Elixir of the Grape

A San Francisco doctor by vocation. SALVATORE P. LUCIA is a mil-known amateur of fine wines. Ur served on the Judges Committer, Red Table Wines, California State Fair, for the past three years and is a member of the Board of Governors, San Francisco Branch of the Wine and Food Society.


WE HAVE all read in Homer how Odysseus and his companions were attracted by Circe’s sweet voice. She made a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey and Pramnian wine, and withal she mixed baneful drugs, that the warriors might utterly forget their native land which they did. Ancient man and the American public (possessors of unsophisticated palates) both desire a sweet wine. Thus the producer of sweet wines is fortunate: his market is already created.

Recently I was invited to a tasting of wines in honor of a group of home economists. The tasting consisted of three fine white dinner wines presented in the order of decreasing dryness, after which the guests withdrew to a special table where twenty different sherries awaited them. The reaction to the dry sherries was uniform puckered lips, tightly closed eyes, and the appearance of prominent crow’sfeet. The sommelier at this end of the table was calm and inactive, while the one who poured the sweet wines was frantic meeting the demand.

Over half a million acres of California soil are devoted to the production of the grape, and by some queer cantrip no other region in the world produces so many varieties of sweet wine. The demand for sweet wine has been so great that 80 per cent of the wines produced in California are of the sweet variety.

Our public has not advanced far in the more esoteric arts of the palate. Since no great discrimination in taste is necessary to appreciate the average sweet wine, the decision to choose a less expensive domestic wine in preference to the pedigreed imported variety is just a matter of astute accountancy.

In 1947-1948 California produced 95,222,000 gallons of wine, of which 77,006,000 gallons were of the dessert varieties. Officially wines are classified according to their content of alcohol, those containing less than 14 per cent being the table wines, and those containing more than 14 per cent the dessert wines. Oddly the aperitif or appetizer wines are included among dessert wines, for no other reason than a legal definition.

The dessert wines are in reality elixirs of the grape, and perhaps the alcohol which is added to them is for the purpose of preserving their characteristic flavor and sweetness. In Great Britain the term “fortified wine” is still used officially; but it has been dropped in the United States because the word fortification connotes intent to increase intoxicating power.

Setting a legal line of demarcation between table and dessert wine does not indicale the differences between sweet and dry wine; nor does it set the limits of sweetness or natural fermentation. Some wines are naturally sweet although they contain less than 14 per cent alcohol, and many are dry although they contain more than 14 per cent alcohol; olhers may acquire a natural alcoholic content greater than 14 per cent without the addition of distilled spirit.

Some confusion results from the nomenclature of California dessert wines because foreign type-names are used to designate wines which, though pleasing in themselves, rarely resemble their European prototypes. The need for distinctive California names is imperative. As a prelude Angelica, Palomino Beige, and varietal grape names such as Mu scat de Frontignan have appeared on California dessert wines. The American public eagerly awaits a name for the California product labeled Sherry, which neither in method of production nor in taste resembles the Spanish product.

The grapes which are to be used for dessert wines must contain an abundance of sugar in order that an adequate amount of alcohol may be produced and still leave enough sweetness; and those for the better sweet wines must have character and reasonable amounts of “ varietal aroma ” and fruit acids, so that quality may be rendered to the wine.

The hot central valleys are particularly charitable to the production of high concentration of sugar in the grape. In the more southerly counties, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, the crops are large, the sugar content of the grape is high, but the acid content is low, and the character of the wine is less choice than in the cooler counties of Sonoma and Napa Valleys, where the tonnage per acre is smaller, the sugar content less, and the ratio of fruit acid higher.

The sweetest of all dessert wines is the Angelica. The origin of its name has been lost in the early history of California Missions—perhaps some gentle brother thought it. a worthy nectar for the angels. Angelicas are low in total acids, both natural fruit and the secondary acids of fermentation. Their color is golden, on the order of Muscatel, and if properly made they should be free of the rancio or cooked flavor of sherry. A fine Angelica can be an unsurpassed dessert wine.

Unnecessary confusion arises in regard to the California wine called Tokay. The Hungarian Tokay is a natural, sweet wine produced from the Furmint grape, without the addition of brandy. Of this wine it has been said, “When childless families despair, when January is wedded to May, and when old men wish to be young again, then Tokay is in request.” Not so the California Tokay, which is a blend of Angelica, California port, and California sherry, to which brandy is added. Rarely, if ever, is the wine made from the Flame Tokay grape, an excellent table grape because of tart ness, but unfitted for wine because of its low sugar content. Certainly this California product should bear another name. It neither resembles the Hungarian Tokay, nor is it made of Tokay, but it is a delightful dessert wane nonetheless.

The Muscatel wines, next in the order of sweetness, were common in a noionl Home in the time of Columella. Modern examples of Muscatel are the front ignan of France, the A lea lien, Malyasin Bianca, and Canelli of Italy, the Mulmscv of Madeira, and the Samos of Greece. Dessert wines made from Muscat grapes are distinctive because the aromatic principle giving character to the grape is also carried over into the wine, imparting to it a rich and luscious flavor. The Muscatels are progressively more excellent in quality as their total acidity reaches an Optimum.

Less sweet than the Muscatels are the port wines. In California the Mission, Tinta Madeira, Grennche, Valdepeñas, Trousseau, and Mataro are the typical grape varieties used in the production of port. The end result is a good wine, but it is not port. The fundamental difference between Portuguese port and California port is that in the former the fortifying brandy is added at the height of violenl fermentation in order to arrest the activity of the process at the desired moment, while in California the fortifying brandy is added to a pleasantly blended, sweet red wine.

The lettst sweet and perhaps the most promising of the California dessert wines tire the “sherries.” The origin of the type-name, California Sherry, is obviously Spanish, but the method of production more closely resembles that used for the wines of Madeira. The dry-type sherries produced in Spain result from mat uration with a film yeast called “flor,” with final aging of the wine in oak casks. In California there are a few sherries produced by the Spanish film yeast process, but the greater number are made by subjecting the wines to temperatures of 120° to 140° F. for two to four or more months, and such wines when properly made and aged are distinctive.

The colors of California sherry vary from pale yellow to amber. The darker wines are usually of poorer quality because they have been overbaked. Some California vinifers have become expert in producing wines of good rancio flavor — the result of controlled oxidation and proper caramelization. The smaller the amount of caramel and the slower the oxidation, the more delicate the wine.

Only in a very general way do the sherries of California resemble the Spanish sherries. Some of them are quite good, especially those made of the Palomino grape, subjected to film yeast fermenttition, and properly aged. I have tasted some very fine California sherries; the finest, a film yeast product no longer available, was made by Louis M. Martini and called Royal Duke. The most interesting California sherry, a supernaculum, w.is the pre-prohibition Wahtoke, a bottle of which was given to me by its producer, A. R. Morrow, the clean of California winetasters. Since repeal, premium quality dessert wine production hits become a specialty of many of the premium table wine producers, who have well-established marketing facilities to reach the most discriminating palates. Californians can make good sherry-type wine, but it should be given a distinctive and native California name.

The California dessert wines are pure and sound, but the greatest proportion of those available on the market are relatively young. I am sure that their popularity will increase as they acquire the necessary age, which will enable them to display their best characteristics. Dessert wines must spend several years in the wood and bottle before they develop the aromatic qualities that will make them premium products. The lack of a proper market is the cause of the present quality of the mass of dessert wines.

Some of the quality producers buyyoung dessert wines from the Valleys and blend them with northern wines for higher acidity and flavor. They are then matured in small oak cooperage, bottled, and aged further before they are marketed. Those who have tasted these products of limited distribution will acknowledge that California can produce dessert wine of high quality. A fair taste test would be to compare the Beaulieu Muscat de Frontignan with any Muscatel of Spain, or the Beringer Private Stock Port with most of the ports which are received in the United States from Portugal or Britain. The Cresta Blanca Wine Company has produced two premium quality California sherries, and both of them have been eminently successful.