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Carl Hudson
January 3, 2019 | Wine Varietals | Carl Hudson

Fortified Port-style Dessert Wines

Those of you who have visited or even driven by 4.0 Cellars probably noticed grape vines growing along Hwy 290, in front of the three Logo tanks at the entrance to the tasting room and patio area.  These are Black Spanish, or Lenoir vines, a hybrid grape that grows well in the hot, more humid climates of Texas.  The vines were planted in 2013 by folks from Lost Oak Winery, one of our owner/partners, and were intended to be a “show” vineyard, a garden really, so that visitors could see and appreciate grapevines. 

Since these Black Spanish vines were planted, we have considered the potential to use their grapes to make a port-style dessert wine.  There were no grapes harvested in 2015, and only about 600 lbs of poor quality fruit (mildew & fungal disease damage) was harvested in 2016.  In 2017, however, nearly 1,000 lbs of reasonable quality grapes were harvested and hauled to Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, TX, where winemaker Todd Webster helped us destem, crush, ferment, and press off a single barrel of dark wine.  Later, this was combined with some Ruby Cabernet and converted into a Portejas, a Texas port-style dessert wine.  This wine, affectionately called Carlos and Willie’s Portejas (named after Carl Hudson and Bill Kreitz, the team that primarily managed the vineyard in 2016-2017), was recently bottled and will be available on a very limited basis sometime in the near future.  With this in mind, the objective of this Carl’s Corner post is to detail steps and procedures commonly used to produce a port-style dessert wine. 

The traditional procedure involves using a neutral-aroma yeast strain to start a normal fermentation of ripe grapes, typically red, with a sugar level of 22-26oBrix (essentially 22-26% sugar).  As the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, and the Brix level reaches about 10 degrees, the winemaker begins to add alcohol in the form of brandy (distilled wine, 80 proof/40% alcohol), distilled grape spirits (140-150 proof, think moonshine made from grapes), or even neutral distilled spirits (like Everclear).  Everclear, based on grains, is the most readily available distilled spirit, but most grape-based ports benefit in flavor from the addition of barrel aged brandy or neutral grape spirits.  Raising the total level of alcohol to 18-21% essentially kills the yeast cells and stops fermentation.  Thus, unfermented sugar remaining in the wine when the alcohol level was raised above about 15-16% is now captured as a natural sweetening agent. 

Another popular approach to making a port-style wine is to borrow the procedure for producing fortified sherry wines.  In this case, the original wine is fermented all the way to dryness (no sugar remaining), and after aging, typically in oak barrels or with oak chips, the appropriate amounts of sugar (or sweet grape juice concentrate) and alcohol are added.  Again, the target is usually 5-10% sugar and 18-21% alcohol. 

After production, ports can be aged with limited air contact before bottling to be classified as a ruby port with a dark red-black color and flavors of roasted black fruits and mocha chocolate.  If aged in barrels at higher temperatures and with significant oxygen (air) contact, over time the wine will develop a dark whiskey or tea color, becoming a tawny port with flavors of roasted nuts and caramel.  Most winemakers will give port-style dessert wines some aging time in contact with oak, either in barrels or with oak chips/staves, to enhance the flavor profile and give a richer, more complete finish. 

Fortified wines, like ports and sherries, are usually more stable and last longer than typical table wines since they contain high levels of sugar and alcohol, two of nature’s best preservatives.  Sugar levels of about 5-10% and alcohol levels of 18-21% help protect these fortified wines from oxidative and microbial spoilage in the winery, as well as during storage and shipping.  This also minimizes or eliminates the need to use another additive, potassium sorbate, commonly used in sweet wines to prevent fermentation of residual sugar after the wine goes into bottle. 

One final note - the name Portejas is trademarked for use by Texas winemakers.  It is an adaptation of words that highlight the following:

+  Port - to indicate the type of wine and to pay homage to the country of Portugal

    where port wines originated;

+  Tejas – a Spanish adaptation of an early Indian word for “friend” that is commonly used

    to indicate the area now known as the state of Texas; and

+  Por Tejas - taken literally in Spanish, means “for Texas.”  Pretty neat, huh? 


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