A fortified wine is a wine-based beverage that is often enjoyed as a before or after dinner drink. These still wines have been “fortified” with a distilled spirit such as brandy. The original use of fortification was to preserve the wine as it was prone to turn to vinegar during long sea voyages.
The spirit added might also enhance the wine’s natural flavors. The liquor is added to the base wine during fermentation. This fortification process increases the alcohol content from 12% – 13% up to around 17% – 20% by volume.
Fortified wines can be made in either a dry or a sweet style. The middle-ground of medium-sweet or medium-dry is covered in virtually all of the fortified wine categories and they will vary from one producer to the next.
How Fortified Wine is Made
Many fortified wines are blends of various grapes and vintages. Fortified wines are not distilled so are not liquor even though they are sometimes mistakenly categorized as such. This is particularly true of vermouth because it is used in making martinis.
Quite often, the fortifying liquor is simply called a “neutral grape spirit.” Essentially, this is a brandy or eau de vie (the water of life). The amount of time a wine is allowed to ferment before being fortified determines whether it will be sweet or dry.
Once the alcohol is added to the wine, the yeast stops converting sugar to alcohol and all of the remaining grape sugar is left in the wine as residual sugar. If a sweeter fortified wine is desired, the neutral grape spirits are typically added within the first day and a half of fermentation. To make a dry fortified wine, you would allow the full fermentation process to run its course. This consumes the remaining sugar before adding the neutral grape spirits.
Most fortified wines have no additional flavoring agents. However vermouth often has botanicals added during the process to give it an herbal flavour.
Many fortified wines undergo aging in wood casks. The actual aging time depends on the fortified wine. In general, the cheaper the fortified wine, the less time it has spent aging in oak. As a result of this deep wood aging, many fortified wines will benefit from decanting and aeration. For additional information on decanting see the November 9, 2019 post “To Breathe or not to Breathe”.
Types of Fortified Wine
The types of fortified wine vary by regional preferences or the methods used in producing them.
Madeira is a white fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name. It comes with various classifications, including by grape and age. The wine can range from dry to sweet, and is most notable for its aging process known as estufagem. Madeira is made from a combination of heating and aging, along with oxidization and mild pasteurization. Madeira can be produced in two ways: either over a period of months with hot water tanks or steam, or naturally over a period of decades.
Marsala is an Italian specialty originating in Marsala, a city on the Italian island of Sicily. It is classified by both color and age, with sweet and dry varieties represented. Sweetness is measured by grams of residual sugar per litre. Alcohol content ranges from 15% to 20% by volume, and styles run from dry aperitivos to sweet dessert-style wines.
Commandaria is from Cyprus and is predominately a sweet dessert wine. It’s made with only two types of grapes, Xynisteri and Mavro, which are indigenous to the island. It’s said to have a history of production stretching back nearly 3,000 years. Maximum alcohol content is 20% by volume, and the wine’s taste is highly rich, sweet, and fruity.
Moscatel de Setúbal
The Portuguese love their fortified wine, and this is another geographically specified rendition coming from the city of Setúbal, located in the Setúbal Peninsula along the country’s coast. It’s primarily made from the Muscat grape, and is dominated by a single company, José Maria da Fonseca. The style is known for more floral, and sometimes funky aromas because of the Muscat grape skins that are added after the distilled spirit has been incorporated into the wine.
Port wine is the best-known fortified wine. It originally comes from Portugal’s Duoro Valley. However, it is now produced throughout the world. You can choose from tawny, ruby, vintage, and white ports. Grapes must be grown and processed in the region, and to become port, the wine is fortified with unaged brandy before fermentation is complete to yield a product with around 20% per volume. Port is most commonly rich and sweet, but a range of styles exist.
Ruby Port and Reserve Port are fruity Ports that are aged for a short time in a vat or tank. They are intended to be drunk at a young age.
Tawny Port is aged in vats, and Aged Tawny can be aged for up to 40 years. The older the Port, the more intense the ageing bouquet is, adding complex layers of flavours to the standard fruity tastes. Aged Tawny is typically available in 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old formats. It will be bottled when it is ready to be drunk, meaning that you can drink it straight away without having to patiently wait for this ageing process to happen.
The finest wine available from a specific vintage will be bottled earlier than most Ports and will require bottle aging to mature the flavours further. This is quite different to the other types of Port, which are matured in vats and ready to drink when bought. There won’t be a Vintage Port every year, as only the very best harvests are turned into Vintage Port.
Late Bottled Vintage Port
Late Bottled Vintage Port is produced from a single vintage wine that is aged for around seven years in a cask, as opposed to being bottled earlier as with the Vintage Port. This process creates a very fruity, yet highly tannic wine.
Sherry is a well-known fortified wine produced in Southwest Spain. It comes in fino (dry and light-bodied) and oloroso (dry but richer) styles.
Sherry originates from Andalucía in the south of Spain. Viticulture has been practised in this region for over 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest wine producing areas in Europe.
The primary grape type used is the Palomino Fino varietal, which is a white grape with good levels of acidity. While Palomino Fino is used for most styles of Sherry, the Pedro Ximenez grape is used for sweeter styles of wine.
The process of producing sherry is very complex and particular and differs from other fortified wine-making practices. White wine is fermented and placed in a ‘Solera System’ which are barrels that are stacked up on their sides in a pyramid-like shape. Yeast develops on the wine, known as flor, which stops the wine turning to vinegar and adding extra spice and flavour to the wine. The wine gets transferred from the top of the Solera system down through each layer over time, blending with older wine each time to create a complex ageing process. Alternatively, sherry can be aged oxidatively, by being left in contact with the air.
A number of types of sherry are produced:
Fino is a dry sherry that is aged solely under the yeast layer, producing a lighter drink, in both style and colour. It is also the least alcoholic form of Sherry, as it will only be fortified to 15% by volume.
Oloroso sherry is produced simply by leaving the wine in contact with the air, so no yeast is added to this style. It, therefore, presents far more intense flavours and colours and tends to be far more alcoholic than Fino sherry – usually a minimum of 18% by volume.
Palo Cortado and Amontillado style sherry is aged firstly under flor, before being aged oxidatively, producing a dry wine fortified to around 17 % by volume.
Cream and Dulce Sherry is produced using a sweeter grape varietal for a more dessert-like sip. These sherries tend to see the most variation in quality and price.
Vermouth is probably better known as the “other” ingredient in a martini, but it’s great to sip on its own as an aperitif. It is generally available as either dry or sweet. Vermouth is produced worldwide and varies in taste and quality depending on the producer.
There are other fortified wines that do not fit conveniently into one of these categories. Those typically rely on proprietary recipes and, quite often, utilize a special blend of herbs or botanicals to make them distinct from all others. Dubonnet and Lillet are two labels that fall into this non-category.
Storing Fortified Wines
Since fortified wines vary by style, it’s difficult to give general guidelines about storing and serving. While it is best to look into the recommendations for a particular type, there are a few suggestions you can keep in mind.
Unopened bottles of fortified wine can be stored in a cool, dark location. Some, such as fino and manzanilla sherry, should not sit on the shelf long after bottling. Others will be okay for a few months.
Once opened, it is best to drink fortified wines as soon as possible. However, vermouth can retain its flavor for up to three months. All open bottles of fortified wine should be stored upright in the refrigerator.
Similar to other wines, serving temperatures vary with fortified wines. While some are best chilled, others should be served at room temperature. This is also going to depend on your personal preference as well.
While any fortified wine is designed to be enjoyed straight from the bottle, they’re useful in mixing up cocktails. They’re often best in simple drinks, such as the sherry cobbler and white port and tonic.
Fortified wines also make a great cooking wine. If you find that your wine is too far gone to drink, add it to a sauce or another recipe that calls for a little wine.
Food pairings depend on which type of fortified wine you are drinking. In general, fortified wines are known as both an aperitif and a dessert wine option. Many kinds of cheese, nuts, fruit tarts, and cream-based or chocolate desserts have found a magnificent pairing partner in a fortified wine.