Wine Culture and Information - Volume 12
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  Corkscrew Issue 25, December 2004   
Production of Fortified WinesProduction of Fortified Wines  Contents 
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Production of Fortified Wines

Leading figures in the trades of the past, in that period in which they were particularly looked for, fortified wines are an explosion of aromas and flavors, result of a wise production technique

 If we consider the current consumption of fortified wines - very scarce and not very common as opposed to other styles - it seems impossible to believe these wines have been so important and so famous in the past and capable of determining the trades of those times. Whereas in the past names like Jerez, Port, Marsala and Madeira - just to mention the most famous representatives of this category - were considered great wines destined to noble classes, today they are practically ignored and scarcely appreciated saved by a small group of wine lovers. It should be remembered the decay of these wines was also because of the negligence and mistakes of many producers therefore damaging their image and credibility. After the incredible period of decay which lasted until the 1980's, in the last twenty years producers are finally revaluating the quality of these wonderful wines also by means of appropriate commercial strategies: the first tangible result is that many wine lovers are getting more and more interested in fortified wines for the first time.

 Whether this is the rebirth of a “myth”, like it was in the past, it is pretty hard to tell, as well as scarcely probable because of the impressive improvement of the quality of wines in general. However it is encouraging to see these glorious wines are getting back their credibility and their fame also thanks to the work of producers who are currently producing fortified wines of very high quality. It should also be considered fortified wines are not easy to understand and to appreciate: they takes a higher attention and a trained sensorial skill in order to perceive their extremely complex aromas and flavors, like in no other wine. The high quality of fortified wines of the last twenty years certainly encourages the wine lover to discover this new world by allowing him or her to live a new sensorial experience. Moreover, if we consider the fact these wines have a remarkable longevity which allows them to develop very complex aromas and flavors, fortified wines are not wines to be tasted absentmindedly: they have to be tasted in tranquility and in little sips, while contemplating their complex aromatic and gustatory evolution which is revealed only to those who have the patience to listen to them.

 

Definition of Fortified Wines

 Before discussing the aspects about production, let's try to understand what is a fortified wine. This style of wines - that in Italy can also be called liquoroso - is differentiated by all other styles for the fact some alcohol is added during production. The purpose of this process - called fortification - is not only the increasing of alcohol volume, as it may apparently be seen. Indeed, it is a delicate process in which the quality of the fortifying agent - usually ethyl alcohol or brandy - plays a fundamental role on the quality of the finished product as well. The best fortified wines are the ones in which the ethereal impact of the fortifying agent does not influence the primary organoleptic qualities of wine. In other words, in a quality fortified wine the ethereal aroma of alcohol should be scarcely perceivable, even better imperceptible, while avoiding to cover the main and typical aromas of wine.


The color of a Marsala Superiore Ambra
The color of a Marsala Superiore Ambra

 If the aroma of alcohol should not be perceived in these wines and the increasing of the alcohol percentage is not the main purpose of fortification, why does alcohol is added to wine? In order to answer to this question it is necessary to remember that not all fortified wines have high percentages of alcohol: in many cases it is not higher than 14%, however there are wines whose percentage in alcohol can be as high as 20%. The first advantage of fortification is to ensure a better preservability of wine, therefore ensuring a better longevity while reducing risks of degradation. This advantage was well known to wine merchants of the past, who usually used this “trick” in order to allow wine to stand to the not favorable conditions in ship's hold until destination. Famous is the history of Marsala - the great Sicilian fortified wine - which owes its success to the intuition of John Woodhouse who added some brandy in the casks before being shipped to England.

 The second reason for which fortification is used is connected to sweetness. In the production of sweet wines fortification is done during alcoholic fermentation in order to stop the action of yeast - which usually does not stand to percentages higher than 16.4% - therefore keeping a certain quantity of sugar that will give sweetness to wine. Fortification done in the aim of keeping sweetness is also used - for example - in French Vin Doux Naturel, in some styles of Port and in sweet Madeiras. Moreover fortification ensures a better microbiological stability and prevents any other fermentation after the production. However, stopping fermentation is not the only way allowing the production of fortified sweet wines. In some wines it is also added a mixture of non fermented or partially fermented grape juice and alcohol - called mistella - whose purpose is both to increase alcohol percentage and wine's sweetness.

 

Production of Fortified Wines

 An important role in the production of fortified wines is played by alcohol, whose quality and production method both largely influence the organoleptic qualities of wine. The alcohol used for fortification is produced with different methods and substances - however and always according to the production disciplinary of each wine - and it can be obtained by the distillation of grape's pomace, wine, sugar beet, sugar cane, agricultural byproducts and even petrol. In some cases are also used wine brandies aged in cask, such as Cognac. The organoleptic qualities of the alcohol used for fortification represent - as a matter of fact - an important factor because, it should be remembered, in quality fortified wines the perception of ethereal characteristics should be the least perceptible possible. Of course quality alcohol has a higher cost - and this also affects the cost of the finished product - and it is used in quality fortified wines destined to a long period of aging in bottle. In fortified wines intended for early consumption, the quality of alcohol is generally lower.


 

 The alcohol mainly used in fortified wines is produced with the continuous distillation method, the same system used, for example, for the production of many brandies. The most neutral alcohols, poor in aromatic substances, are generally used for the fortification of wines destined to an early consumption or in those wines which have to keep their primary aromatic characteristic, such as fortified wines produced with Muscat Blanc grapes. The alcohol produced with the method of discontinuous distillation - the same system used for the production of grappa - is rarely used in the fortification of wines because of its high quantity of aromatic substances which would greatly influence the aromas of wine. It should be remembered alcohol or the fortifying agent, have their own aromas and alter - or better to say, enrich - the aromatic qualities of the base wine. The aromatic qualities of alcohol should not be confused with its ethereal aroma, that is the characteristic pungent and burning smell, that when it is evidently perceivable in a fortified wine it is considered as a fault.

 The preparation of base wine depends on the style of wine to be obtained. The production process begins just like any other wine: it begins with harvest, the grapes are crushed in order to obtain the must that will be subsequently fermented. In certain wines - such as some styles of Port, sweet Madeiras and French Vin Doux Naturel, the fermentation of must is stopped by adding alcohol in order to inhibit the activity of yeast while keeping residual sugar that will contribute to wine's sweetness. In the so called vin de liqueur, such as Pineau de Charentes produced in the Cognac region and usually served as a sweet aperitif, the fermentation of must is completely avoided. Soon after the grape has been pressed, a certain quantity of Cognac aged in cask is being added to the must and the alcohol will prevent any fermentative process. The result is a fortified grape juice which will be aged in cask for some months as well as for some years.

 In dry fortified wines - such as Jerez Fino and Manzanilla or Marsala Vergine - alcohol, or the fortifying agent, is added at the end of the production of base wine. In this case the production is just like any other dry wine - white or red - with an alcoholic percentage of about 12%, and after the usual practices of stabilization and aging are done, just like any other wine, some alcohol is added until reaching a percentage between 15% and 22%. This operation is just the beginning of a new production phase, because it will be the subsequent practices that will give character, complexity and typicality to the final product. These processes have a variable duration from 12 months to some tens of years, such as in case of some styles of Port, Marsala, Madeira and Jerez.


The color of a 20 years old Tawny Port
The color of a 20 years old Tawny Port

 Apparently, the systems used for the production of many fortified wines would make anyone think about a deliberate degradation and spoilage of the wine in order to turn it into something undrinkable. In fact many of the organoleptic qualities of fortified wines - the qualities that make fortified wines complex and amazing - are the result of violent alterations that would be lethal for any other wine and thanks to the presence of alcohol, and its capacity of preservative, the wine can be transformed into a sublime nectar. Oxidation, broad thermal variations, heating, veil and partially filled casks, are all phenomena considered negative in any wine and are always and scrupulously avoided, as they are cause of chemical and organoleptic alterations that would make the wine undrinkable or however not agreeable. In fortified wines these phenomena are essential and are deliberately encouraged.

 In case these very phenomena are encouraged in normal wines, the result would be catastrophic because they would be cause of other faults and defects, including the development of vinegar bacteria during the phase of oxidation. The evolution of fortified wines is generally done in wood casks usually filled for four fifths of total volume and in order to expose the wine to the effects of oxygen, in other words it is being encouraged an oxidation, even strong, that will give wine particular organoleptic qualities. In other areas of the world - of which the most famous one is Jerez - in the surface of contact with air is usually formed the so called flor, also known as veil, a particular variety of yeast of the Saccharomyces family that, besides releasing its organoleptic qualities to wine, it also shields it from the excessive effects of oxidation.

 Another method used for the aging of fortified wines is the so called solera y criaderas - particularly known for the production of Jerez and used for other wines as well, such as Marsala - consists in ensuring a constant quality of the product over the time. The aging and the evolution of fortified wines can last many years - frequently tens of years - and in this period complex and extraordinary aromatic qualities are being developed, qualities which make this style of wines unique. At the end of the aging period, the wine is drawn off from casks and processed with the usual stabilization and clarification practices, then it is bottled and ready for commercialization. The production of fortified wines is among the most complex and delicate enological techniques, a patient work which lasts years and that allows the production of an absolutely unique wine, capable of satisfying every wine lover who is looking for particular and rich emotions and who is not easy to be seduced by the craze of modern lifestyles.

 




 Events  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 25, December 2004   
Production of Fortified WinesProduction of Fortified Wines  Contents 
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