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Wine Gone Bad

With the holiday season just barely in our rear view, no one needs to be reminded that modern life moves very very fast-- and in a world where instant gratification is the norm and patience is not the most touted virtue, most wine is consumed well before its time. While it's true that most wine on the market is meant to be consumed in the first year of its life, many of the most 'highly rated' and interesting wines require years of bottle aging before they truly open up, and most people just don't have the time or money to commit to the endeavor. Of course, you could buy your wine from a collector who no doubt has any number of fantastic vintages in his cellar-- but alas, market price on the older stuff is insanely high, and you can never completely vouchsafe the conditions under which that bottle has been kept. No, if you are hankering for that old wine taste but haven't laid your plans 20 years in advance, your best bet is a wine thats been maderized-- a wine gone bad.


Wine in a bottle does not exist in a vacuum. Whether topped with cork or a screw-top or dispensed from a box, all closures allow for a tiny amount of air to enter and leave the container. It is this chemical interaction with the air that allows a wine which has been kept at the right temperature to age gracefully for years. If that temperature is too high, however, or the wine is allowed to much exposure to the air, the whole process occurs way too quickly, bacteria begin to grow, the wine breaks down, and one is left with a rather expensive bottle of vinegar. The same is true during production, so a winemaker must be diligent in maintaining the proper temperature throughout his facility. Excessive heat and oxygen are bad-- most of the time. If however, our hypothetical winemaker uses a lot of heat and exposes the nascent wine to a lot of oxygen, something magical happens-- he has made pre-aged wine!


This in a nutshell is the process of maderizition, or the deliberate exposure of wine to heat and air over long periods of time. Like silly putty, the popsicle, and other great discoveries, the process was discovered by accident when 17th century sailors found that the wine they picked up on the tiny island of Madeira (namesake of the process) tasted much better after a months long trek through the tropics than it did fresh in port. Believing the wine affected by the motion of the ship and not simply the heat, merchants began to send their wine on tropical voyages simply to have it return in a more potable condition. Nowadays producers are more keen on sedentary heating methods, which yield a similar effect.

Wines given this treatment will take on a dark amber or golden tone, depending on the grapes used and the exact method employed. Most are fortified wines-- meaning they have had brandy added during fermentation-- and are therefor quite strong in alcohol, ranging 18-20% in most cases. Most are sweet, in the case of Cream Sherry or Tawny Port, but there are several bone dry examples from both Spain and Madeira. In varying degrees all posses a rich, caramelized, borderline-burnt characteristic indicative of the process. Depending on the level of sweetness, they run a surprisingly wide field of food pairings: try a medium dry wine such as a Bual Madeira or a Amontillado Sherry with nuttyPearmund desserts or simple biscotti; dry offerings like Fino Sherry pair very well with cream based seafood chowders and other thick soups; sweeter wines like Tawny Port and Cream Sherry have the strength and sweetness to stand up to even the most rich chocolate cake, and certain of the latter are brilliant over ice cream!

Maderized wine does indeed taste old, and that is part of the reason it is rather out of fashion-- therefore, supply may be short, but prices are superb. The Trevor Jones Jonesy Port is a wonderful value at about $10-- this Australian answer to the Portuguese classic contains wine over 45 years old! As with all things Australian the fruit takes the driver's seat, but look for caramel on the finish accompanied by herb and cinnamon spice. To experience the full range Sherry has to offer seek out the wines of Lustau-- they produce everything from a bone dry Fino to the absolutely sweetest wine (the East India Solera) I have ever tasted, and are very well priced in the $14-$25+ range. Madeira, the most quintessential of maderized wine, is a bit thin on the ground-- however, a few producers have a pretty good presence in the DC market. Leacock's 10 year Bual (about $40) is a great medium dry wine with a fantastic viscous texture; consider putting a dash in your seafood bisque, as it will add that delicious nutty character in a way that a cheap alternative just can't replicate.

Finally, if you like to buy local, Pearmund Winery produces an esoteric, unfortified wine called Vin de Sol. Hearkening back to the early days of Sherry, this wine is actually exposed to direct sunlight in glass pipes for months before bottling-- it is dry, almost bitter, with a raisiny/molassasy finish, full but not syrupy body, and surprising acidity. It is available at the winery for around $20.


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