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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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Red, Red Wine

While white wines can be quite an artform of their own, undoubtedly red wines are headier, bolder and require more complex winemaking skills, and intense procedures.

Red wine can vary in style from bright pink to dark rich blends. You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate fine red wines, however knowing something of the processes will help you identify some of the characters you might come across – so you can sound like an expert, at least …

Traditional Vinification

Red wine fermenter, Medoc, France

Red wine fermenter, Medoc, France

This is the term used to describe the production method of most red wines. It refers simply to the fermentation of wine on skins. This is done to enable extraction of colour, and the infusion of phenolic compounds from the skins, stalks and seeds included in the must.  The inclusion of these compounds and colour is the primary difference between red and white winemaking.

With red wines, much of the complexity of the styles is determined by the handling of the fermentation and aging.

Red Wine Types & Styles

Rosé

Rosés are light-bodied red wines, generally made to be drunk soon after production. Having said that, though, some grapes make wines which age over longer periods of time, eg Grenache, and rosé made with these grapes can actually last for years in the bottle before drinking.

Consistently clear, the colour of these wines can vary from vibrant violets and purples to salmon pink. The aroma of rosé is usually lifted, fresh and fruity, and high acidity leaves a clean, dry finish. Like delicate white wines, there should be no phenolic astringency or bitterness.

Rosé can be dry [with less than 7.5 g/L residual sugar] or medium-dry [10-30 g/L residual sugar], with no cloying palate sweetness on the finish.

Classic examples include: Mateus [Portugal], Tavel [France], Nederburg [South Africa] and Charles Melton’s Rose of Virginia [Australia].

Dry Red Table Wines

Dry reds can come as medium-bodied, drink early styles to full-bodied wines that require aging time in the bottle before they can be fully enjoyed.

Grape varieties used to make light to medium-bodied reds are usually Grenache, Pinot Noir – but sometimes grapes used for fuller-bodied styles can be used.

Medium to full-bodied reds are made from a wider range – but the more widely known include the Cabernets, Shiraz, Merlot, Durif. There is also a long list of Italian varieties including Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese – to name a few. Sometimes Grenache or Pinot Noir can also be usd for this style also.

At the end of the day, it appears that the repertoire of grapes used for each style is limited only by the prowess and will of the winemaker!

Usually showing complexity from a range of winemaking processes and oak storage, red wines generally come across tannic and astringent when young, and most improve with bottle aging, as the tannins consolidate and precipitate to the insides of the bottle.

Sparkling Reds

Sparkling Burgundy originated in France – where Pinot Noir grapes were used [thus the name!]  The Australian wine industry, however, developed a name for themselves for sparkling reds which were also called ‘burgundies’ until recent years. However, they didn’t necessarily use Pinot Noir.

The Australian style is much more fruit-driven and traditionally made with Shiraz. Lately, though, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut and Grenache have joined the club. As long as they can offer rich fruit flavours and sugar level above 13 degrees Baumé.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 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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2010 Bodegas Mas Alta Priorat Els Pics

Els_Pics_Bodegas_Mas_AltaPriorat is a Denominación de Origen Calificada (in Spanish … Denominació d’Origen Qualificada if you’re Catalan …) found in south west Catalonia. Priorat soils contain a combination of black slate and mica, called “llicorella”, and this, in conjunction with some very old Garnacha (Grenache) vines planted on steep slopes, manage to produce pretty spectacular wines from what some say is a pretty wishy-washy grape..

I hardly had the cork (YAY!!! CORK!!!) out of the bottle on this one, and the outstanding bouquet of cherries and floral aromas filled the room. I had to swirl quite vigorously in my giant red glass to dissipate the headiness. I knew then I was in for a treat.

At around $AUD20 a bottle for a Spanish red, I expect something good.  This beautiful Grenache blend is as lively as a spring chicken.  Hard to believe it is four vintages old – but then I am comparing this with a cheap local red in that price bracket, which I wouldn’t expect to impress me much.  In reality, Priorat Grenache is dark, bold and brooding, and really takes a bit of time to settle in.

Fresh, succulent raspberries and aniseed, with quite heavy sweetness for a dry red.  Reminiscent of dried figs. One might expect they would have balanced the sweetness with a little more acidity, but to my palate, it works.  There’s a lovely anise finish that lingers on to dryness, leaving the tongue yearning for another mouthful to cool down the spices.

Magic.  Accompanied my other half’s spag bog beautifully.  Even carried on well with the after-dinner turkish delight mini Easter eggs.  Yeah, unbelievably, I haven’t scoffed them all yet …

Thanks again to Nick’s Wine Merchants in Doncaster, Melbourne. As I’ve said before, it’s worth the trip out to stock up.  Winter is just a hop,skip and a jump away.  I promise you’ll enjoy this one by the fire.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Wine Reviews

 

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