Peter Howe, our jack-of-all-trades of long standing, is my go-to guy when I need to know about scheduling the bottling of our wine. He does a monthly inventory of our case goods, fills two or three orders a week from our wholesalers, and ships wine down to the tasting room every Friday. So when some product or other is getting low, he’ll be the one to notice.
A couple of weeks ago he was telling me about something non-wine-related, and then he tossed off a casual addendum: “Oh, and by the way, we’re almost out of Ruby Port.” Port is one of the products we are particularly proud of around here, given that the making of it’s such a challenge and that it has such a loyal and perennial following, so the need to make more of it is always met with eager anticipation. It’s our prompt to assemble samples from the many, disparate barrels of Port we have in the winery at any given time, and commence to make a blend that conforms to our house style.
First, how about let’s talk about what Ruby Port is. “Ruby” refers to the color of the wine, and like the word Port itself, is a borrowing from the Portuguese/British lexicon. (The sweet red fortified wine that is Portugal’s most famous export is actually a British invention.) Most Rubies are, in fact, a pale red color, but ours is and always has been a very dark wine.
The classic Port production process requires a brief but intense flurry of activity at a time when we are not exactly looking for stuff to do: right during vintage. Though you can make Port in the off season, using dry red wine that is back-sweetened and fortified, we find that the best quality is achieved using traditional methods. Perfectly ripe grapes from one of our more muscular varieties (read: not Pinot noir or Cabernet franc) are picked and crushed in the usual way. Yeast is added in the usual way, and we walk away for a day while the yeast culture builds up. Those with strong backs do their usual regular punch downs to incorporate skins with the juice.
That’s just standard-issue red wine making so far. But wait! Call within the next twenty minutes and we’ll throw in What Happens Next at no extra charge!
After about three percent of alcohol is fermented, things take an abrupt turn for the worse for our beloved yeast cells, but a good turn for the humans out there who like Port. It’s time to press out and fortify.
The must is conveyed into our press, and the fermenting juice is then pressed out and pumped into a tank. Meanwhile someone gets a drum of neutral fortifying spirit ready for action. Fortifying spirit, a.k.a neutral grape spirit, is ninety-six percent pure ethanol (the remaining content is water) and is a powerful liquid that must be treated with respect. The vapors are explosive, and the stuff itself must never be ingested without dilution, because it will cause no end of misery to one’s oral mucosa. Otherwise it looks like water. We buy it by the drum from a company that takes dry wine and distills it to a very high degree of purity, much as vodka is made, though vodka and other spirits are cut with water before bottling.
It’s vitally important to act fast here, because the fermentation will continue at a rapid pace if we dawdle, leaving too little sugar in the finished product. Some quick calculations – we call them ‘calcs’ just to shave a few seconds off the process – yield the volume of fortifying spirit that will bring the alcohol concentration up to about 20%. It’s usually around 18% of the total (new) volume.
Max Can Fly? Max Can Fly!
|Though Max is too young to taste wine, he can help out with alcohol measurements.|
Twenty percent of alcohol is enough to kill outright our yeast cells, even though they have evolved to tolerate fifteen percent or so. By dispatching these microbes, we lock in all that grape sugar, as well as those intense, juicy, fruit flavors.
The really big challenge here is stopping the fermentation at the exact right time, and fortifying with the right amount of alcohol, so that we end up with a wine that is close to being perfectly balanced. The sugar should be a central element, but not cloying; the alcohol should offset that sweetness by providing a gentle heat as well as some richness; the tannins should add some structure and dry the finish out a bit. And key to it all is a very solid core of fruit flavors: blackberries, plums, blackcurrants, what have you. *
Large producers of Port have enough individual lots of wine on hand – hundreds in fact – that even if they don’t nail the exact right fortification time for each one, they can blend their way out of any problems. That’s not the case with us, and our relatively modest production of eight or ten barrels a year. So it’s more crucial to get things right.
Ruby Port customarily spends only a year or two in barrels, as opposed to the five or more years of aging our Fine Old Tawny gets. And the barrels are always what we call ‘neutral’ – they have been used for at least five years for table wine, and virtually all of their oaky flavors are long gone. We don’t want any in this wine. The wine still benefits from the unique oxygen-exchange conditions that barrels afford, and more importantly, the small volume of a barrel means that we can keep many different wines separate during their maturation, the better to provide interesting blending options.
Come blending time, which as you might guess happens just prior to bottling, we need to get samples from all of our barrels and spend a few days evaluating any number of blends before committing to one in particular. In rare cases, the blend we come up with is ready to go, but more often we engage in a bit of last-minute tweaking, much the way chefs adjust the seasoning in a dish.
Ruby Port Samples
|The first three glasses are samples from individual barrels. Note the watch glasses,|
which allow the aromas in the space above the wine to be concentrated.
The last glass contains neutral grape spirit.
If a given blend needs a little more sugar or alcohol, it’s an easy enough correction to make at this point. It’s hard to remove sugar or alcohol – the only practical way would be to blend in a little dry red wine – but luckily that’s never been necessary. And no, there’s no formula for achieving perfection (x% alcohol plus y% sugar plus z% acid = a good wine). All our decisions are generated by sensory analysis, which is why you’ll see Tricia concocting a succession of ever more alluring blends, Kelby in a pose of Zen-like concentration, and me grimacing and pacing around the lab. And it’s purple teeth all around these days -- and yes, Spandex jackets, one for everyone.
*By the way – and I know I am writing for a pretty knowledgeable audience here – we do not actually add those fruits to the wine. They are just descriptive terms for the naturally occurring scents we pick up.
By: Peter Bell, Winemaker
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