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Ultimate Guide to Fortified Wine 

Ultimate Guide to Fortified Wine 

When most people hear the word fortified, they think twice. However, fortified is a good thing when it comes to wine. Let’s talk about fortified wines. 

What is Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine is the process of adding distilled spirits to wine to increase its alcohol content. There are a few types of fortified wines.

Each wine is classified due to the category’s specific requirements.

For example, there are rules on which grapes are used as the base and which types of spirits winemakers can add to the wine.

There are also restrictions on the amount of sugar, the alcohol by volume amount, and how long the wine can be aged. 

History of Fortified Wine

Winemakers placed wine into wooden barrels or casks. In the old days, wine casks were not airtight, so the wine oxidized and turned into vinegar on long sailing expeditions. 

Fortified wines were the solution to the problem. To prevent the wine from being wasted, winemakers poured distilled spirits into the wine to extend its shelf life

As you can imagine, the practice of fortifying wine caused some resistance. However, the opposition died down as fortified wines are still famous today. 

How is Fortified Wine Made?

In short, fortifying wine involves fermenting wine and then adding distilled spirits. Winemakers can control how sweet or dry the final wine is by adding distilled spirits at different phases of the winemaking process. 

Winemakers add the distilled spirits before fermentation ends to make sweet fortified wines. In contrast, winemakers add spirits after fermentation is done to make dry fortified wines. 

What Does Fortified Wine Taste Like?

Red or white wines can be fortified wines. The distilled spirits added to the wine are clear and crystalline, so the fortifying process will not change the wine’s colors

Fortified wines range from dark reddish purple to pale yellow. The aroma depends on the base grapes used in the wine as well as the method used to produce the wine.

Generally speaking, fortified wine’s aroma has notes of blackberries, almonds, dried fruit, black currant, and strawberries. 

The flavor of fortified wines is not recognizable as the aroma dominates the senses. Nevertheless, the sweetness levels are definitely discernable. 

Some people describe the taste of fortified wine as sickly because the sweetness levels are the only discernable taste. However, fortified wine is more of an acquired taste. 

What’s the Difference Between Sweet and Dry Fortified?

The process of making dry or sweet fortified wines are made using the same process. However, the difference between the two is when the distilled spirits are added. 

Let’s discuss the fermentation process to comprehend better how fortified wines are made. Fermentation happens when yeast cells consume sugars in grapes producing alcohol. 

Therefore, when a winemaker adds a distilled spirit during fermentation, it neutralizes the yeast. A lot of residual sugars remain, creating a sweeter fortified wine. 

In contrast, winemakers wait for fermentation to end before adding the spirit; the yeast is able to consume more sugar creating a dry fortified wine

What’s the Difference Between Wine and Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine is not the same as regular wine. The biggest difference is that fortified wine has a higher alcohol content because of the distilled spirits. 

Fortified wines have 17%-20% alcohol. In contrast, regular wine has 10%-15% alcohol. 

What are the Most Well-Known Styles of Fortified Wine?

Although there are many styles of fortified wines, there are some wines than the rest. For example, sherry and port wines are some of the most famous fortified wines. 

Sherry

Sherry is produced in the dry, hot climate of southern Spain. Palomino grapes are the grape of choice in these regions.

However, winemakers also use Moscatel grapes or Pedro Ximénez are also used to make sherry. 

The beginning of making sherry usually involves fermenting grape must in stainless-steel tanks. The sherry is aged for an extended time in neutral barrels. 

Since Palmono grapes have a neutral flavor, so the aging process plays a critical role in the wine’s final flavor. To age sherry, it is aged in criaderas or rows of barrels. 

Sherry is aged using the solera system. This progress involves adding fresh wine to barrels of wine that have been aged for a few years. 

When it’s time for bottling, winemakers take some of the sherry from the bottom (oldest part) of the solera system. 

Next, winemakers refill the barrel with the solera with wine from the second oldest section. After this, wine from the second barrel will be added to the second barrel.

Essentially the winemaker will keep adding wine from the adjacent bottle to top off the barrel wine was removed from. 

There are several styles of sherry. Some wines may be a few decades old since the wine is being blended over and over again.

 Sherry is classified into one of 2 groups flor or oloroso. Flor sherry is a wine that is aged beneath a blanket of yeast. In contrast, oloroso is a sherry that is aged with oxygen. 

Flor sherry is fortified with a grape spirit until the wine has an alcohol by volume of 15%-15.5%.

In contrast, a spirit is added to oloroso sherry until it has an alcohol by volume of 17%. Both styles of sherry have notes of citrus and nuts. 

Commandaria

Commandria is a Cyprus wine that has a stunning amber color. It is commonly made in the Trodos foothills region, comprised of 14 towns that produce wine. 

Commandaria has a sweet flavor and high alcohol content of 15%-20%. Commandaria is made from white Xynisteri grapes and red Mavro grapes.

 These grapes have high sugars, giving the wine its sweet flavor. The grapes are also dried, which concentrates the sweet flavor. 

Port

Port wine is a sweet fortified wine produced from grapes sourced from the steep mountain of the Duro Valley in Portugal.

This climate is dry and warm, which is perfect for growing red wine grapes. However, white grapes are also grown in this region. 

Port wine is produced from a variety of grapes sourced from different vineyards. Some of the most grapes for making port wine include Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, and Touriga Franca. 

The blend of grapes is crushed and then macerated for a long time to concentrate the flavors and add body to the wine. The port wine is then fermented in stainless steel or open granite containers. 

Winemakers add grape spirit before fermentation ends which gives the port a sweet flavor

Port’s alcohol by volume ranges between 19% and 22%. Port can be made into white or rose styles. 

However, there are two overarching categories of port: tawny and ruby. Tawny port wine is aged with oxygen.

In contrast, a ruby port is aged in wooden, cement, or stainless-steel containers for 2-3 years before bottling.

Vermouth

Vermouth is probably as old as wine. There are many historical records that trace it back to ancient Greece, where it was used as a medicine. 

Vermouth falls under the category of aromatized wines. These wines are fortified with distilled spirits and herbs, including wormwood, cloves, and cinnamon

Red vermouth has a sweeter flavor, while white vermouth is drier. Italian vermouth is typically red vermouth, while French vermouth refers to dry white vermouth. 

Vermouth can be used in different ways. For example, sweet vermouth is a common ingredient in a negroni. In contrast, dry vermouth is used for martinis. 

Mistelle

Mistelle wine is a wine made from unfermented grape juice and added alcohol. You may hear this luxury wine referred to as Mistelle or Mistella. 

Mistelle wine is Italian, while Mistella refers to Spanish wine. The French also call Mistelle is also called Vin de Liqueur. 

Mistelle wine is in a category all by itself since fortification occurs during or post-fermentation. Mistelle wine has a light amber color.

It has a fragrance of white peach, orange blossom, and subtle notes of vanilla

Mistelle can be quite refreshing when it is served over ice or used to make a cocktail.

Madeira

Madeira is produced on the Portuguese island Madeira. Styles of Madeira can differ depending on the grapes used to produce the wine. 

Approximately 85% of Madeira consists of a red grape called Tinta Negra.

However, the most flavorful Madeira wines are produced from one of the island’s top four white grape varieties.

These grape varietals include Verdelho, Malvasia, Boal, and Sercial. 

Madeira wines that are labeled by the variety of wine can tell consumers the sweetness levels.

Case in point Sercial is typically fortified near the end of the fermentation resulting in an acidic drier wine.

In contrast, Malvasia is fortified earlier in the fermentation phase to create a sweeter wine. 

The distilled spirit added to Madeira wine has an alcohol by volume of 96%. Although this seems like a lot of alcohol, the final alcohol by volume will be about 17%-18%

Madeira wine came about because winemakers realized exposure to heat on long voyages made the wine taste better. Today’s winemakers heat and oxidize the wine to the hot conditions of a cargo bay. 

The wine may be heated at high temperatures using the estufagem process or aged in barrels using the canteiro method.

Although aging is a slower, more expensive, and tedious method, it produces Madeira wines with a complex flavor. 

Marsala

Marsala is one of history’s great wines. Marsala wine was fortified in 1773

However, once it was commercialized, the demand for Marsala wine decreased due to the lack of quality.

Nevertheless, the Marsala wine is making a comeback since winemakers in Sicily have reverted back to the tried and true traditional method for making Marsala. 

Marsala wine is usually made from varietals such as Grillo, Catarratto, and Inzolia. However, Rubino-style Marsala is made from red, golden, or amber grapes. 

Marsala wine can be fortified at any stage of fermentation. The final alcohol by volume ranges between 17% and 18%. Marsala wine ranges from dry with 40 grams of sugar per liter of wine to dolce with over 100 grams of sugar per liter of wine

High-quality Marsala is aged in a solera system known as in Perpetuum. The wooden barrels used to house the wine are oak or cherry. 

Marsala wine is considered nonvintage. However, Marsala wine may be categorized due to how long it is aged. 

Marsala wines aged for 1 year are called fine. However, vergine refers to a dry Marsala wine aged for a minimum of 5 years.

Some aged Marsala wines have notes of nuts, caramel, and spice. 

Moscatel de Setúbal

Moscatel de Setúbal is a Portuguese wine that wine lovers use to trick their friends into thinking they are fortified wine experts.

Moscatel de Setúbal is like port wine. However, it mainly consists of fortified Muscat grapes. 

Portugal’s oldest winery Jose Maria da Fonseca is thought to be the originator of Moscatel de Setúbal. Moscatel de Setúbal is a super sweet wine with flavors of caramel, dried apricot, and honey. 

Rutherglen Muscat

Rutherglen Muscat is an Australian wine. Like Moscatel de Setúbal, Rutherglen Muscat is produced from several Muscat varietals, giving the wine an extremely sweet flavor.

Although it’s rare, Rutherglen Muscat can be aged for decades to intensify the flavors of dried fruit, toffee, and caramel. 

Pineau Des Charentes

Pineau des Charentes refers to wine made from a blend of freshly crushed grape juice. However, a splash of Cognac is added to liven things up a bit

Pineau des Charentes can be red, white, or rose. Nevertheless, the style will ultimately depend on how long the wine is aged. 

Young Pineau des Charentes is light-bodied and bursting with fruity flavor. In contrast, mature Pineau des Charentes wines have complex flavors of dried fruit, honey, and nuts. 

Pineau des Charentes can be used to make a cocktail or paired with certain foods. 

How Do You Store Unopened Fortified Wine?

Each style of fortified wine is difficult. Therefore, it can be difficult to give specific guidelines for storing fortified wines. Nevertheless, here are a few general guidelines to follow when storing fortified wines. 

Unopened fortified wines should be stored upright in a cool, dark environment. However, vintage port wines should be laid on their side. However, beware that the vintage port wine may leak, and mold may develop under the cap. 

The shelf life for each style of wine can differ. For example, some fortified wines can last for decades, while others can only last for a few short months. 

Once the fortified wine is open, it’s best to drink it as quickly as possible. The exception to this rule is vermouth. Vermouth can remain good for 3 months once it is opened. 

Opened fortified wines should be stored upright in the fridge. 

Does Fortified Wine Need To Be Refrigerated?

The serving temperature for fortified wine can differ. Some fortified wines should be chilled, while others are better served at room temperature.

Additionally, the serving temperature of fortified wine also depends on your personal preference. 

Wines such as port or Madeira are better at room temperature. However, wines used as an aperitif should be chilled. 

Can You Drink Fortified Wine Straight?

Yes, you can drink fortified wine straight from the wine bottle. However, you can also get creative and use it in cocktails such as port lemonade, St. Charles Punch, and The Mezcal-Port Negron.

A cocktail may be the best way to introduce fortified to newbies as it softens up the flavor. 

You can also cook with fortified wines. You use Marsala wine in a bread pudding, sherry in a chicken pot pie, or Madeira wine in gravy for roasted lamb or chicken. 

What Foods Go Well With Fortified Wines? 

The food pairings for fortified wine are endless. However, the food pairings truly depend on the kind of fortified wine you are serving. 

Generally, fortified wines are considered an aperitif, an alcoholic drink consumed before a meal, or a dessert wine.

Generally speaking, most cheeses, nuts, cured meats, fruit tarts, cream, or chocolate desserts pair well with fortified wines. However, you may have to experiment to find the perfect pairings for specific fortified wines. 

Alternatively, you can research food pairings for the specific type of fortified wine. For example, white port wines complement potato chips, sushi, nuts, salmon, oysters, and even olives.

Blue cheese, pork belly, goat cheese, brisket, and pulled pork pair perfectly with port wines. 

In contrast, dates, croquettes, olives, and salty snacks like chips pair perfectly with sherry. Cured meats such as Spanish ham, white asparagus, cold cuts, and cold soups such as gazpacho also pair well with sherry. 

Final Thoughts 

If you are looking for a wine that’s different from your usual, look no further than fortified wine. Fortified has a fruity, sweet flavor and smooth body.

Fortified wine is an acquired taste, but its flavor is quite unique and rich.

So the next time you visit a liquor store, winery, restaurant, or grocery store, don’t overlook the fortified wines.

Use the information you learned in this guide to select the best fortified wine.