Vinic alcohol. That is, neutral spirit with no characteristics besides the 95.6 percent alcohol by volume content. Used in Madeira to arrest the fermentation. The alcohol is purified by repeated distillation and vinic alcohol simply means that it derives from grapes.
Few outside the business has given it a closer thought, but the added neutral spirit has been a topic in the world of fortified wines since around 2010 due to the liter price being increased by more than 60 percent. Now it appears to have leveled out but the sudden and substantial augmentation surely will affect the Madeira wine industry.
Why this sudden increase in price?
It all started around 2010, on the alcohol front. As the CEO Chris Blandy at Blandy’s tells me, the reasons for it seemed to be a bit of everything. The industry of neutral spirits were granted subsidies from the European Union for a limited period of time (for handling the excess of wine in EU and turning it in to vinic alcohol) and the expiration of these subsidies came at a bad time. With a global recession the producers had to raise prices significantly. Furthermore, the loss of financial support came at the same time as Europe and especially Russia experienced some bad harvests resulting in a huge demand from the country.
A vast majority of the Madeira wines sold are the 3 years old ones. These compete with other fortified wines and the price is of course a significant reason why the end-consumer chooses a simple ruby Port, a three years old Madeira or a Sherry. Surely the increase in price affects all regions equally but for more than one reason, I’m claiming Madeira is in the weakest position of the three classic regions.
1. Madeira doesn’t possess the same promotional strength and resources.
2. Fortified wines constantly struggles prejudice. In my world, preconceptions hit Madeira and Sherry worse than Port.
3. Madeira is more of a niche wine. Considerably less volume produced resulting in more price sensitive wines.
The first Madeira wines affected of the increase on vinic alcohol are now entering the market. It’s a struggle for many producers, to find a way not to increase the price which could result in consumers going for another wine. After all, the 3 years old wines are the main income source so costs and expenses needs to be cut elsewhere.
One could argue that the less price sensitive vintage and colheita wines could carry a part of the burden, and surely they will do, but it still doesn’t compensate nearby enough. For that the quantities of the premium stuff are miniscule. But perhaps something good will come out of this and the Madeira producers would focus more on promoting the 5 years old wines instead? The quality step is evident and would also help Madeira niche itself even more as the number one quality fortified wine.
Why 96% and not 77% as in Port?
I’m bringing up the topic with the chief winemaker at Blandy’s, Francisco Albuquerque, who tells me that the main reason is simply less dilution. In order to achieve the desired degree of alcohol in the end product, the vinic alcohol means less adding. For older Madeira wines, from 20 years old and more, the dry extract is very important. Francisco exemplifies it the following way:
“To strengthen a Malvazia that has fermented to 4%, I have to use 14% of the 96% vinic alcohol in order to reach the desired end level. If I use the 77% grape brandy I have to use 18% in order to reach the same level. Since alcohol have a more or less zero alcohol extract the less I use, the less I dilute the wine.”
Francisco Albuquerque continues: “It’s also important to have in mind that Madeira wine never reaches the same potential alcohol as in Douro. When Madeira are more close to 10% in average, Port wines are closer to 14%. In the case of Port wine that of course, to some extent, compensates for the dilution and the use of 77% brandy to arrest fermentation.”
The fortification process
There’s no precise answer to this as it comes down to the different producers preferences. Some prefer to ferment the wines dry and then correct with concentrated must. If you want to act Madeira winemaker for a day, then check out Vino Enology and how much alcohol is needed to add.
When performing the abafamento, the arresting of the fermentation by adding alcohol, the producers use a special pump (ATEX) for safety reasons. It also follows an EU directive. Also the top of the alcohol tank comes with a special fuse construction. Should an explosion occur, which is rare, the top is hence weaker than the walls and an explosion would occur at the top and minimize damages.
The size of the fermenters decide upon the control need. The bigger the more need to control heat and the “carbon dioxide mini-explosions.” When adding the alcohol it’s done from below and not from the top as it will remain there and will be entering, very quickly, at the most active part of the tank fermenting must. Furthermore, alcohol is less dense than the wine and will therefore slowly migrate to the top of the tank. To homogenize the mixture it’s pumped over.
A slow addition of the alcohol is to prefer as the heat production goes up in the fermenters. Many believe the addition of alcohol is immediate, that is arresting the fermentation directly. After alcohol addition the yeasts enter in stress and die. The process takes some time and the Brix-level still lowers 2 degrees before the fermentation stops. Usually there is an increase in heat production when alcohol is added but that can be controled with tank jackets. As Paulo Mendes at Madeira Vintners tells me, the size of the fermenter decides. Their smallest 1,000 liters fermenters will for example not generate enough heat that would call for any forced cooling down.
Photo above. ATEX pump. Both photos shown with courtesy of Madeira Vintners.
N.B. The neutral spirit used in the fortification procedure in Madeira wine is always vinic alcohol, that is, derived from grapes. It’s compulsory by law and verified by IVBAM, the institute, by analysis before arriving and samples are taken when unloaded. Alcohol is then locked until confirmation.