A fortified wine is a delicious, viscous wine-based sipping treat that is often enjoyed as a drink before or after dinner. They are are fortified by the addition of extra alcohol in the form of brandy or spirits to bring them up to an alcohol content of 18%–20%. The original use of fortification was to preserve the wine, as casks of wine were prone to turn to vinegar during long sea voyages. Technically, by adding alcohol to the wine it stops the action of the yeast and prevents further fermentation, thus preserving some of the sugar from the grapes. The spirit added might also enhance the wine’s natural flavors. The liquor is added to the base wine during fermentation. Sherry, Port and Madeira from Spain and Portugal, vins doux naturels from France and Marsala from Sicily are all fortified wines you might have heard of. If the extra alcohol is added after fermentation, a dry fortified wine such as Sherry is the outcome. Fortified wines are not distilled, though some people mistakenly categorize them as a liquor. This is particularly true of vermouth, it is likely the result of its use in making martinis. They are rich in sugar, flavour, and alcohol.
These are the most well known fortified wines you should know about:
Madeira wine (Madeiran)
Madeira wine is a fortified wine made in the Madeira Islands. The wine is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry wines which can be consumed on their own as an aperitif, to sweet wines more usually consumed with dessert. Madeira is deliberately heated and oxidised as part of its maturation process, resulting in distinctive flavours and an unusually long lifespan once a bottle is opened.
Marsala wine (Italian)
Marsala wine is a wine from Sicily that is available in both fortified and unfortified versions. It was first produced in 1772 by an English merchant, John Woodhouse, as an inexpensive substitute for sherry and port, and gets its name from the island’s port, Marsala.The fortified version is blended with brandy to make two styles, the younger, slightly weaker Fine (feeneh), which is at least 17% abv (alcohol by volume) and aged at least four months; and the Superiore (supereoreh), which is at least 18%, and aged at least two years. The unfortified Marsala wine is aged in wooden casks for five years or more and reaches a strength of 18% by evaporation.
You know about absinthe, right? How it’s supposed to make you hallucinate because of that magical ingredient, wormwood? (It doesn’t). Turns out “vermouth” is actually named for wormwood, one of its historic ingredients (the German for wormwood being “wermut,”). Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices (“aromatised” in the trade) using closely guarded recipes (trade secrets). Some of the herbs and spices used may include cardamom, cinnamon, marjoram and chamomile. Some vermouth is sweetened; however, unsweetened or dry, vermouth tends to be bitter. The person credited with the second vermouth recipe, Antonio Benedetto Carpano from Turin, Italy, chose to name his concoction “vermouth” in 1786 because he was inspired by a German wine flavoured with wormwood, an herb most famously used in distilling absinthe. However, wine flavoured with wormwood goes back to ancient Rome. The modern German word Wermut (Wermuth in the spelling of Carpano’s time) means both wormwood and vermouth. The herbs were originally used to mask raw flavours of cheaper wines, imparting a slightly medicinal “tonic” flavor.
Historically, the way vermouth was flavored categorized it as either red (associated with Italy) or white/dry (associated with France). Carpano Classico is the classic red vermouth (Antonio Carpano is thought to have come up with the term “vermouth”), with dark, rich flavors like cocoa, wine, spice, toffee, herbs, etc., all intermingling with a slightly bitter edge. Carpano Antica is the classic recipe “alla vaniglia,” or with vanilla added.) Dolin Blanc, on the other hand, is a classic French white vermouth made with herbs and botanicals from the Chambery region of France. And Noilly Prat’s Extra Dry vermouth combines 20 herbs and spices for a complex, floral, fruity (and fully clear) vermouth with a bracingly dry finish. And then there are vermouths like Carpano’s Punt e Mes, which actually has a bittersweet flavor profile likening it to bitter amaros.
Mistelle (Italian: mistella, French: mistelle, Spanish: mistela, from Latin mixtum “mix”) is sometimes used as an ingredient in fortified wines, particularly Vermouth, Marsala and Sherry, though it is used mainly as a base for apéritifs such as the French Pineau des Charentes. It is produced by adding alcohol to non-fermented or partially fermented grape juice (or apple juice to make pommeau). The addition of alcohol stops the fermentation and, as a consequence Mistelle is sweeter than fully fermented grape juice in which the sugars turn to alcohol.
Vins doux naturels (French)
Vins doux naturels are lightly fortified wines typically made from white Muscat grapes or red Grenache grapes in the south of France. These are the oldest fortified wines of all, and although they’ve fallen out of the spotlight, you should do yourself a favor and hunt some down (we by the way have some in stock). Vin doux naturel is a style that gives winemakers a lot of room to experiment. Sure, the variety of grape is central to any good wine, and we know how terroir lends perspective, while aging brings deeper layers of nuance. With VDNs, though, controlled exposure to air and sunlight affects the outcome even further. The resulting flavors cover a wide range, from honeyed stone fruit to herb-dried apricot and rich blueberry jam.
At the same time, there’s a deep-rooted history and tradition to these wines. To this day, they’re only produced in a small stretch of protected areas in France, and under particular regulations — as is the case with Cognac and Armagnac. There’s also a key process in their production that sets them apart — a little thing called mutage. Mutage is the thing that makes these fortified wines fortified, and it’s been utilized for over 700 years. We can thank a scholar and doctor by the name of Arnau de Vilanova, who discovered the technique way back in 1285. Once again, we find that scientists, academics and medical professionals are star players in the creation of delicious beverages.
As the name suggests, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Muscat de Frontignan are all made from the white Muscat grape, whilst Banyuls and Maury are made from red Grenache. Regardless of the grape, fermentation is stopped by the addition of up to 10% of a 190 proof (95%) grape spirit. The Grenache vins doux naturels can be made in an oxidised or unoxidised style whereas the Muscat wines are protected from oxidation to retain their freshness.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez, Spain. The word “sherry” itself is an anglicisation of Jerez. In earlier times, sherry was known as sack (from the Spanish saca, meaning “a removal from the solera”). In the European Union “sherry” is a protected designation of origin; therefore, all wine labelled as “sherry” must legally come from the Sherry Triangle, which is an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. There are three grape varieties authorized for the production of Sherry: Palomino, Muscat of Alexandria (also known as Moscatel) and Pedro Ximénez. The latter two grapes are mainly used for sweetening purposes, and Palomino is by far the dominant grape in the region.
After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine (for example) is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.
Sherry is produced in a variety of styles:
Fino – the freshest and most delicate of sherry styles, weighing in at around 15% alcohol,
Manzanilla – fino-style sherry from the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Because the more humid environment these wines are typically lighter and even fresher than fino, often with a distinctive salty tang,
Amontillado – is an amber-coloured sherry that is nutty and complex because it has been aged oxidatively it will last for longer once opened,
Palo Cortado – sort of half way house between a fino and an amontillado, Palo Cortado is the result of a fino sherry losing its flor, a popular style nowadays,
Oloroso – brown-coloured sherries, which develop in barrel often for many years. The result is a complex, rich, nutty style of sherry with aromas of old furniture and raisins which are dry,
Pedro Ximenez – made from air-dried grapes, with fermentation stopped early by the addition of spirit, Pedro Ximénez is a remarkably viscous and amazingly sweet, it tastes like liquid Christmas cake,
Cream – more commercial products that have been sweetened by the addition of Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez. Cream sherry is always sweet.
Port wine (Portugese)
Port wine (also known simply as Port) is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is typically a sweet red wine, but also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties. There are several different kinds of port, but the 2 primary styles of Port include a red Port with more berry and chocolate flavors (and slightly less sweetness), and a tawny-colored Port with more caramel and nut flavors (and more sweetness).
Fine aged Vintage Port or 30+ year Tawny Port have an even wider array of subtle flavors including graphite, green peppercorn, hazelnut, almond, butterscotch and graham cracker.
One of the most important qualities of true Port is the unique blend of Portuguese indigenous grapes. Port grapes include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão, and there are said to be at least 52 varieties!
Ruby Ports, so named for their distinct ruby color, are young, approachable wines with fresh, fruit-filled aromas and an equally nimble palate presence. These wines are wallet-friendly, entry-level Ports made from a mix of both grapes and vintages. They’re aged for a total of three years and are quite popular. Ruby Ports are intended to be consumed young and enjoy a remarkable food-pairing versatility.
A Tawny Port is a blend of older-vintage wines and displays a rich amber color. Tawnies typically fall on the slightly sweeter side of the spectrum. As a tawny port spends more time in oak, its color starts to fade from ruby red to more ruby-orange or a “brick-red,” often reaching a deep amber or mahogany color by the time it’s matured. As the aging process continues, a Tawny will taste nuttier and will develop the rich flavors of caramelized figs, dates, and prunes, compared with the fresh-fruit character of Ruby Port. On the label, the age is most commonly designated as 10, 20, or 30 years. These year designations represent the average age of the various vintages used in the Tawny Port blend, not the exact years the wine has been aged as a whole. Tawny Ports come in three different styles:
A Colheita Port – is made from grapes that were all harvested in the same year.
A Crusted Port – is an unfiltered tawny that develops visible sediment, “crust,” and needs decanting before serving.
Indicated Age Tawny Ports – are designated as being 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old; the number indicates the minimum average age of the wines used in the bottle.
A Vintage Port is a Port that is made of blended grapes, usually from various vineyards, which are all from the same vintage year. Historically, Vintage Ports are only declared every three out of 10 years on average. The best grapes, from the best vineyards in the best years, come together to create a quality Vintage Port. These Ports typically spend about 6 months in oak and then go unfiltered into a bottle for further aging. This extended aging is typically to the tune of another 20 years or more! As a direct result of long-term aging, a pretty heavy layer of sediment forms, and Vintage Ports require decanting and a good bit of aeration before they’re consumed. If Ruby Ports are the entry-level Port, then Vintage Ports represent the upper echelon both in style and cost. A classification that is common to mistake with the “Vintage Port” designation is the Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port. This particular style of Port is made with grapes from a single vintage, but it has aged in oak only four to six years before it is bottled and released.
As the name implies, White Port is derived from white grape varietals and can be made in both very dry to semisweet styles. White Port is typically fruitier on the palate and a bit fuller-bodied than other fortified white wines. Often served as an aperitif, this particular Port has found favor as a gin replacement when served as a “Port and Tonic” on the rocks.
Moscatel de Setúbal (Portugese)
Moscatel de Setúbal is a Portuguese wine produced around the Setúbal Municipality on the Península de Setúbal. The wine is made primarily from the Muscat of Alexandria grape and typically fortified with aguardente. The style was believed to have been invented by José Maria da Fonseca, the founder of the oldest table wine company in Portugal dating back to 1834.