Within Australia, when port or fortified wines become the topic of conversation, there is only one region which emerges in my mind – Rutherglen. However in recent years, this region of immense historical richness has been enduring a marketing nightmare owing to the wrangles originating from EU agreements pertaining to traditional and geographical identifiers. Legally, the terms ‘port’, ‘sherry’ and ‘Tokay’ are no longer permitted on labels, and the local industry has had to re-align themselves with ‘Vintage/Ruby/Tawny Fortified’, ‘Apera’ and ‘Topaque’ respectively. From a consumer’s perspective, I can confidently state that this uptake has been even slower which, coupled with persistent erosion of interest in younger drinkers, is much to the detriment of this sub-category of wines. However, there is much to be experienced if one invests their time in tasting through the wines.
I do not have much of a sweet tooth, and admit to preferring Topaque *cough* Tokay *cough*, but I get really excited to be able to taste the wines of Morris and Stanton and Killeen which are undoubtedly one of the most traditional winemaking families of the Rutherglen stable. In a recent tasting organised by Sommeliers Australia conducted at Bottega, I had the opportunity to compare and contrast the ports of both wineries in the company of David Morris and Simon Killeen.
We started by examining the various spirits and brandy that are made available to winemakers for the production of port. Aged brandy which spends at least 2 years in oak is very much different to the spirits used which tend to be between 78 – 86% alcohol (v/v). Of course the actual alcohol content is adjusted down in the final blend; although the possibility of presenting a goblet of flaming port alongside an ice-cream dessert sounds rather appealing. Both winemakers didn’t hide their preference for spirit over brandy, with DM suggesting that aged brandy tends to sit atop the fruit and doesn’t integrate well. SK agreed and followed up by saying that he looks for the addition to add texture on the palate beyond just the slight flavours, aromatics or the slight oily nature. He also added that SVR (Latin: Spiritus Vini Rectificatus) which is meant to be very clean but have a hint of oiliness still. When asked about the producers of spirit and what options there were for winemakers these days, DM remarked that there was less choice in recent years and the spirits tended to be of poorer quality with producers typically offering buyers light or heavy spirit ($4/L). The quality is highly important because unclean or poor quality spirit may have rotten vegetal or rubbery notes. There was less discussion of SVR which is a neutral, high strength spirit produced by fractional distillation of mark which is used in fortification of muscat and tokay.
1) Light Spirit (Low Strength): Clear, soft aromatic profile which is clean with hint of benzoaldehyde (dried apple, marzipan, wedding cake), American oak and slightly grassy. The finish is clean, with grip on the back palate. It was pointed out that if more aromatics are desired from the wine, this spirit would be used instead of the heavy spirit.
2) Heavy Spirit (Low Strength): A hint of cloudiness, certainly a lot more benzoaldehyde characters compared to the light spirit. Also aromas of raw crushed grass and chlorophyll. It imparts a broader mouthfeel, weightier finish and a hint of bitterness.
3) Aged Brandy: Slight tint from exposure to oak. Soft benzo notes akin to a young whisky. It has an oily texture, lacks flavour and has only a slight grip on the finish. DM described this as ‘dead’.
4) SVR: Reminds me of the medical grade ethanol we have at work. Clean alcohol vapours pour forth from the glass. If you want a lifted perfumed bouquet, this is the thing to use. Don’t know what the final % was for this one, but would have been close to 95% (I didn’t even entertain the thought of swallowing this one)
To contrast the characters imparted by the different spirits to the wine, this bracket ended with two 2012 wines which had either light or heavy spirit added.
5) 2012 wine with light spirit: This was a wine made from Touriga Nacional, medium ruby colour with rusty, cherry syrup aromas. Medium-bodied with flavours of cherry and rose syrup. Light, balanced feel and well-rounded finish. The aromatics were certainly a more prominent feature of this wine.
6) 2012 wine with heavy spirit: This wine was a blend of Touriga Nacional and Grandnoir. Also medium ruby coloured, but a shade darker than #5. Immediately felt like a more serious drink than #5 due to more earthy aromas and dark cherry notes. The mouth feel was more generous, yet overall it felt softer and had a longer finish.
Just a note of interest about Grand Noir (France: Jurançon). It is one of a long list of permitted grape varieties for port production in Douro, Portugal. However, it is listed as one of the ‘bad’ options (although I don’t know what the scientific rationale for that classification is). It is considered a ‘very black’ variety with very high anthocyanin levels which impart colour readily. Anthocyanins are flavanoid compounds which are odourless and flavourless (they give pansies their colour).
The next two postings will cover the ports from Morris and Stantan & Killeen of various vintages. Part 2 here.