By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
What exactly is fortified wine?
Short answer; A fortified wine is a wine to which a distilled spirit is added.
Long answer; Wine is fermented, whereas alcohol is distilled. Before refrigeration, wine was transported by ship in casks that were not air-tight. As a result, the wine would oxidize and turn into acetic acid (vinegar). To prevent this, winemakers added alcohol to the wine, which resulted in a higher alcohol content and less spoilage. The fortifying liquor is called a “neutral grape spirit” …essentially a brandy. Although it has quite a few synonyms around the world, the grape used is native to Spain and called Airen. Surprisingly, this work-horse grape is the most planted grape varietal on the planet! The amount of time a wine is allowed to ferment before being fortified determines whether it will be sweet or dry. Once it is added, the yeast stops converting sugar to alcohol and the remaining grape sugar is left in the wine. Winemakers can control how sweet or dry their fortified wine is by adding the spirit at different times during the process. The most common types of fortified wines are Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, and Vermouth. However fortified wine means any wine between 16% and 24% alcohol by volume.
Port is the world’s best-known fortified wine. It’s a blend of grapes. Although “real” Port has to come from Portugal, fortified wines produced throughout the world call themselves Port. Various port styles exist depending on oak-aging, filtering, time in the barrel, or time in the bottle. The four main styles are:
Ruby Port, so named for their distinct ruby color, is a blend of a number of grapes from one or more vintages and matured for 2-3 years in oak barrels.
Tawny Port, which is matured for a longer time in barrels, typically 5-7 years but can be aged for 40+ years. They take on more of a nutty character owing to its controlled micro-oxidation through the barrel.
Late-bottled Vintage (LBV) is an early-drinking port vinified using grapes from a single vintage but not worthy of vintage port, and bottled 4-6 years following harvest.
Vintage Port is produced from a blend of the best grapes in a single vintage year worthy of the highest quality rating. It is bottled without any filtering following a two-year maturation period in oak casks, and can then be aged in the bottle for 10, 20, 30 or more years.
Sherry is produced differently than Port. It is made like other white wine, then put into barrels that are not completely filled. A mold called Flor will then appear on the top before grape brandy is added. The wine is then aged in Soleras – rows of barrels with the oldest on the bottom and youngest on the top. Small amounts of the contents are then blended from different barrels so that finished product is a mixture of ages. Sherry is made in wide range of styles from dry to sweet and should be much more popular than they are.
Madeira is a white fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name with a great tradition and history. It was the drink of choice of our founding fathers who raised a glass of Madeira to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence! Unfortunately relegated to the kitchen these days, they are powerful wines with a unique bouquet and complexity and made in a wide range of sweetness (Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet). The best are from a single harvest and aged for up to twenty years in cask!
Marsala is produced in the region surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily and uses a process called In perpetuum, which is similar to fractional blending in the solera system. The main white grapes used are Grillo and Insolia. Marsala is unique among fortified wines in that it indicates the sugar content on the bottle. Although there are five styles of aged Marsala available the main two you’ll see is a young Fine (aged for a minimum of 4 months) and an older Superiore (aged a minimum of 2 years).
Vermouth is an “aromatized” wine, meaning various botanicals (roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, etc.) are added. It was produced in the mid 18th century in Turin, Italy and originally used for medicinal purposes. The name comes from Wermut, the German word for wormwood, an ingredient historically used in the drink. The main two main types are red (sweet) and white (dry). While an inexpensive vermouth is fine for Manhattans, Negronis and a host of classic cocktails, higher end “craft” vermouths are available and worth the few extra dollars.
Aristotle is credited for giving the name ‘spirit’ to the product of distillation. He thought drinking a distilled beer or wine put ‘spirits’ into the body of the drinker.