Friday, April 29, 2011

It's Tawny Time Again

by Peter Bell, Winemaker

It’s been quite some time since our last bottle of Fine Old Tawny was sold. This is one wine that can’t be made fast enough to meet the demand, and the 40 or so cases per year that we put out tend to get snapped up quickly. So this is what it must feel like to have your wines on allocation!

There are currently 17 barrels of Port wine in what we call the Tawny Program. They range in age from less than one to 14 years old. All but one reside in a custom-built room that has its own hot and dry mini-climate. Three times a year or so, we fetch samples from each barrel, let them cool to room temperature, and then subject them to a few hours of intense sensory scrutiny. A given barrel will change appreciably in the space of four months, as the fresh berries and jam flavors of a younger Port give way to more complex ones. It's important to track their development, because each barrel will eventually become part of a blend.

What do we want out of our Tawny? Well, I have to say that I'm the only one here who has spent any time consuming the wine that is my model, since it is seldom seen outside of Australia. Australian Tawny Ports -- they actually call them aged fortified dessert wines -- are denser than the Portuguese versions, and a little sweeter; altogether more assertive.

Here's how a Tawny style differs from the more common Ruby style:

A deep reddish-brown color. Alcoholic drinks (I exclude beer here) that have a brown or brownish color are that way for one of three reasons: 1) They are oak-aged spirits such as brandy or whisky, or are meant to give that impression by the addition of caramel coloring (think inexpensive rum); 2) They are table wines that have spent too much time in the bottle and have become oxidized; or 3) they are fortified wines that have been subjected to a deliberate, slow and controlled oxidation process. Tawny Port is a number three. Our Tawny Room -- you can come and visit it sometime if you cozy up to the right individuals here -- is a well-insulated box, just big enough to hold 16 barrels, that is kept at a steady 90 F (32 C) in order to accelerate the process we call ‘tawnification’ [neologism alert].

Our Little Slice of Australia: the Tawny Room

Aromas and flavors of dried fruits, especially dates, raisins and figs. All of our Port-style wines start off smelling of fresh and lightly cooked fruits, namely berries and jam. The extended, warm period of aging we subject our Tawny barrels to causes those flavors to be transformed into dried-fruit analogs.

Subordinate aromas of chocolate, coffee, butterscotch, toffee, wood-aged spirits, and rancio. No, we don’t add flavorings to the wine! I wouldn’t bother to even point that out but for the fact that it’s a common question. The long aging that these wines undergo allows them to develop aromas that remind us of brown foods and drinks. Not surprisingly, the responsible aroma compounds are, in many cases, the same ones that are in the foodstuffs we reference. And, in case you’re wondering:

RANCIO, imprecise tasting term used in many languages for a distinctive style of wine…achieved by deliberately maderizing the wine by exposing it to oxygen and/or heat. The wine may be stored in barrels in hot storehouses (as for some of Australia’s Liqueur Muscats or Liqueur Tokays)…the word rancio has the same root as ‘rancid’ and the wines which result have an additional and powerful smell reminiscent of nuts and melted, or even rancid, butter.
(excerpted from Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine)

As I have written in an earlier post, Australian fortifieds and I go way back. I love what comes out of Portugal, but my model here has always been what’s made in Australia. It’s a bit cheeky to try and pull off something in that style here in the cool Finger Lakes, and I wasn’t really sure I was managing it until I had a visit from Aussie viticulturist Peter Dry.  After we'd tasted through a bunch of table wines, I proffered a barrel sample of my tawny without any preamble other than “Here”. Peter smelled it, gave me a sly grin, and said, “You bastard! This is an Australian style Tawny!” Bingo. (This happened in the days before “WTF?” became the go-to expression of astonishment.)

4. Mouthfilling, luscious flavors. In many, many of our winemaking endeavors, we actually reward wines that are delicate and full of suggestions of flavors rather being than full-on assaults to our senses. For example, oak in wine is fine, but in-your-face oak is offensive to most people. But with our Tawny, we’re not really afraid of full-frontal flavors. ‘Lusciousness’ is not scientifically definable, but it’s something we understand intuitively; and the pursuit of lusciousness defines our Tawny winemaking. This process is helped immeasurably by the evaporation that goes on as the wine ages: we lose about 20 gallons of (mostly) water from a 60 gallon barrel as it basks in the heat of the tawny room.

5. Plenty of sweetness, but a ‘dry’ finish. Our fortifieds clock in at about 12% sugar, making them by far the sweetest wines in the portfolio. Aside from a possible tiny touch-up of sugar right before bottling, all that sweetness derives from the grapes themselves, and it is captured way back in the earliest moments of the wine’s inception, when we arrest the fermentation with lashings of fortifying spirit. How do we keep the finish from being cloying, which is a definite no-no? The aging process takes care of that: concentration, modification and extraction of flavor compounds, and plenty of tannins, have the effect of offsetting the perception of sweetness after the wine is swallowed.

6. Heat from the alcohol that makes it clear to the taster that this is a fortified wine. Ethanol, the particular alcohol that’s in fermented beverages, in interesting in terms of its sensory effects. In broad terms, it has a three-fold contribution: it gives a slight but discernable sweetness to wine; it adds body, known as viscosity; and, especially at higher concentration, it has an irritating effect on the oral mucosa. This irritation effect, which we refer to here as ‘heat’, is key to the overall pleasant flavor of fortified wines. Yet a tolerance for it, followed by an actual fondness for it, is an acquired taste. Remember your first taste of something alcoholic? I'll wager you were deeply put off by the near-pain from the alcohol itself.

So, is all that too much to ask of our Tawny? Not really, but making this wine is one of the taller orders we bestow upon ourselves. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have a boss who doesn’t mind tying up a big chunk of capital in a product that demands a six- or eight-year span between the making and the marketing. And also to have here the illustrious Tricia Renshaw, who appears to have been born with a tawny-infused silver spoon in her mouth. It’s no wonder that I ask her to make all our key blending decisions. More on how she recently did that in my next post, but for the full story on her talents please get hold of a copy of this book.

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