Fortified wines often take pride of place in the wine cellars of erudite oenophiles, uncorked to mark special occasions and/or for their distinctive tastes. They are often sipped before and after meals or shape a cocktail with their punch. They hail from far and wide, said to have been invented to withstand the test of time posed by extended sea journeys in bygone times. But not every wine enthusiast is familiar with the tastes of fortified wines, and fewer still can recount the differentiating characteristic of even the most well-known varieties. So what is fortified wine? Why does it matter? And where should a novice begin on their journey to the corked heights of fortification?
When regular wines just won’t cut it, fortified wines are sure to quench the palate. Fortified wines vary drastically in characteristics, ranging from sweet to dry and nutty to fruity, but are united by their high alcohol content, which ranges from 15 to 22 percent. Fortified during the fermentation process, these historic wines derive from a combination of distilled spirit – usually a type of brandy or another neutral spirit – and grape juice. Different fermentation processes can create Sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala, Wine Vermouth, and more – each unique in taste and texture, but all unified under the label of ‘fortified’. Maybe you’ve come across some fortified wines when browsing through your wine investing app – but are they worth it? Read on to find out.
What Makes Fortified Wine Different?
The main difference between fortified wines and regular table wines is the alcohol content, which is determined by winemakers during the fermentation process. The addition of a distilled spirit makes fortified wines approximately five to 10 percent more alcoholic than standard wines. When the spirit is added to the grape juice before all sugars have been converted into alcohol, residual sugars remain in the wine, meaning fortified wines generally have higher sugar levels than non-fortified wines. While fortified wines are high in antioxidants and with research suggesting that a moderate intake of wine can lower the risk of heart disease, fortified wines – such as sherry – contain approximately double the calories compared to regular red wine.
The Difference Between Sweet & Dry Fortified Wine
Rest assured, there’s a fortified wine for every palate, with variations ranging from sweet to dry. Winemakers determine the sweetness of their product by adjusting the time at which they add the spirit to the grape juice during the fermentation process. When the spirit is added before fermentation is complete, the fortified wine tastes sweet. Dry fortified wines are produced when the spirit is added following the completion of the fermentation process. This is because fermenting grape juice breaks down the naturally occurring sugars to produce alcohol. Most fortified wines are available in both dry and sweet variations, including Madeira and Marsala – a fortified Sicilian wine. Fans of particularly sweet tipples might opt for a Pefro Ximenez sherry, while those with a drier taste would prefer a dry vermouth, for example.
Types of Fortified Wine
So, you can now answer the question: “what is fortified wine?” But are you ready to start tasting the best fortified wine brands? Before you dip your toes into the world of fortified wine investment, learn more about the different types. There are five common variations to whet the palate, which vary by production methods and/or regional traditions:
- Sherry – Produced in the Jerez region in Southwest Spain, sherry is an oxygenated fortified wine that is produced using the Palomino, Muscat and Pedro Ximenez grape varieties. It is among the world’s oldest wines, originating with the Phoenecians who settled on the Iberian Peninsula as early as the 1st century BC. With sweet aromas, sherries generally have nutty, saline, and dried fruit tastes, pairing well with a variety of foods. As well as fino (light-bodied) and oloroso (dark and rich) styles, there are even cream sherries – the most British of fortified wines! Distinct from drinking sherry, cooking sherry is often used by chefs in the kitchen – imbuing foods with rich flavours – and contains salt and preservatives.
- Madeira – As its name suggests, Madeira is a fortified wine that is produced on Portugal’s outlying Madeira island, available in both dry and sweet varieties. The historic fortified wine was fashioned by winemakers in the mid- to late-1400s as a solution to challenges posed by long sea journeys. A wine producing island, Madeira was an important port of call for traders journeying between Europe and the New World. Madeira wine was invented to last for long lengths of time as necessitated by these extended voyages, enabling its trade throughout the world. Some argue, however, that its creation was inadvertent – stemming from the unique conditions of seafaring. The reputation of Madeira’s fortified wine quickly spread around the world and remains strong to this day.
- Marsala – A fortified Sicilian wine, Marsala is produced using regional white grapes, including the Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, and Damaschino varieties. Classified by colour and age, Marsala is generally amber and gold in colour, though there is also a ruby variety, which is fruity in taste, produced using red grapes, such as Perricone, Pignatello, and Nerello Mascalese. Winemakers age Marsala fortified wine for between one and 10 years – depending on the desired usage and taste. Traditionally used in cooking, for its dry and semi-dry flavours, the fortified white wine is also sipped as an aperitif, though its popularity has waned in recent years.
- Port Wine – Another regionally localised wine of international repute, the fortified port wine hails from Portugal’s Douro River region, produced using regional grapes that date back to Roman times in at least the second century BC. Port wine, as we know it today, only came into being in the late 1600s, evolving from the early variety that was championed by locals from as early as 1150. The varying demands of English and Scottish traders saw the product’s evolution. Winemakers added brandy to the port after ageing to conserve the product during long journeys at sea, yet the fortification process is today initiated during the wine’s fermentation. With eight distinct varieties of port wine – including ruby, tawny, white, rosé, vintage, crusted, late bottled vintage, and garrafeira – there is much to learn, and taste, when it comes to this famous fortified wine.
- Vermouth – First made in Turin, Italy, in the mid-1700s, vermouth is produced using Clairette blanche, Piquepoul, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Catarratto and Trebbiano grapes, and is flavoured with an array of botanicals at the start of the fermentation process, from roots and barks to flowers, seeds, and spices. While vermouth is best known as a key ingredient of a martini cocktail, the aromatised fortified wine has great merit as a standalone drink, and is all but essential in other cocktails too, including the Manhattan and the negroni. Traditionally, both dry and sweet vermouths have populated the bars of mixologists around the world, and colour variations comprise white, red, amber, and rosé. Nowadays, the majority of vermouth is produced in Italy (Martini and Rossi) and France (Noilly Prat), although countries like the UK, the USA, and Spain also stake their claims in the vermouth industry.
How to Serve Fortified Wine?
Because of their high sugar content and complex flavours, fortified wines are generally served in small glasses, or copitas, of approximately 180-220ml (give or take, depending on the wine). The ideal temperature at which to serve and consume fortified wines is between 50 and 65 degrees, with dry wines tasting best at the lower end of this threshold and sweet wines towards the upper limit. Personal preference plays an important role here, too. Due to their relatively high alcohol contents, fortified wines can last for longer once opened when stored in cooler temperatures.
With different types of fortified wines best enjoyed as a pre-meal aperitif or as a post-meal dessert wine, there is a diverse range of options for food pairings, which varies according to the bottle: vintage port and a strong blue cheese; sherry with oysters or an aged cheese; Madeira with a sweet dessert; sherry with nuts. While it helps to bear in mind the sweetness of the wine in hand, we advise that you experiment with your tastes and be bold in your pairings!
Top 5 Fortified Wines to Try
- Noilly Prat Original Dry Vermouth
Macerated with herbs and spices, the dry Noilly Prat vermouth has been refined by traditional craftspeople for over 200 years. Hand-stirred and aged outdoors, the original dry and extra dry variations are the best place for beginners to start. For a heaven-sent pairing, sip the original dry Noilly Prat vermouth with ice and a lemon skin, while indulging on fresh oysters. If you want the full experience, pour the vermouth over the oysters and sip from the shells.
- Toro Albalá Don Pedro Ximénez Convento Selección 1946 Sherry
Produced using grapes that were picked and dehydrated at the end of the Second World War, Toro Albalá Don Pedro Ximénez Convento Selección 1946 sherry is a bottle reserved only for those with serious taste. Bold, sweet, and with notes of dried fruit, the fortified wine is powerful on the nose and palate, and is best accompanied by sweet desserts or strong-scented blue cheeses.
- Quinta da Vacaria Tawny Port
Aged for 40 years in oak casks, Quinta da Vacaria tawny port wines are a must-try for those interested in expanding their knowledge of fortified ports. These rare wines were produced in limited quantities in Quinta da Vacaria’s warehouses over four decades ago and today dazzle drinkers with intense aromas and a silky texture on the palate. Sip them as an aperitif with beef appetisers or mature, hard cheeses.
- Henriques & Henriques Verdelho Madeira
The Henriques & Henriques Verdelho Madeira wine has been aged for 15 years and boasts complex aromas of dried fruit, nuts, and figs. Described as ‘medium dry’, Madeira wine has an alcohol content of 20% and an amber-like colouration. Since 1850, Henriques & Henriques has produced the wine using the Verdelho grape, which is one of the island’s most iconic varieties.
Made from native grape varieties on a small plot of the Noval vineyard in the heart of Portugal’s Douro Valley, Quinta do Noval Nacional is a rare example of a high-quality vintage port. Only 200 to 250 cases of the vintage port are produced each year, making the Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port one of the most sought after bottles in the world.
There you have it – you’re surely a seasoned connoisseur. The best way to refine your knowledge of fortified wines is to try them for yourself. But before trying a bottle of fortified wine, check out these wine tasting terms & tips for wine tasting!