Port comes in a variety of styles, within two main categories:

Undated Ports are blended from up to 15 different wines from many vintages. They are aged in oak and experience controlled oxidation, but are ultimately designed to be drunk soon after bottling:

Samples of different Ports

Samples of different Ports

Ruby – young [1-3 years], fruity, blackcurrant

Vintage – matured in large oak barrels 3 or 4 years, complex, fruity, full-bodied

Tawny – small barrel aged, light structure, soft dry finished.

White Port – a light-bodied, amber gold colour, with rancio and toffee fruit flavours.

Dated Ports are matured in wood and continue maturation in the bottle.

Vintage – aged up to 30 years in the bottle, rich, chocolate, fruity and strong rancio aromas, dry finish. These wines throw deposits in the bottle so older ones should be decanted.

Late Bottled Vintage [LBV] – made from a single year, bottled at 4-6 years aged, unfiltered, need decanting.

Harvest – matured in oak and come from a single harvest in a single vintage. Are not bottled until 7 years old.

Brandy

Grapes used to make brandy include neutral varieties like Folle Blanche, Doradillo, Colombard, Trebbiano. Trebbianno [Ugni Blanc] is the most important of these grapes.

The most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac from France. These are relatively cool regions of France, and in Cognac the grapes don’t quite mature – resulting in high acidity, low sugar and lack of flavour. But this is a good thing! Too much sugar makes ‘flabby’ brandy.

Armagnac on the other hand is a little warmer, and higher sugar levels are reached – actually enough to make table wine out of them.

The base wines for Cognac and Armagnac production are fermented using innoculated yeast as with normal wine. However, Cognac will then go through a pot still distillation with yeast lees still intact. Armagnac on the other hand is produced more often using continuous still.

The distilled wines in both cases are then matured in oak before blending.

Blending is particularly important for Cognac to maintain consistency. In doing so, the age of the youngest wine in the blend determines its commercial denomination:

3 years (min) -3 star

5 years (min) – VSOP

7 years (min) – Napoleon or XO

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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Portugal, Spain, Winemaking

 

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Sweet Whites

Despite common misconception, sweet white wine is not a term reserved for dessert wines. Sweet white wines can come in a variety of styles at a variety of price and quality ranges, and raising the sugar levels in the wines can come from a variety of methods.

Cask wines

… are usually sweetened dry base wines. Sweetening is done by addition of juice of much sweeter grapes, such as Muscat Gordo.

Bottled sweet wines

… are made from grapes which have high natural sugar levels and are often late-picked to ensure these high levels.

Dessert wines

Desert wines aging in barrels, Tuscany, Italy

Dessert wines aging in barrels, Tuscany, Italy

… are made from grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea – or “Noble Rot” as it’s sometimes called.

These wines are fuller-bodied, and exhibit strong aromas and flavours of botrytis – ie apricots or orange peel – rather than the varietal characters of the grape, depending on the degree of infection by the rot.

Botrytis cinerea is actually a fungus or spoilage organism. It affects many fruits and vegetables – but not to the positive degree shown in wine. This fungus actually infects the grapes, causing them to shrivel with dehydration, therefore increase in sugar concentration, as well as metabolising tartaric acid in the grapes.

Botrytis also increases glycerol levels, resulting in silky, heavy and smooth mouthfeel of the wines.

Major Varietals

Major varietals used are Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Frontignac [or Frontignan], Muscat, Rulander and Pinot Gris.

Most people think of full-bodied dessert wines when they talk about sweet white wines, but in truth, the styles actually vary from cheap cask blends at one end, to bottled sweet whites, to delicate and intricate dessert wines [usually purchased as half-bottles due to their cost, and complexity].

Sweetened cask wines are generally dry base white wines to which grape juice is added to sweeten, eg Muscat Gordo.

Premium bottled sweet white wines are made mostly from Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Rulander and Pinot Gris.

Classic styles of dessert wines come from Germany [Trockenbeerenauslese – from the Riesling grape] and France [Sauternes – from Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc grapes].

A word on Chaptalisation

Chaptalisation refers to increasing the sugar levels in wines by addition of sugar to the must or even the wine itself. This practice usually happens in colder winemaking regions, where it is legal to do so.

The laws in relation to chaptalisation vary from country to country – particularly in Europe. In Australia it is not permitted except during secondary fermentation of sparkling wines, or to flavoured ‘wine coolers’ and brandy. It is legal in New Zealand.

However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, they say. It’s no different when it comes to increasing sugar in wines.

Other than botrytis infection, fermentation may be stopped early to leave a higher level of residual sugar in the wine. This can be done by cooling to stop fermentation, followed by filtering to remove yeast. Addition of SO2 also stops or slows fermentation but isn’t the method of choice when making sweet white wines.

Or perhaps sweeter, unfermented grape juice [ironically called ‘sussreserve”] or concentrate can be added.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2013 in Winemaking

 

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Viticulture for Virgins Part IV: Voluminous Vitis Vinifera

Cinsault - photo courtesy Mulineux Family Wines, Swartland, Africa

Cinsault – photo courtesy Mulineux Family Wines, Swartland, Africa

Most people know the major grapes used to make wine: Shiraz,Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, blah blah blah …

But the truth is, there are actually a whole gamut of grapes that are used all around the wine worlds (new and old) for making wines.

I’ve come across many in my travels and studies, and it really became too hard to memorise them all.

So I started building this list to refer to.

Hope you find it helpful, and please – if you know of any that aren’t on my list, I’d love you to add a comment at the bottom telling me of others!

These here are the more well-known ones:

Variety

Notes

Barbera One of the world’s most widely planted red grapes. Important in Italy, Argentina and parts of California. Retains higher acidity even in hot areas. Intensely coloured and astringent.
Cabernet Franc Important variety in St Emilion and Pomerol, France. These areas of north Bordeaux have less maritime influence and are subject to cooler winters. This red prefers cool climates – budbursts and ripens early. Makes softer, higher quality wines than Cabernet Sauvignon. Mostly blended.
Cabernet Sauvignon Comes from Bordeaux, France where it is the major variety in Medoc wines. Considered the world’s premium red grape. Grapes have good tolerance of bunch rot, and damage as berries are small and tough. Vines don’t like damp, clay soils – they need drainage. The Medoc has gravelly, well-drained soils. Takes a long time to ripen so likes hot summers and long mild autumns.
Carignan Red grape which makes wines of good colour but average quality. Takes time to age, so is often blended with faster aging grapes such as Grenache or Cinsault. Spanish name – Mazuela. Used for bulk wines in USA. Likes hot, dry climates.
Chardonnay Versatile white grape widely planted in many wine regions around the world. Used in Champagne – blended with Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier preferably. Easy to grow, good yields, few problems.
Chenin Blanc Used mainly in Loire Valley, France for still and sparkling white wines. Widely grown in South Africa – where it’s sometimes called Stein. Has good acidity so is blended to balance other whites.
Cinsaut (or Cinsault) Southern France varietal red. Often mispelled ‘Cinsault’. Sometimes a table grape, sometimes wine. Adapts well to hot, dry climates, tough skins resistant to rain damage, but prone to fungal rots. Makes average quality, low tannin wine – often blended.
Colombard One of the whites used for Cognac in France, although larger plantings exist east of Gironde in Bordeaux. Often a table grape. High-yielding, tolerant of rot and mildew. High acidity, and has a distinct varietal flavour.
Crouchen White grape originating from (but not grown there much these days) south-west France. History of being associated with the name Riesling in South Africa and Australia – however it is not Riesling. Real problem child … doesn’t ripen well in cool regions, and is very susceptible to rots and mildews in hot regions. Thus its decline in favour globally.
Durif This majestic red, also known as ‘Petite Verdot‘ or ‘Petite Sirah‘ originates from the Rhone Valley, France. This grape ripens late and is tricky to grow. Durif offers wines of intense, blue-black colour, guaranteed to stain your teeth, and high tannins which require long ageing before drinking. However, Durif grown in warmer areas presents as a faster aging wine – probably due to advanced characteristics in the grapes – and is more approachable at younger age. Also used for Port.
Frontignac The official name for this grape is ‘Muscat a’ petit grains” (Muscat of small berries), and it can come in white or coloured varieties. The ripe berries wilt and shrivel quickly to concentrate sugar – thus its extensive use in sweet fortified wines called Muscats. The white variety is commonly used for table wines, with coloured grapes preferred for fortifieds.
Grenache Spaniards call this red “Garnacha”. Blended in southern France (Rhone) popularly with Shiraz and Mataro or Carignan. Before Cabernet Sauvignon took its place in the 1990’s, Grenache was important grape in Australia. Likes hot, windy conditions. Wind is important as it’s also prone to rots, fungus, mildew, etc. Makes wines of low colour, but faster aging. Most often used for Rose` or Tawny Port.
Malbec Red grape known as ‘Cot’ in west France, where it’s decreasing in popularity due to productivity issues. Grown near Bordeaux and Loire Valley, France as a blender. Important grape in Argentina. In Australia it has been confused with Dolcetto and Inta Amarella. Irregular crops have been improved through cloning. Rich in colour and tannin and used for blending mostly.
Marsanne As the name suggests, this white is another originator of France, where it is grown in the Rhone region. Similar to Viognier, the wines made from Marsanne have little varietal character and age quickly. Used as a varietal in Australia – famously by Tahbilk – as it seems to develop more character in this climate.
Mataro In Provence, France, this red is known as Mourvedre, and in Spain (where it holds more importance) is called Monastrell or Morastell. Recovers well after frost, and yields well. Hardy grape, and needs warmth to ripen. Makes neutral wines of high astringency. Good for blending.
Merlot The principal red of Bordeaux. Sensitive to salinity, enjoys cool damp clay soils. Makes softer wine than Cabernet Sauvignon, ripens earlier so avoids the summer rains and autumn winds from the Bay of Biscal. These two wines are often blended. Wines made from Merlot age quicker than other red wines.
Palomino White grape used for Sherry and other fortifieds – makes low quality table wines. Important to Spain – providing most of the wines for Sherry (Jerez). High sugar content, low acidity and neutral flavour.
Pedro Ximinez Also used in Spain for Sherry. This white is tender-skinned and thus prone to weather damage and rots. Sometimes blended into table wines.
Pinot Noir Burgundy, France’s favourite red grape, and one of the most popular varietals for white sparklings and Champagne. In Germany and Switzerland, it’s known as ‘Spätburgunder‘. An old varietal, it is claimed there are over 1,000 different clones. Has little colour, and excels in cool areas. Has distinctive varietal characters ranging from “barnyard” to “cherry”.
Riesling The white grape king. Widely grown around the world. Originated in Germany – prolific in Rheingau and Mosel regions, makes excellent wines from Alsace, France. Moderate producer, Riesling ripens well in many conditions, and produces distinctive, aromatic wines.
Sangiovese An Italian red grape, most used in Italy’s Chianti, becoming more popular in the north-eastern area of Victoria, Australia.
Sauvignon Blanc This white grape put New Zealand on the map, at the same time as it was decreasing in plantings in France. A large leaf-area:fruit ratio enables successful capture of sunlight to produce sugars in colder regions. Wines have distinct varietal characters.
Semillon This poorly identified white historically gets confused with Chenin Blanc, Crouchen and Riesling – particularly in Australia. In Bordeaux it claims fame as second most important white. Berries split easily in rain when ripe, leaving it susceptible to rot – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you want to do with the grapes. In Australia, botrytised semillon is probably the most famous dessert wine in the country.
Shiraz The red grape king in Australia – however not necessarily so important elsewhere. Also known as ‘Syrah‘. Red wines from Hermitage region of Rhone Valley are 100% Shiraz. Yields well in variety of climatic conditions, but berries tend to wilt when ripe – making mechanical harvesting difficult.
Tarrango An Australian-born red grape developed by CSIRO as a cross-breed of Sultana and Touriga grapes. Makes a light-bodied red table wine with good acidity, and faster aging. Don’t hold your breath looking for it in an Australian bottle shop, though.
Touriga Red Port variety, more succinctly called Touriga Nacional, of Douro Valley in Portugal. Mostly used in fortified wines. Excellent colour and flavour for Ports. Sometimes used as productive blender in table wines.
Verdelho This Portuguese white varietal, known on the island of Madiera as ‘Gouveio‘, has until recent days been used for fortified wine. In the new millenium however, table wines have been popping up in the bottle shops made from this varietal. Ripens early, and offers distinct tropical fruit characters in hot regions.
Viognier Wine made from this white have been traditionally blended with Marsanne and Roussanne to increase complexity as it’s pretty ordinary on its own. [Mind you, I’ve had workmates threaten to string me up for saying that] Often apricot flavours and aromas. Ages quickly. Relative new kid on the block in Australian market is Shiraz/Viognier – emulating the Cote Rotie wines of France.
Zinfandel Common red varietal in California, USA. Reportedly the same grape as Primitivo in Italy and Mali Plavac [or more distinctly Crljenak – a parent of Mali Plavac] in eastern European countries, eg Croatia. Wines made from Zinfandel have distinctive Raspberry characters.
Chardonnay - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Chardonnay – photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Sauvignion Blanc - photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

Sauvignion Blanc – photo courtesy Dusan Jelic, Belgrade, Serbia

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Viticulture

 

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