Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Operations Tour and Tasting at Barbeito Winery, Island of Madeira, Portugal

June 2013 - Our appointment to visit Barbeito Winery was scheduled for 10:30am, and Paulo drove his SUV expertly around the many twists and turns on the narrow road to the hilltop location. The CEO and winemaker, Ricardo, greeted us and we started the tour at the grape reception platform. As the tour progressed, we became more and more impressed with Ricardo’s energy, passion, and innovative spirit.

Barbeito produces around 170,000 liters of wine per year (around 19,000 cases), including a variety of third-party labels such as the famous Historic Series. Ricardo said they purchase all of their grapes from local farmers with an ideal brix of 17 (quite low!), but needed to achieve the fresh acidity for which Madeira is known.

Fermenting Madeira Grapes and Achieving Sugar Levels

The white grape varieties (sercial, verdehlo, boal, and malvasia), which make up 15% of the island’s production, are pressed and then transferred to small stainless tanks for fermentation with natural yeast. Sometimes, the boal and malvasia ferments may also includes skins and/or stems. In general most are fermented to dryness, and then grape concentrate is added to achieve the correct sweetness level:

* Extra dry (< 49 grams per liter of sugar) * Dry (49 – 65 g/l) – usually Sercial * Medium-Dry (65 – 80 g/l) – usually Verdelho * Medium-Sweet/Rich (80 – 96 g/l) – usually Boal * Sweet/Rich (> 96 g/l) – usually Malvasia between 100 -120

For the Tinta Negra Mole (making up 85% of the island’s production), Ricardo destems and crushes lightly, and then will often ferment in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks outfitted with robotic lagares – one of his innovations. Interestingly the ancient method of making Madeira was to trod by food (lagares) in the same method that port is made.

If needed for coloring or palate feel, carmel may be added after fermentation when the wine is fortified. However, it should be noted that the carmel is not for flavor, but more to achieve a desired color which consumers prefer.

Estufa and Canteiro Aging Methods

By law, generic Madeira (made with Tinta Negra Mole) must be aged a minimum of 3 years. For this less expensive type of wine, the estufa method is generally employed. Here the fermented wine is fortified with alcohol to 17.5 – 22%, and then placed in large stainless steel tanks with hot water circulating around the wine to heat it to 47 – 52 degrees Celsius for a minimum of 3 months. It is then aged in either tank or large wooden neutral barrels for an additional 2 years before it is blending and bottled for sale.

Higher quality Tinta Negra Mole and wines made of the 4 white noble grapes, often go through the more expensive canteiro method. Here the freshly fermented wine is fortified and then placed into large 700 liter neutral barrels in a heated room for 5, 10, 15 years, and/or 20+ years for vintage wines. By law, wines labeled Colheito must aged 5 to 20 years. There are also some 30 and even 40-year-old Madeiras.

Ricardo pointed out the unique zinc-covered cement ceilings in his canterio aging room, as well as the large windows that he opens at night to cool the room. He explained this helps to slow down the sugar and allow the acidity to balance the wine. His viewpoint is that a room that is always hot is not as good for the wine, and that natural cooling at night is more similar to the ancient sea voyages that helped to create the original Madeira’s. Overall, he reported that his average evaporation rate is 3 to 8%, depending in which of his 5 aging facilities the wine is stored.

Another interesting innovation to point out, is that when transferring the wines from the fermentation tanks to barrels, Ricardo came up the creative idea of moving the wine through stainless steel pipes that also serve as a fence rail around the parking lot! (see photo)

Blending and Fining

Ricardo and his staff taste through the wines in order to determine which ones will be labeled generic, 5, 10, or 15 years. For Colheito and Vintage wines, there are only declared in very good years. After the wine has aged according to the desired number of years for the label, it is blended. By law up to 15% of another grape varietal can be blended, so many of the wines labeled as noble grapes, e.g. Sercial, often have some Tinta Negra Mole added. This is because Tinta Negra is much easier to grow and provides good flavors. Ricardo said he currently has around 33 different blends.

Small Sercial & Verdelho Vineyard

We visited the small demonstration vineyard Ricardo has planted of Serical and Verdelho vines. He is experimenting with VSP trellis and cane pruning, but has come to the conclusion that the traditional high pergola method actually works better for these grape varieties.

Tasting of 15 Wines

We began our tasting with a tank sample of 2012 Tinta Negra. I was surprised at the light rose color, and the fresh fruity characteristics of the wine. Next we tried a tank sample that had gone through the mechanical lagares method, and found it to be deeper colored with more tannins and berry flavors due to the more intense extraction. We also tried a 2012 Malvasia, which he had fermented partially with stems. It was much more intensely flavors with a textured mouthfeel.

We then tasted through a variety of vintage wines ranging from 1988, 1992, 1996, 1997, and 2001. My favorites of the tasting were the Barbeito 1992 Sercial, 2001 Malvasia, and a Barbeito 20-year-old Malvasia.

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