Fortified Port-style Dessert Wines (Portejas)
The Black Spanish, or Lenoir vines, growing in front of the logo tanks at Texas Wine Collective were discussed in a previous Carl’s Corner posting. Black Spanish is 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. However, once we saw grape clusters ripening, it seemed only right to each vintage and make something fun with them, like a Portejas.
In 2017, nearly 1,000 lbs of grapes were harvested and hauled to Brennan Vineyards in Comanche, TX, where winemaker Todd Webster and the Brennan crew helped 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 limited bottling, 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 sold from the tasting room (long since sold out). Currently, a new Brennan Vineyards Portejas, produced from Ruby Cabernet and Alicante Bouschet grapes is available at TWC. With this in mind, the objective of this Carl’s Corner post is to detail the 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 24-26 degrees Brix (essentially 24-26% sugar). As the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, and the residual sugar level falls to about 8-10 degrees, the winemaker adds alcohol in the form of distilled grape spirits (140-150 proof, think moonshine made from grapes), brandy (distilled wine, 80 proof/40% alcohol), 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 neutral grape spirits or barrel-aged brandy. Raising the total level of alcohol to 18-21% essentially kills yeast cells and stops any further fermentation. Thus, unfermented sugar remaining in the wine will be captured as a natural sweetening agent when the alcohol level is raised.
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 (little or 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 made from red grapes 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 the wines are aged in barrels at higher temperatures and with significant oxygen (air) contact, they 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, in storage and once opened, 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 (salt being another). 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 shipping and storage. This also minimizes or eliminates the need to use another additive, potassium sorbate, commonly used in lower alcohol sweet wines to prevent re-fermentation of residual sugar after the wine goes into the bottle.
One final note - the name Portejas is trademarked for use by the Texas Department of Agriculture and Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association and can be used by Texas winemakers for a nominal fee. 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
from which 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 to mean “for Texas.” Pretty neat, huh?