One of the great things about farming is that it provides stark examples of the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention. And Mother Nature is the mother of them all, whether you’re growing potatoes or grapes. So, in 2007, Juan E. Micieli-Martinez, general manager and winemaker at Martha Clara in Riverhead, was faced with a happy dilemma: what to do with all the super-ripe and healthy grapes provided by a hot and dry growing season once all the barrels and bottles were full of the vineyard’s still and sparkling wines? The answer? Make a fortified dessert wine, or as most Americans know it, Port.
(But first a word about calling wine “Port.” Like the wine producers of Champagne, the Portuguese want to protect their brand, and in the European Union, only wine made in Portugal is allowed to have “Port” on the label. That doesn’t mean no one can make “port-style” wine; they just can’t call it “Port.” We’ll respect that here; got it?)
The result at Martha Clara is Clusters, a port-style wine made from a blend of equal amounts of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. On the label it is called a dessert wine. Super-ripe grapes mean a high sugar content, which is perfect for port-style wine as it mimics the conditions that caused Port to be invented in the first place. It is hot in Portugal. To take advantage of this ripeness and sweetness, the Portuguese add pure spirits, distilled from grape juice, to fermenting wine. This stops the fermentation, arresting the conversion of sugar to alcohol, thus fortifying it and raising its alcohol content. This is beneficial in two ways. It keeps the wine sweet, and it stabilizes it, preventing it from spoiling in hot weather and during the cross-Atlantic trips the wine made to satisfy the thirst of the Port-crazy British and American colonists.
But our fortified wine doesn’t have to travel that far any more. East Enders can taste this delicious specimen made right at home. The grapes for Clusters hung on the vine longer than the grapes for still wine and were harvested all at the same time, unusual for different varieties, as they ripen at different times. The wine spent nearly three years in barrel before it was it was bottled in 375-milliliter bottles; 500 cases were released in early 2011.
“The wine is sweet,” says Micieli-Martinez. “But that is balanced by the warmth of the spirit.” Which was made, by the way, at Long Island Spirits in Baiting Hollow, home of LiV vodka.
It is sweet but not cloying. Many drinkers expect the syrupy consistency of a late-harvest dessert wine, but the body is surprisingly light. What’s not surprising is the bright cherry fruit, so typical of the 2007 vintage. It’s perfect for drinking after dinner with strong cheese, says Micieli-Martinez, and maybe a flourless chocolate cake. It will hold in the cellars for ages, but once you open the half bottle, prepare for it to be gone by the end of the night. The smaller bottles also make for great stocking stuffers.
Micieli-Martinez is only making Clusters in the hot years. So the next release will include wine made from grapes primarily harvested in 2010, with maybe some of the 2007 that’s still in barrel mixed in. We can also expect grapes from the 2013 vintage to go into the following iteration of Clusters, another year that the mother of all mothers gave us wine that’s fit to be fortified.