By Peter Bell, Winemaker
As I write this, I’m looking back on the last month or so of work, during which we assembled and bottled our latest Tawny fortified wine. Every time we complete a difficult blending task, there descends on the lab a palpable sense of accomplishment: that almost goes without saying. How to describe that feeling is the hard part.
I could invoke Samuel Morse’s famous first telegraph message, “What Hath God Wrought?”, but that would be far too pompous and presumptuous. Anyway, the deity that Mr. Morse invoked is probably way too busy these days guiding the hands of, say, iPhone engineers to want to fuss over a small quantity of wine. It’s just wine, after all - a product that seems to have virtually made itself during Biblical times - not some brand new communication device that is poised to change the world.
I could also come up with some trite comment about it being like giving birth. Never having been pregnant, much less brought a baby to term, I can only guess what the experience is like, though I can well imagine the final hours being a unique mix of excruciating pain and (eventually) a flush of joy and ecstasy. Plus lots of amniotic fluid – that I can vouch for, having been present at the birth of both my boys. But in any case, equating the birthing of a special blend with having a baby is more than a bit of a stretch, and I’m not thinking of the delicate tissues of the birth canal here.
Okay, so in the absence of anything good to use as a metaphor for all the gestation we went through, what bons mots can I invoke to describe this process?
This is where the brutally honest reader will say out loud, “How about you just talk about making the blend?” Touché. So let me just tell the story straight.
Early in April, we took samples of each of the 17 barrels of our various tawny components and let them cool to room temperature. A quick smell and taste of most the younger ones confirmed that they were still far too undeveloped to merit further consideration. (Their time will come, probably mid-decade.)
Tricia took detailed notes on the five that remained, and then made up a series of blends using some or all of them in varying proportions, which we designated A through F. Here are some of the comments that were made as we tasted through them:
Tricia: “What I’m smelling here most strongly is that toasty wood aroma which I bet will go away. When I swirl this I’m getting dates. Figs and dates. Vanilla, nutmeg, cocoa.”
Peter: “My problem with this one is that it’s more like fresher wine with whisky lactones on top. But I like the pruney flavors.”
Neither of us felt that this approached what we were looking for in a Fox Run Tawny.
Tricia: “Hmm…figs and milk chocolate, coconut and orange rind, and I love the toasted almonds, but it needs a little sweetening. I like the evolution.”
This was way better. It seemed as if we might be getting somewhere.
|Tawny Blends A through F|
Tricia: “This one smells like butterscotch, which you know I like. A lot of chocolate and coffee too. It reminds me of candied orange peel, then toasted almonds. I like that. Mmmm…there’s the finish I like. But it’s almost too powerful.”
Peter: “I see that density as a symptom of too many things trying to compete with each other. Let’s see if a dilution with white wine would untangle it.”
Tricia: “Yeah, if we can just lighten the intensity here and pull in some suppleness there, we’ve got something really attractive.”
So that is what we did: took some of the same wine and added a few percent of a barrel-fermented Chardonnay. That blend was called C+.
No go. Even a small amount of the younger white wine caused the flavors and texture to crash.
Tricia: “I’m just trying to settle my brain down and really think about what I’m smelling. Something like salted nuts.”
Peter: “This sounds crazy, but I wrote ‘blood or carcass.’”
Tricia: “You can’t say that in the blog!”
This one had us stumped. It was a fascinating wine, but we just didn’t know what to make of it. We decided to revisit it a few hours later. Onward…
Tricia: “Oh yeah. That’s voluptuous chocolate, making its way to orange. What length. Cocoa, not milk or dark chocolate. This tastes like dessert, which makes me happy. How long can this one go on?”
Peter: “Where’s that glass again?”
Tricia: “Just follow your nose across the room.”
Peter: “I love the chocolate. Hazelnuts and chocolate and certainly some rancio too.”
Blend E was a keeper.
Tricia: “Hoo hoo! Orange and toffee and salt. I wonder where that salt came from? You can’t smell salt. Salt air maybe. Lightning storm freshness…ozone?”
Peter: “This has gotta be our blend. All that orange peel that shows up at the end?”
Tricia: “Plushness. Brazil nuts, macadamias. I like it. Long. Raisins and apricots. Soft.”
Peter: “Pretty good in the mouth, but is it too dense?”
Tricia: “Now I’m getting almond and orange and toffee. But yeah, it’s pretty assertive.”
Peter: “Let’s try it with a few percent of Special Dry White.”
Can wine be too intensely flavored? Yes, certainly. And what exactly is Special Dry White, you ask? It’s a term I picked up in Australia, and it’s nothing but a euphemism for good old water. In very warm climates, it’s often necessary to add water to a must, juice or wine to keep the final alcohol content at a reasonable (non-mouth-searing) level. At some point, someone decided to call it something more sexy than ‘water.’ (We can also assume it served to throw government inspectors off the trail.)
“I'll try anything once…twice if I like it…three times to make sure.” Mae West said that. Her words might as well be posted on the wall in the lab, to remind us that we should all be little Mae Wests when it comes to trial blends. There’s nothing to lose, since a blend on this scale comprises only a few tastes’ worth of wine.
In went a few percent of S.D.W., and we called that blend F+. Here’s what we found:
Tricia: “The butterscotch and dates are showing up, and some really nice crème brulee.”
Peter: “Yeah, exactly. Vanilla custard, nutmeg.”
Tricia: “That’s yummy. I love that. I love that.”
But after we spent a half hour tasting back and forth between F and F+, while also referencing a bottle of last year’s Tawny that we’d fetched from the library, our comments were not as effusive. F+ waned a bit in our estimation, and so we abandoned that little side experiment. The decision was to not shy away from full-frontal flavors.
A week passed, during which time we were busy with other projects. Then we made up new samples of our favorite blends: D, E, and F.
Peter: “Okay, let’s find the All-Star here.”
We knew that one of these blends was going to be our Tawny. The problem was that each blend, if fully assembled, would represent a vastly different quantity. We work within the confines of what our Tawny program can give us at any given time, not what the marketing department asks for. The twain shall meet sooner or later, once we have a larger stock of older wines, but for now, there’s no pushing quantity at the expense of adherence to our model.
Blend D comprised 95 cases’ worth of wine. Blend E, 38 cases. Blend F, 63 cases.
This time we tasted, repeatedly, the three wines over a period of four hours. As is my wont, I did a lot of pacing back and forth. (I also used this occasion to reminisce about the many times I’ve been asked, “Are you the taste tester?” – a question that is invariably followed by, “That must be the greatest job in the world!” This is why it’s crucial to have a place to conduct our sensory evaluation that's removed from the public eye.)
Evaluating these last Tawny blends was an exercise in reining in the temptation to hyperbole, as in, “These are ALL fantastic!” Eventually one blend must be declared the winner so that we can go ahead and make it up in real life, and get it into the bottle.
Having three glasses on the lab bench, and tasting them over and over, can become futile pretty quickly. One time-honored trick we employ, when we can’t make up our minds, is to look at the glass we’ve taken the most tastes from, and call it our favorite. But this time the glasses all had about the same quantity of wine left in them.
So out came the blindfold. I have a drawer full of these things left over from plane trips, and we use them to aid in making final blending decisions. The person wearing one (Tricia in this picture) not only can’t see anything, but has what I call ‘acquired helplessness’ – each glass has to be put in her outstretched hand, and she can’t use any external cues as a guide to what it smells and tastes like. Needless to say, the serving order is mixed up.
|Acquired Helplessness Really Makes You Focus|
This is a great way to focus only on the things that matter, and the S and M specialist who did the blindfolding has an obligation to take careful notes of what is said. And this is what was said, sequentially, by both of us: “I like that one.” That one, in both cases, turned out to be the illustrious Blend E.
A few Sundays later, while waiting for some journalists to show up, I put the blend together. The 60 gallons it comprised didn’t even come up to the bottom door of the tank, but this tiny amount of wine should be enough to keep Marketing off our backs for a few months at least.