Northwest winemakers craft fortified dessert wines with best of them

September 2, 2015 

  • Fortifieds

    by the numbers:

    Here are a few interesting stats about our fortified wine judging.

    * Number of wines: 38

    * Wines rated “Outstanding!”: 19 (50%)

    * Wines rated “Excellent”: 15 (39.5%)

    * Wines rated “Recommended”: 4 (10.5%)

    * Average price: $27

    * Total cases represented: 6,582

    * Average alcohol: 18.95%

    * AVAs represented: 16. Washington (14), Columbia Valley (4), Naches Heights (2), Rattlesnake Hills (2), Red Mountain (2), Rogue Valley (2), Southern Oregon (2), Willamette Valley (2), Columbia Gorge (1), Horse Heaven Hills (1), Okanagan Valley (1), Oregon (1), Snake River Valley (1), Umpqua Valley (1), Yakima Valley (2), California: (1).

  • Pairing food with fortified dessert wines

    There are many classic pairings that go with Ports and other fortified dessert wines. Here are a few of my favorites:

    Stilton cheese.

    Rogue Creamery smoked blue cheese.

    Crème brûlée.

    Dark chocolate.

    Fresh-baked brownies.

    Baked brie.

    Chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

    Cigars.

  • Understanding fortified dessert wines

    When we think of fortified dessert wines, we often are talking about Ports. But Ports are made only in Portugal, specifically the Douro Valley. So just as Champagne is the same as sparkling wine but sparkling wine is not the same as Champagne, so too must we respect the name “Port.”

    Port rose to fame in the early 1700s when the British were at war with the French and, thus, had to turn to Portugal for their wines. Port is produced by adding brandy (fortifying) to still-fermenting wine. The result is a sweet, high-alcohol wine. It isn’t unusual for a fortified wine to be between 5 and 10 percent residual sugar and 18 to 20 percent alcohol.

    Similarly, fortified dessert wines are made on the island of Madeira, which is off the coast of Morocco and southwest of Portugal. Like Ports, Madeira wines are made by fortifying with brandy or other spirits during fermentation. However, Madeiras then are exposed to heat, thus creating a nuttier style of wine.

    Ports are some of the most age-worthy wines made, and Madeiras can age even longer. The Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., is regionally famous for its Madeira collection. In fact, you can walk into The Herbfarm and order an ounce of Madeira from 1795 — when George Washington was president! — for $365. Imagine tasting that bit of history.

    Fortunately, one of the world’s leading experts on Ports lives in Washington state. Roy Hersh runs the website For the Love of Port (www.fortheloveofport.com). He writes a newsletter on Port and leads tours to Portugal.

As we enter autumn and begin thinking about cooler evenings and even cold, snowy winter nights, our thoughts naturally begin drifting toward warm thoughts of sipping fortified dessert wines.

Fortified wines are crafted by adding brandy or similar spirits to a wine during the fermentation process. The brandy kills the yeast and stops fermentation, resulting in a sweet, high-alcohol dessert wine.

This style of wine was created and perfected in Portugal, where some of the world’s finest dessert wines are crafted. Similar wines are made in Madeira, an island off the coast of Africa that once was a Portuguese colony.

In the New World, we don’t necessarily call our fortified wines by the name “Port,” though many wineries still do. For about the last decade, the federal government has not approved new wine labels using the word “Port.” Those wineries that used the name prior to that have been allowed to continue that use, though they are gently encouraged to change the names.

As you’ll see from the list of wines we recently blind-tasted, many Northwest wineries continue to use the name “Port,” while others have found more fanciful names.

Our tasting of Pacific Northwest fortified dessert wines drew 39 examples. As one might expect, some of the best came from wineries that have specialized in this style of wine. In particular, two Yakima Valley winemakers — Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe and David Padgett of Maison de Padgett and Horizon’s Edge — showed what their years of experience and experimentation can produce.

Fortified wines are easy to love, but our judges looked for the elements they always seek in wines regardless of style: balance and flavor. In the case of this judging, our panel of experts found a lot to like. And that is good for all of us.

Remember that most fortified dessert wines are made in small quantities. In fact, just one of those 39 wines we tasted had production exceeding 1,000 cases. Thus, seek them out at top wine shops or contact the wineries directly.

Our judges for this tasting included: Richard Larsen, research winemaker for Washington State University; Gregg McConnell, Wine Press Northwest editor-in-chief; Ken Robertson, Wine Press Northwest columnist; Mike Rader, a member of the Great Northwest Wine tasting panel and longtime Port lover; Hank Sauer, Great Northwest Wine master facilitator and longtime Northwest wine expert and judge; and Paul Sinclair, a longtime member of Great Northwest Wine’s tasting panel.

Here are the results:

Outstanding!

Thurston Wolfe • $13

2010 JTW’s Port, Washington

Named for Josh Wolfe, the son of owners Wade Wolfe and Becky Yeaman, this delicious fortified wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Naçional, Tinta Cão and Souzão. It opens with dark, intense, spicy aromas of chocolate, vanilla bean and boysenberry syrup, followed by stunning flavors of dark chocolate, espresso, toasted almond and black currant that leads to a gorgeous, sensual finish. (150 cases; 19% alc.)

Maison de Padgett • $20

NV Smoking Gun, Washington

This unusual and remarkable dessert wine is infused with coffee flavors, ng_leading to delicious flavors of hazelnut, honey, spice and medium-roasted coffee beans. On the palate, its gorgeous flavors reveal notes of caramel, vanilla and coffee. Java lovers will want to stock up on this. (185 cases; 19.2% alc.)

Barnard Griffin • $17

2013 Syrah Port, Columbia Valley

Owner/winemaker Rob Griffin has been making a Port-style dessert wine from Syrah for many years, and this example from the warm 2013 vintage is a gem. It opens with aromas of black and blue fruit, vanilla, blackberry pie and bold spice. On the palate, it reveals flavors of Marionberry syrup, blueberry and elderberry. A luscious texture leads to a smooth, lengthy, memorable finish. (1,850 cases; 19.5% alc.)

Brian Carter Cellars • $40

2012 Opulento, Yakima Valley

Longtime Washington winemaker Brian Carter focuses on blends at his Woodinville winery, and this dessert wine uses classic Portuguese varieties. It shows off aromas of molasses, Baker’s chocolate, sarsaparilla and blackberry jam. A smooth entry gives way to rich, bold flavors of ripe dark fruit and just-out-of-the-oven brownies drizzled with dark chocolate sauce. (112 cases; 18% alc.)

Horizon’s Edge Winery • $25

2004 Intimate Affair Reserve Port, Rattlesnake Hills

Yakima Valley winemaker David Padgett excels with fortified dessert wines, and this well-aged example uses Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. It’s dark and intense, with aromas of raisin, cherry reduction sauce, violets and horehound candy. The flavors lead with notes of cherry cordial, crème de cassis, toasted filbert and molasses. It’s a delightfully dark, rich wine. (46 cases; 19.2% alc.)

Wedge Mountain Winery • $28

NV Crested Butte Tawny, California

Owner/winemaker Charlie McKee brought in classic Portuguese grapes from Madera and Lodi in Central California to craft a rich, intense tawny-style dessert wine. It opens with beautiful aromas of milk chocolate, raisin and smoky dried cherry. Flavors of dried dark fruit, caramel, hibiscus and Harvey’s Bristol Cream give way to a rich finish. (63 cases; 19.5% alc.)

Kraze Legz Winery • $45

2012 Skaha Vineyard Rogue, Okanagan Valley

This delicious dessert wine from north of the border is 100 percent Merlot, and it opens with aromas of caramel, toasted marshmallow, golden raisin and dried apricot. That leads to expressive flavors of candied orange peel, dried pineapple, peach cobbler and molasses. (50 cases; 19% alc.)

Harry & David Vineyards • $20

2010 Beeson Tempranillo, Southern Oregon

Best known nationwide for its luscious pears, this operation in Medford, Ore., also produces a little bit of terrific wine. This fortified dessert wine uses Tempranillo, and it’s a dark, rich, round, inviting red. Aromas of roasted fig, raisin, molasses and spice give way to smooth, dark, creamy flavors of blackberry, vanilla, mocha and fig jam. (320 cases; 18.8% alc.)

Red Lily Vineyards • $30

2013 Night School, Southern Oregon

Winemaker Rachel Martin crafted this dessert wine using Tinta Cão, Touriga Naçional and Tempranillo. The result is a luscious drink with aromas of spice, golden raisin, chocolate and dried cherry, followed by flavors of molasses, candied fruit and hazelnut chocolate spread. (150 cases; 18.6% alc.)

English Estate • $26

NV Sweet Autumn Gold, Washington

Using Pinot Noir juice, this winery near Vancouver, Wash., has crafted an Angelica-style dessert wine, meaning the juice is fortified with brandy prior to fermentation starting. The result is intense aromas of toasted hazelnut, raisin, dried banana and honey, followed by sensual flavors of ripe apricot and nutmeg. (50 cases; 16.5% alc.)

Maison de Padgett • $25

NV Treasure Chest Blackberry Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington

Winemaker David Padgett blended blackberry juice and Cabernet Sauvignon to craft this superior dessert wine. It opens with aromas of blackberry pie, caramel and toasted almond. On the palate, it’s thick and bold with ripe berry notes and a finish similar to a piece of blackberry saltwater taffy from Bruce’s Candy Kitchen in Cannon Beach, Ore. (46 cases; 19.5% alc.)

English Estate • $28

NV Sweet Ruby Red, Washington

This wine has quite a legacy. It was started in 2001 by Carl English, founder of this Vancouver, Wash., winery. When he died in 2010, it was taken over by his daughter, Jennifer. So they are co-winemakers on the project. It’s made with estate Pinot Noir, and fermentation was stopped with the addition of brandy. The result is a smooth, elegant dessert wine with aromas and flavors of date, fig, orange and black licorice. (100 cases; 17.5% alc.)

Torii Mor • $45

2011 Port, Rogue Valley

French winemaker Jacques Tardy uses Syrah from Southern Oregon to craft this delicious dessert sipper. It opens with alluring aromas of golden raisin, milk chocolate, caramel and toast, followed by intense flavor of date, molasses and sweet herbal notes. It is a smooth and textured wine. (500 cases; 20.6% alc.)

Lantz Cellars • $39

2012 Red, Red Mountain

Owner/winemaker Kevin Lantz sourced traditional Portuguese varieties from Red Heaven Vineyard on the slope of Red Mountain for this delicious dessert wine at his winery in Lake Stevens, Wash. Aromas of spice, smoke, ripe dark fruit and chocolate shavings give way to intimate flavors of dark cherry and blackberry. It all leads to a long, plush finish. (85 cases; 20% alc.)

Melrose Vineyards • $22

NV Solstice Solera Baco Noir, Umpqua Valley

Melrose, one of the top producers in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, uses the rare Baco Noir grape for this delicious Port-style red. It opens with aromas of espresso, caramel, boysenberry and maple syrup, followed by smooth flavors of fig, raspberry, vanilla and a hint of walnut. This is a rich, luscious sipper. (106 cases; 19.8% alc.)

Horizon’s Edge Winery • $20

NV Wishful Thinking Chocolate Port, Washington

Winemaker David Padgett has a winner with this chocolate-infused dessert wine, which has won many accolades in regional competitions over the years. It offers deep aromas of dark chocolate, toasted almond, cocoa and cherry Tootsie Pop. On the palate, this incredibly rich wine reminded us of molten chocolate cake and ripe dark berries, yet it isn’t over-the-top sweet. (185 cases; 19.5% alc.)

English Estate • $49

NV Raspberry Delight, Washington

Winemaker Jennifer English collected estate raspberries from her farm near Vancouver, Wash., then fortified the partially fermented wine with brandy distilled from her Pinot Noir. The result is an incredible drink with aromas and flavors of raspberry chocolate sauce, cocoa powder and s’mores. (20 cases; 17% alc.)

Bitner Vineyards • $26

2008 Cole Vincent , Snake River Valley

Grape grower Ron Bitner and winemaker Greg Koenig have been collaborating for 20 years in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. This beautiful dessert wine is named after the Bitners’ grandchild. It reveals aromas and flavors of Marionberry, blackberry, dark chocolate, spice and fig. It’s a beautiful wine to enjoy on a cold autumn day. (90 cases; 19% alc.)

Thurston Wolfe • $16

2010 JTW Reserve, Washington

Longtime Yakima Valley winemaker Wade Wolfe has his Port-style wines beautifully dialed in. This blend of three traditional Portuguese red varieties results in a stunning dessert wine with aromas and flavors of spice, brooding dark fruit, molasses and cola. It’s a bold, round, rich wine with great depth and length. (100 cases; 19% alc.)

Excellent

Claar Cellars • $30

NV Fouled Anchor Port, Columbia Valley

This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from winemaker Joe Hudon offers aromas and flavors of chocolate, molasses, dried cherry and toasted marshmallow. It opens with a smooth entry that waltzes across the palate. (130 cases; 18% alc.)

Northwest Mountain Winery • $28

2012 Dark Moon Rising, Columbia Valley

Olympia, Wash., winemaker Raymond Curtis crafted this dessert wine from Barbera grapes, and the results are superb. Aromas and flavors of caramel, spice, dried cherry and chocolate slide across the palate to a long finish that invites another sip. (150 cases; 19.6% alc.)

English Estate • $28

NV Gravel Mine Vineyards Pinot Noir Nectar, Washington

This beautiful, pale-colored dessert wine is made in the Angelica style, with brandy infused before fermentation starts. The result is a wine with aromas and flavors of golden raisin, fresh straw and toasted hazelnut. It’s a smooth and tasty treat. (100 cases; 16.5% alc.)

Maison de Padgett • $25

2003 McHargue True Friendship Malbec Port, Rattlesnake Hills

This well-aged fortified wine from Yakima Valley winemaker David Padgett is a rich and luscious effort, thanks to aromas of black pepper, black currant, coffee and ripe dark fruit, including black cherry and blackberry. It’s a big, round, bold sipper. (46 cases; 19.5% alc.)

Mt. Hood Winery • $34

2009 Puerto Montaña, Columbia Gorge

One of the Columbia Gorge’s finest producers has crafted a delicious dessert wine from Pinot Noir. It opens with enticing aromas of spice and black cherry, followed by round, rich, smooth flavors of ripe strawberry. (100 cases; 19% alc.)

Eleven Winery • $17

2012 Sweet Sarah, Washington

Bainbridge Island winemaker Matt Albee named this luscious Syrah dessert after his wife. It opens with aromas of Arabic cardamom coffee, ripe dark fruit and chocolate, followed by smooth, dark flavors of ripe black raspberry. (146 cases; 19.3% alc.)

Maryhill Winery • $18

2008 Vintage Port, Columbia Valley

Our Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year has put together a classic red dessert wine using traditional Portuguese varieties. The result is a dark and intense wine with aromas and flavors of spice, caramel, vanilla bean, mocha, toasted marshmallow and ripe dark fruit. (277 cases; 19.3% alc.)

Corvus Cellars • $24

NV Crescendo, Red Mountain

Walla Walla winemaker Steve Lessard blended Merlot and Zinfandel from estate grapes on Red Mountain to craft a delicious dessert wine with aromas and flavors of blackberry pie, black cherry, coffee and chocolate. It’s a big, rich, dark wine. (59 cases; 19.5% alc.)

David Hill Vineyards & Winery • $28

2008 Estate Muscat Port, Willamette Valley

Longtime Oregon winemaker Jason Bull has crafted a beautiful and rare white fortified wine using the aromatic Muscat grape. Aromas of honey, toasted walnut and dried apricot give way to bold flavors of white chocolate, spice and ripe peach. (95 cases; 19% alc.)

Thurston Wolfe • $16

NV Tawny Port, Horse Heaven Hills

This rare Zinfandel Port-style dessert wine was aged eight years in oak before being bottled. It’s a gorgeous effort with aromas and flavors of golden raisin, cocoa and ripe dark fruit. It smells like a North African spice market and is rich, round and focused throughout. (150 cases; 20% alc.)

Northwest Mountain Winery • $28

NV Blazing Blackberry, Washington

This Olympia, Wash., winery used ripe blackberries to craft a superb dessert wine. It shows off aromas and flavors of blackberry jam, vanilla cream and toasted marshmallow. It’s a round, approachable red with delicious length and ample weight. (100 cases; 19.8% alc.)

Maison de Padgett • $20

NV Bite Me Peach Port, Washington

Zillah, Wash., winemaker David Padgett produces as many different Port-style dessert wines as anyone in the Northwest. This reveals classic aromas of ripe peach, spice and golden raisin, followed by elegant and rich flavors of bright orchard fruit. (46 cases; 19.5% alc.)

David Hill Vineyards & Winery • $45

2009 Estate Pinot Noir Port, Willamette Valley

This longtime winery in the northern Willamette Valley near Forest Grove, Ore., used estate Pinot Noir grapes to craft a yummy dessert wine. Aromas of toasted marshmallow, spice and ripe raspberry lead to smooth, rich, dark flavors of Bing cherry and cocoa powder. It’s an elegant sipper. (153 cases; 18.2% alc.)

Wilridge Winery • $20

2014 Estate Red Dessert Wine, Naches Heights

Longtime Seattle winemaker Paul Beveridge blended five varieties from his estate grapes in Naches Heights near Yakima to build this young fortified wine. Black cherry, black raspberry and dark chocolate highlight the aromas and flavors. Give this a couple of years to really turn into something intense. (229 cases; 19.2% alc.)

Cairdeas Winery • $35

2014 Fortified Petite Sirah, Yakima Valley

This up-and-coming winery on the north shore of Lake Chelan dipped into the Yakima Valley for bold Petite Sirah grapes. The resulting wine is young and fresh with aromas and flavors of black raspberry, boysenberry syrup, vanilla and molasses. (56 cases; 20.1% alc.)

Recommended

Perennial Vintners • $21

NV Frambelle, Washington

Mike Lempriere crafts his wine on bucolic Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle, and he uses island berries for this tasty dessert wine. It opens with intense aromas of smoky raspberry and dark chocolate, followed by bold, ripe flavor of ripe raspberry and vanilla cream. (102 cases; 17% alc.)

Horizon's Edge Winery • $25

NV The Bomb, Washington

This cherry-infused dessert wine from Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills offers aromas and flavors of black cherry, caramel and horehound candy. It’s a smooth, luscious wine with a rich, bold finish. (90 cases; 19.5% alc.)

Wilridge Winery • $20

2014 Estate Muscat Blanc, Naches Heights

Delicate aromas of lavender and golden raisin give way to flavors of poached peach drizzled with honey. This rare white fortified wine provides elegant flavors and a long finish. (95 cases; 19.5% alc.)

Garnier Vineyards • $27

NV L’Amour Cerise, Oregon

This winery in the Columbia Gorge town of Mosier, Ore., has crafted a supple fortified dessert wine using cherries. The result is aromas and flavors of dark cherry, dark chocolate and spice, giving way to a long and incredibly smooth finish. (250 cases; 18.5% alc.)

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.

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