Spirited away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 September, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 September, 1993, 12:00am

THE last week of Chris Baker's wine class focused on fortified wines, ''starting with the young wines and working through to the old''. Fortified wines are those in which part of the alcohol comes from the fermentation of grapes, and part from the addition of a distilled spirit. The spirit stops fermentation. A recipe was given for making mistelle - unfermented grape juice mixed with brandy - at home: combine three parts of white grape juice with one part brandy and refrigerate until very cold. ''It's wonderful, but very treacherous,'' Mr Baker said. Of the French fortified wines, he recommends a Pineau des Charentes as an aperitif. This is grape juice mixed with cognac. When champagne is added it becomes a pousse rapier, or sword thrust.

''Drink one or two and you'll know why.'' Marc, similar to Italian grappa, is a style of brandy. Combined with grape juice, it becomes ratafia.

''It tastes nice but is destructive,'' Mr Baker said.

The second method of making fortified wines is by adding brandy or another spirit of the grapes during fermentation. This is the basis of port. Of 58 port houses, half are British and the remainder Portuguese.

''The British ports are sweeter and heavier. I find the Portuguese ones easier to drink,'' Mr Baker said.

Vintage ports - those blended from the best wines of one harvest - are the most expensive. They are aged in wooden barrels for two years then left to mature for at least 10 years in the bottle. The best year for vintage port was 1963, and a bottle of Taylors' retails for about $1,300.

''It is only just drinkable now,'' Mr Baker said, ''and needs another 30 years to reach cruising speed.'' Once open, vintage port stays in a drinkable condition for a maximum of 48 hours. Mr Baker recommends approaching those sold in restaurants by the glass with extreme caution. The madeira - Blandy's 10-year-old from Force 8 Cellars - met a mixed reception.

''It smells like sweaty armpits, and tastes like it, too,'' one student said. Because it is ''cooked'' at 40 degrees Celsius for several months, a madeira will not deteriorate when opened. A good source for fortified wines and spirits is Silverbell Wines and Spirits in Hillwood Road. By the time the malt whisky was poured, students were flagging. They need not have worried.

Mr Baker demonstrated how to recognise a malt without a drop passing the lips: pour a few drops on to the palm, rub the hands together until it dries and sniff.

''It should smell smoky,'' he said.