What is Fortified Wine and How Is It Made?

“Silver and ermine and red faces full of port wine” – John Betjeman

Fortified wine, that is, wine with a spirit (usually brandy) added to up the alcohol content, is a style that fell out of fashion decades ago. While once enjoyed in the salons of well-off aristocrats throughout Western Europe, these days ports, sherries, and their fellow fortified wines are a much more niche pleasure, a hidden gem for those seeking something more powerful and rich and decadent than they might get otherwise. For a wine aficionado with cellar room to spare, fortified wine’s high alcohol content provides its ability to be aged exceptionally long, with good ports having the potential to be cellared for a century or more. If you want to try something new, follow along and discover the world of four of the most common styles of fortified wine: port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.

Port

Port is the most wide-ranging and approachable of these four wine, and for more detail on the intricacies of its production, check out our Portugal wine travel guide. For now though, know that port comes from and is named after the city of Porto in Portugal, where port wine is still stored and shipped out to other countries. The actual growing and fermenting of the grapes is done along the Douro River in the Northeast of the country, which for centuries was then brought downstream to Porto for sale and distribution in rickety boats. What makes port so complex is that it has many different sub-categories of style within the general umbrella of “port.”

The post famous style of port is known as Vintage Port, and it’s the one that a wine drinker can put down for a few decades to invariably improve; because of the spirits added to the wine, a good vintage port usually won’t go bad within one person’s lifetime, and will continue to improve for 30 years or more. Vintage ports are massive, brooding, and sumptuous with the blackest of black fruit flavors, and ageing them will add endless complexity with notes of brown sugar, nutmeg, butterscotch, and other delights. Vintage port benefits greatly from decanting before drinking, to let the true force of the flavors open up and to eliminate sediment.

Ruby ports and Late Bottled Vintage (or “LBV”) ports on the surface look, smell, and taste like vintage ports, but they are simpler, not made for ageing or decanting. If you are curious about port and don’t want to immediately spend a fortune on a bottle of vintage, an LBV port is a good way to try the style. With an LBV you’ll get notes of dark raisins, black plum, and other rich fruits, without the nuance and complexity of a vintage port, but usually also at a quarter of the price or less.

If you pick up a bottle of Tawny Port, you may notice an age statement (such as “10 years”) and think you’re getting a great deal — but tawny port is really a bit of stage magic on the part of port makers. Tawny ports are aged in small wood barrels to make for a more complex, wood-forward character, and then blended with other tawny ports to approximate the typical flavor of a tawny at that age. As such, tawny ports are nutty and loaded with baking spices, chocolate, and some oxidized notes. Like LBVs, they’re designed to be a good value compared to vintage ports, and are a good way to try out a bottle to see if you like what this style of port has to offer.

Sherry

Other than port, the only other fortified wine with much of a presence these days is Sherry, though finding good sherries can be a more arduous task than finding good ports. Sherry comes from the region of Jerez on the Southern coast of Spain near Gibraltar, right where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge. One of the defining characteristics of sherry is the production of a thick film of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine in the barrel, called flor, which speeds up the process of converting sugar into ethanol, as well as protects it from excess oxidation. While there are many, many styles of sherry, three tend to dominate; the amount of flor that is allowed to interact in the wine determines which style of sherry you’re getting.

The driest of sherries is Fino, which is made when flor converts almost all of the sugar found in the wine to alcohol. Fino is very dry and nutty, with a flinty, mineral quality that can be off-putting to those who aren’t used to it. Like an Italian Pinot Grigio, however (another dry wine loaded with a mineral taste), fino sherry goes great with food, especially salty food. Try a glass of fino with nuts or dried seafood, and its dryness will blend perfectly with the salt on your tongue.

Next up is Amontillado, which begins its life as fino, but the layer of flor doesn’t last in the barrel and the wine partly oxidizes. As such, amontillado has residual sugars which give it a sweeter taste, and the contact with air gives it a rich brown color not unlike tawny port. Compared to fino, amontillado is similarly nutty, but the flinty quality is replaced with a bit of meaty richness, like smoked meat or sauteed mushrooms. A good pairing for amontillado would be pork or duck, something with a little gaminess that would blend well with the wine’s smoky qualities. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories will also recognize amontillado as the object of revenge in his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The last style of sherry we’ll discuss today is Oloroso, the biggest, boldest, and often sweetest of the sherries. While amontillado is made when the sherry’s flor breaks down on its own, with oloroso the cellarmaster destroys the layer of yeast intentionally, which allows the wine to oxidize heavily. Oloroso is often made with the grapes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which make the wine much sweeter than fino or amontillado, a closer taste to port for those not used to sherry. Oloroso will also be a style of interest for Scotch drinkers, since many Speyside Scotches, like Macallan, are often aged or finished in oloroso sherry barrels.

Marsala and Madeira

Port and sherry are by far the most common kinds of fortified wine, but it’s worth mentioning two other kinds: Marsala and Madeira. Both are widely known to consumers these days for use in cooking, but both are fortified wines that can be consumed alone just like any other. Marsala comes to us from Sicily in Italy, and is typically consumed as an aperitif. Its aromas and tastes include vanilla and apricot. Like sherry, it can range in taste from dry to sweet, though it doesn’t have special designations for each style like sherry does.

Madeira gets its name from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Taste-wise, it has the nutty and spiced components of a tawny port, like caramel and hazelnut, as well as a bit of the citrus of a sherry, like peach and orange peel. There are several styles of Madeira, but the main ones are Finest, which is a drier wine aged 3 years, and Rainwater, which is sweet and fruity and is great in cocktails or on its own. Numerous styles of aged Madeiras, made with different grapes to impact the amount of sweetness in them, are also available. (Click the above link for some examples.)

As you can see, there’s a lot to say about fortified wine, and this article only scratches the surface. Let us know what you think in the comments, and maybe an article exclusively on port or sherry is in our future!

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