Thursday, March 25, 2021

Marvelous Madeira

"The delicacies of the season, flavored by a brand of old Madeira which has been the pride of many drives away the heart-ache, and substitutes no hard-ache!  It would all but revive a dead man!" Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The House of the Seven Gables."


Portugal is known in the world of wine for two great fortified wines.  Port is one of them and the other is Madeira. 

Madeira means "wooded," as the island in the Atlantic once was. According to one story, the volcanic island was covered by dense forests, so impenetrable that the first explorers had to burn their way on to the island. 

That is one of a number of tales told about Madeira.  Here's another.  Traditionally, Madeira was a dry wine that just happened to be a big favorite in the American Colonies.  But a long sea voyage in the warm hold of a sailing ship was hard on the wine, so Madeira producers added a little brandy to the barrels.  During the long sea journey, the lightly fortified wine oxidized and the style of Madeira as we, more or less, know today was born.


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Digression -- By the 18th century, Madeira had become such a popular drink in the American colonies that colonists were buying about 25% of the island's production.  Madeira was held in such high regard that it was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Madeira is made from four traditional varieties, from driest to sweetest: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malvasia (or Malmsey).  Today, the bulk of Madeira comes from the juice of the versatile Negramoll grape, while the four traditional grapes are mostly reserved for high-end Madeira.  When the island's vineyards were nearly wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century, replanting of the traditional varieties was slow, but the heartier Negramoll became popular for its versatility.  

Traditionalists say that while Negramoll makes good Madeira it lacks the aging qualities and finesse of wine made from the traditional varieties. 

Before the development of modern grape processing equipment, the traditional way to crush grapes was in a lagar, a long rectangular trough, usually made of cement or stone. Barefoot cellar workers, usually in a circle and encouraged by music, would crush the grapes.  The bare human foot would gently break open the grapes without bruising the skins or breaking the bitter seeds. This practice was once common in the Port region and on Madeira, but has now mostly been replaced by mechanization.

Making Madeira starts with fermenting the must to make a base wine.  At a predetermined point in the initial fermentation, based on the desired sweetness and style, fermentation is stopped by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, or the wine is "fortified,"  then adjusted for alcohol strength. 

Central to the making of Madeira is the estufa, or "hothouse" in Portuguese.  Estufagem is a system of stainless steel tanks, fitted with hot water or steam tubes, used to heat the wine, speeding the development and maturation. New wine warms in an estufa for at least 90 days. An alternative method heats the wine in large casks stored in a warm room. The nature of a wine made in  an estufa has coined the word "Maderization."

Digression -- Maderization is a term that is commonly used today to describe a wine that is heavily oxidized. This not accurate. Technically, maderization is the process by which a wine is made to taste like Madeira, usually involving mild oxidation and heat, such as Madeira.  The key phrase is "made to taste."

A small group of Madeira shippers do not use the estufa to age their wines.  Rather, the wines are kept in barrels, known as pipes, stored under the eaves of lodges, heated only by the sun.  These specially aged wines can remain in the lodge for 20 years and longer. 

The modern estufa simulates the effects of a long round trip across the equator in the 18th and 19th centuries, when barrels of Madeira were stored in warm holds of sailing ships, bound for the American colonies and South America.

Understanding the styles of Madeira can be confusing. Until 1979, American hybrid grapes were used either alone or blended with Negramoll.  After 1979 the use of hybrids was illegal.  In  1993, the EU stipulated that varietal wines must be 85% of the named grape. 

Sercial is usually the driest with a hint of almond and nervy acidity. Residual sugar levels, after fortification, for Sercial range from .5% to 1.5%. 

Food And #Wine Pairing: Blandy's Madeira Sercial 10 Years Old and Sushi –  ENOFYLZ Wine Blog
Blandy's Sercial

Verdelho is a medium-dry wine, ranging in sweetness from 1.5% to 2.5%. with a citrusy tang and a trace of stone fruit, like peach or apricot.

1890 D'Oliveiras Verdelho Madeira : wine
d'Oliveira Verdelho

Bual is grown in the island's warmer spots, yielding sweeter wines at 2.5% to 3.5% residual sweetness. Bual is a dark wine with a rich raisiny bouquet and flavor. 

1948 Birthday Wine: 70 Year Old Blandy's Madeira Bual Review | WAYWARD WINE
                                                                   Blandy's Bual                                                                  

Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes, grown in the warmest spots of the island. Malmsey, with a sugar range of 3.5% to 6.5%, is a complex, richly textured dessert wine with a hint of caramel.  Malmsey will age in bottle for decades.

Old bottlers and old bottles - Madeira Wine and Dine
Leacock Malmsey

It is a wonder that Madeira wine has survived, since the vineyards were hit by a triple whammy in the 19th century and early 20th century.  In 1851, powdery mildew (oidium) hit, followed by phylloxera. Then at the beginning of the 20th century, the economy tanked when the Russian Revolution and Prohibition in the United States closed down two major markets for the export of Madeira.  

Today, Madeira shippers in the U.S. market include: Madeira Wine Company (owners of classic brands such as Blandy's, Cossart Gordon, Leacock, Rutherford & Miles), Henriques & Henriques (Justino), d'Oliveira, Barros e Souza, Rare Wine Company, Broadbent.

Madeira is a wine for the ages.  The finest examples will age for decades, with increasing layers of complex flavors.  If you haven't yet, now is the time to treat yourself to a glass of Marvelous Madeira.


Next Blog:  "How did you get into wine?" 

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Tokaj and Tokay

 "I dined with Stratford at a merchant's in the city, where I drank the first Tokay wine I ever saw; and it was admirable, yet not to the degree I expected."  Jonathan Swift, in "Journal to Stella"

Although he didn't know it at the time, Jonathan Swift was lucky to have had a taste of Tokay.  The mysterious Hungarian wine with purported medicinal properties was just becoming popular in the French court and the Russian imperial court, in the early 18th century.  Tokaj, though, was not yet that commonly seen in England.  Language and people being what they are, it wasn't long before English wine merchants changed the spelling of the Hungarian wine from Tokaj to Tokay and sales began to climb. 

To avoid confusion between the two wines, references to the Hungarian wine will be Tokaj. Later in this essay, we'll take a brief look at Tokay and how it strayed far from Tokaj.

In northeastern Hungary, the name Tokaj is well known: there is a region, a town, a volcano and a sweet dessert wine, all bearing that name.  Records show that a wine called Tokaj was first made in the 13th century. It wasn't until the 18th century that the vineyards were first classified and the wine became well known outside Hungary, mainly among the nobility in France and Russia.

Wine Cellars In Hercegk?t Button Hill Tokaji Tokaj Region In.. Stock Photo,  Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 75312890.
Traditional Tokaj wine cellars

The imbibing of this unusual sweet wine in the royal court of the Sun King, King Louis XIV, prompted the king to crown Tokaj as "the wine of kings and the king of wines."  

There are dozens of wines that derive their character and flavor from ripe grapes infected by botrytis, the benevolent rot that transforms a simple dry white wine into a sweet honeyed nectar.  Only three wines are considered the ne plus ultra of botrytized wines: French Sauternes, German Auslesen and Hungarian Tokaj.

Tokaj is made from six grape varieties, with Furmint and Harslevelu, the primary ones. The two grapes can trace their origin to the region of Tokaj.  There is a dry and sweet Tokaj, although the sweet version is the most popular. 

Further, there are two methods of fermentation that have been in use for centuries. Dry and semi-dry wines are made in the usual way by pressing the grapes and fermenting the must (a mixture or grape juice and pulp undergoing fermentation) to dry, or with a little residual sweetness. Grapes for these wines are not botrytized and the wines may be aged in oak casks. 

Digression -- Legend has it that heavily botrytized grapes were once brought to the winery and placed on a table with a concave surface and a small hole at the bottom of the inverted pyramid. The weight of the grape mass would crush the grapes causing the sweet juice to flow down and out of the hole, through a goose quill, into a container.

Furmint: The most versatile grape?
Development of botrytis on a Furmint grape

Also in this dry category is a classification known as Szamorodni, where the grapes are picked at a high sugar level, but the must is fermented to dryness, under a yeast that forms as a film on the surface of the wine.

The second method is the more complicated Aszu, a complicated process that amounts to a unique second fermentation. This is the classic sweet Tokaj, made from hand-selected botrytized grapes with a high concentration of grape sugars.  The botrytized grapes are soaked in fresh must or a newly fermented wine, then matured for at least two years in barrel.

Under the Aszu classification are a number of styles including a sweet Szamorodni that is barrel aged and lightly oxidized.  The pinnacle of Tokaj is Eszencia (also spelled Essencia), a heavily botrytized sweet wine that may reach sugar levels of 80% and takes years to ferment to 5% alcohol.  Aszu Eszencia is rare and expensive. 

Digression -- A time-honored method of determining the Aszu Eszencia level was the addition of baskets of bortytized grapes (called puttonyos) to each barrel of wine.  The scale was 3 to 6 puttonyos, topping out with Escenzia. The puttonyos method is no longer used, although the number of puttonyos is seen on older Tokaj labels.

Buying Tokaj may involve a search, at your local wine merchant or online. Tokaj producers that ship high-end 5 and 6 Puttonyos and Eszencia include Royal Tokaj Company, founded by a group that includes British writer Hugh Johnson, and Oremeus, owned by Vega Sicilia, noted winery in Spain's Ribera del Duoro.  A 2016 Royal Tokaj 5 Puttonyos, 500ml, is currently selling for $65. Others: Oremeus Essencia, 750ml, $810; Royal Tokaj Essencia, 750 ml. $1,771.

                             The most expensive wine in the world comes from Hungary

Entry level Tokaj, usually a varietal bottling, is available for $20 to $30 for the 750 ml from Hidden Treasures, Kikelet, Barta, Bodrog, Wezler and Simon Tiron.

Tokay -- The transition from Tokaj to Tokay is a relatively recent one that first appeared in California and Australia.  In the early years of the 20th century, California wineries used a grape called Tokay (sometimes Flame Tokay) to make a dry wine that was distilled as brandy.  

Flame Tokay, curiously enough, was introduced to California in the 19th century from Algeria and despite its name, Flame Tokay has nothing to do with the dessert wine called Tokay, which can be made from any grape. 

Tokay in Australia has a more lasting history.  In the state of Victoria, two great fortified dessert wines are made: one from Muscat grapes and the other called Tokay is made from the Muscadelle grape.  These are classic dessert wines, matured for years in old oak and enjoyed as an aperitif or as a dessert tipple.

Finally, for some unexplained reason, Pinot Gris was known in the Alsace region of France as "Tokay d'Alsace."  The name was outlawed by the EU effective with the 2007 vintage. 

There are still some people, with a glass of Tokaj in their hand, easing out of a long day, claiming that the sweet wine has health benefits. Trure or not, Tokaj is a pleasure. Find your own reason to try Tokaj.


Next Blog: Marvelous Madeira

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 12

Mea Culpa -- Wine lovers who follow "Decanter" magazine and those oldsters who can remember back to 1976, are familiar with the name Steven Spurrier, who passed away earlier this month.   A writer and Paris wine merchant, Spurrier put California wine on the map with the results of the Judgement of Paris, a comparative tasting where California wines bested French wines -- and that judgement was from French wine professionals.  Spurrier is also remembered for his memoir "A Life in Wine," from which I freely borrowed for my on-going personal wine adventure, without knowing of Spurrier's memoir.  


In Episode 11, my association with the "Wine Spectator" began in San Diego, watching it grow from a small tabloid newspaper. Key to that growth, according to Marvin Shanken, owner and editorial director, was a move to San Francisco. The editorial direction of the Spectator was in flux, but the small staff packed up and moved north. 

While the Spectator was struggling forward, the movement was agonizing at times, partly because of the transition of owners, but also having the publisher in New York and the newspaper in California.  Meanwhile, there was a lot of pressure being applied to increase advertising and circulation.

The small Spectator staff worked hard to stay on top of the growing North Coast California wine scene, from San Diego.  A growing newspaper is an insatiable consumer of news and feature material.  Slowly, though, we began to attract more contributors. Being new on the wine scene, the Spectator was a fresh way for some writers to reach the growing number of American wine drinkers, even though Spectator writer fees were painfully low.

Among those writers who began to submit stories regularly was Richard Paul Hinkle, who started writing for the Spectator before it changed hands.  Coverage of European wines in the Spectator was spotty, but began to improve with the addition of Christopher Stevens MW in France and Australia and Alan Spencer in Bordeaux.

Alan Spencer was an Englishman who lived in Castillon-la-Bataille, a small village not far from Saint Emilion.  Alan was a computer software salesman, with a  natural knack for writing and a curiosity about wine. Living in the middle of one of the world's great wine regions gave him the opportunity to taste and learn about wine firsthand.  On one of his sales trips, Spencer found a copy of the "Wine Spectator" in an airport lounge and that gave him an idea.

Castillon La Bataille - Buy this stock photo and explore similar images at  Adobe Stock | Adobe Stock
Castillon-la-Bataille on the Dordogne river

Going through the mail at my desk in the Spectator offices in San Diego, I noticed an envelope with a French stamp and postmark.  The letter's content described a chance airport find and that the writer noticed the Spectator did not seem to have anyone "on the ground" covering wine in Bordeaux.  

The letter writer was Alan Spencer and he was offering to be a correspondent, writing about the wines of Bordeaux. "If," he unknowingly said, "we were looking for one.Alan became one of the Spectator's most prolific writers, with his unique consumer observations of Bordeaux chateaux and their owners. 

Alan and his wife Monette eventually moved to just outside Cognac.  When Alan Spencer passed away in 2012, wine writing lost one of its unique voices.

Christopher "Kit" Stevens was another curious multi-talented Englishman who found his way into wine, becoming a Master of Wine in 1972.  Like Spencer, Kit Stephens lived in France, where he represented a number of French wines. He was a maverick who did his bit in the wine business on his own terms which didn't always sit well with the formal British wine establishment. 

In 2008, my Copy Editor and I were in France, heading for Bordeaux.  Kit was already contributing pieces to the Spectator, in his unique slyly critical style of admiring French wine while criticizing the way the French marketed and sold wine. 

Kit and his wife, Stella, a native of Australia, made their home in the old historic part of Cognac, where architectural design and style were strictly prescribed. All of that formality, however, didn't stop Kit from tweaking the city father's noses.

Old Houses In French Town Cognac. The Town Gives Its Name To.. Stock Photo,  Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 55160956.
Historic Cognac

"Finding my house is easy," Kit told me, "it's the one with the English blue front door."  When we finally found the narrow street where the Stephens lived, their place stood out, just as Kit had predicted.  Amidst all the uniform dun colored houses and front doors, Kit's blue door announced itself like an English beacon.

                                             House Number 53 On A Royal Blue Wooden Front Door With Vertical.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 147459162.

Kit Stephen was a rogue who happened to enjoy wine a little too much.  He and Stella divorced and she returned to Australia. Christopher M. Stephens MW passed away in 2004 at home in East Sussex, England.  

Advertising controls the size of a newspaper.  As we continued to reach out for more writers who would give the Spectator different views relating to wine -- restaurant wine lists, wine and health, wine competitions -- the struggle continued over balancing copy with advertising, while working to increase  subscriptions.  

It was an exciting time for American wine writing and the future for the Spectator looked promising, if unpredictable. 

In Episode 13, the Wine Spectator launches its first Wine Experience in New York and Marvin and Gerald have their big wine adventure in Europe.

End Note: A notice was sent recently to all readers of this blog announcing that the day of published would be Sunday.  That didn't work with, so starting with this blog, expect to see a new blog in your inbox every Friday.


Next Blog: Tokaj and Tokay (to be published March 19, 2021)




Saturday, March 6, 2021

Portugal's Excellent Reds

 "Port is essentially the wine of philosophical contemplation."  H. Warner Allen, British writer and journalist


Over the years, I've visited Portugal on a number of occasions, for family vacations and, of course, for wine.  Port wine attracted me at first, but slowly I discovered hidden gems in Portugal's emerging red wines. 

Port, in all its distinct styles -- ruby, tawny, vintage and more -- is a great treasure that I fear is dismissed by many wine lovers as just "a sweet red wine with more alcohol."  Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is an essay on the red wines of Portugal, so let's dig in. 

Portugal is the long  narrow  western third of the Iberian Peninsula.  The country  shares its eastern border with Spain and with the Atlantic Ocean along its west coast.  This compact size makes it easy for travelers.  The roads are relatively free of heavy traffic and the major cities -- Lisbon, Coimbra, Oporto -- are conveniently placed along the western edge of the country.   A day or two is all it takes to travel the 360 mile length from the Minho river in the north that separates Portugal and Spain, to the southern edge and the Algarve, Portugal's "riviera." 

For wine fans, a short trip from Lisbon east to the Alentejo, for its wines and cork tree forests is about 125 miles.  Alternatively, you can maneuver the twists and turns of the narrow road along the Douro river, through Port country.  Terraced vineyards, Port lodges and spectacular scenery  are just a few of the attractions in one of the most ruggedly beautiful wine regions in the world. 

Cork Forest Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock
Alentejo cork oak forest, after bark harvest

Throughout the wine world, growers and vintners have embraced  international varieties because their quality and appeal drives consumer demand.  Portuguese wineries, however, have resisted using Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, preferring, to their credit, to work with indigenous grapes, making bold, flavorful and sophisticated wines.  And that's what makes Portugal unique. 

There are about 250 native wine grapes grown today in Portugal,  but only a dozen or so are considered high quality and widely used; roughly divided equally between and white and red. 

Personal Aside --  On a wine trip to Portugal, I took a few extra days to visit the unique island of Madeira.  Located in the Atlantic Ocean, closer to North Africa than Portugal, Madeira has a unique wine history, especially for Americans.  (Note: An entire essay on Madeira is slated for the near future.)

Flying in to Madeira can be a white knuckle experience! The runway juts out from the rocky island like a heavily supported pier and as you are approaching the island, you look out the window and wonder where the runway is.   Madeira sits on the top of a volcano, with not enough flat land on the island, that isn't already in use, for a regular runway. 

The Streets Of Funchal Madeira Stock Photo - Download Image Now - iStock
Street of Funcal, Madeira

I was in Portugal a few years after the country was admitted (along with Spain) into the European Union (1986), a move that came with considerable amounts of cash for such needed infrastructure projects as road improvement.  On the down side, historic markets changed under the EU and unique Madeira agriculture products with established markets now were in trouble.  I was told that a short fat banana, indigenous to Madeira was no longer allowed to be sold as a banana in EU markets because it did not meet the length prescribed by the EU for a fruit known as a banana.  Madeira wineries also felt the impact of the EU, when one of the grapes used to make Madeira wine was suddenly no longer authorized. 

The sheer magnitude of European Union bureaucracy is staggering, but I digress.  Here are the five dark-skinned grapes presently favored for varietal red wines or red blends:

Touriga Nacional -- This intense, tannic grape is the leading variety in Port and shows its adaptability as the main grape in Dao and Douro red wines.  The importance of Touriga Nacional has grown steadily in recent years, as more wineries add the varietal to their line up.  It may be a push to say that Touriga is Portugal's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon, but with each vintage, the quality of varietal Tourigas is moving the comparison closer.

Enologist Patricia Peixoto coaches visitors helping to gather the grape harvest of the Touriga Nacional variety at Santa Vitoria winery on September...
Sorting of Touriga Nacional grape clusters, Douro Valley

Tinta Roriz  -- This popular variety goes by two names in Portugal: Tinta Roriz in the Douro valley and Aragonez in Alentejo.   It is one of Portugal's most planted varieties. In Spain, Tinta Roriz  is known as Tempranillo.

Varietal Tinta Roriz is especially popular in the Alentejo, where the wine is aromatic and spicy.   Alentejo wineries also blend Tinta Roriz with Trincadeira.

Trincadeira -- Grown successfully in the hot dry climate of the Alentejo, where it is bottled as a varietal and valued as a blending component.  Trincadeira is called Tinta Amarela in the Douro and is one of the five main grapes in Port wine.  While it is big and plummy, Trincadeira can be bitter when over ripe.

Alicante Bouchet  -- Alicante may be one of few wine grapes in Portugal that are not indigenous.  Grown mainly in Alentejo, the variety is a teinturier, a black grape with red juice, that helps bolster color during weak vintages.  

 Did You Know? --- Teinturier is a small group of dark-skinned grapes with red flesh.  Because of their red flesh teinturiers are used to boast the color of pale red wines. Alicante Bouchet in one of the best known teinturier grapes , grown in Portugal mostly in the Alentejo.

Outside of Portugal, Alicante is grown in Spain, Australia and, for a time, in California where it once was part of field blends, along with other red grapes.

Baga-- Grown mainly in the central part of Portugal, Baga is by far the major red grape in the region of Bairrada.  Rarely bottled as a varietal, Baga is widely used for red, rose and sparkling wine.  Baga is preferred by Sogrape for its  long-popular Mateus Rose. 

All five of these grapes have individual flavor characteristics, although the base  component is very similar, deep black fruits like plums and blackberries. Individual spice notes, and fuller tannins, are what make the grapes good blending partners. 

Touriga Nacional is the main choice for 100% varietal wines or as the major component in a red blend.  Tinta Roriz is a major grape in blends and sometimes is bottled as a  varietal.  The other grapes, while widely grown, are grace notes that balance the blend and improve its quality.  

These wineries, many of them Port houses, are among the main producers of Portuguese varietal red wines:  Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Calem Lagarda Sa, Quinta do Noval Corucho, Ferreira Quinta da Leda, Sogrape, Vila Nova, Herdada do Racim, Adega de Penalua, Tinta Dao.


Next Blog:  My Life in Wine Episode 12 

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