Sweet Wine and Diamonds

By / Magazine / January 25th, 2010 / 2

What’s the difference between port and sherry?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges, dogs and cats, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Except for a central theme (in this case fortification), they have absolutely nothing in common.

Let’s start with port. No matter what any other country insists on calling their substandard junk, port only comes from Portugal. It’s made by introducing a distilled grape spirit (a.k.a. brandy) to a good old-fashioned red wine (though there are some white versions too) to arrest the fermentation process. The finished product is sweet and comes in a variety of spectacular styles (based on vintage, age and blending), too numerous to mention here.

Sherry, on the other hand, is made with white wine that has had the grape spirit added after fermentation. That means that all sherries are initially dry. Sweeter examples have their flavour profiles manipulated to create a broader spectrum of personalities.

Sadly, when uneducated comparisons are made sherry always gets the shorter end of the stick. Since most of us can’t seem to shake the memory of it being our mother’s tipple of choice on bridge club night, sherry falls short in reputation when compared to the more approachable, big fruited, cheese friendly sipping wine that is port.

If I’ve made port out to be my fortifier of choice, let me say that at a recent international wine show (the kind that professional drinkers like me always go to) I had a chance to try a number of nicely chilled drier sherries, and you know what? I’ve been drinking one as a tasty pre-dinner drop ever since.

What the heck are wine diamonds and how are they caused?

Though I’ve found a lot of strange things in wine bottles (my favourite was a spider during a romantic candlelit dinner with a girl I never heard from again), crystals worthy of a prong setting have never been one of them.  

That said; I’ll be happy to admit that when I was a little wine expert I too fell for the old shiny things in the juice trick. Now you can call them diamonds, you can call them glass shards or you can call them Sea-Monkeys (my favourite): either way what you’ve got are not-so-attractive crumbs made of potassium bitartrate (also know by its more romantic name, potassium hydrogen tartrate).

If either name sounds too nerdy, chefs call them cream of tartar and, because the little buggers are hard and surprisingly sharp, they’ve often been given the gemstone-themed nickname.

Typically mined at the bottom of the bottle, or along the inside end of the cork, they’re harmless chunks created by the union of tartaric acid and potassium that occurs when the fermented juice is exposed to cooler temperatures.

Many modern wines are cold-filtered. This process encourages the formation of the crystals so that they can be removed before bottling. Older wines, and those with little filtration, may start to show them as they age — especially if they are stored in a chilly wine cellar.

Here in Canada, where the weather is unpredictable at best, we tend to find crystals forming in some mainstream white wines during the winter months, as their cases are exposed to extreme temperatures during transportation from warehouse to wine store.

Just remember one thing folks: these funky formations shouldn’t be mistaken for naturally occurring sediment that appears in unfiltered or mature red wines thanks in large part to their heavy colour pigment.

Either way, save yourself a few grey hairs and just decant any unwanted additions to your vino — unless they’re a creepy crawly. In that case make sure you keep your receipt.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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