What is a fortified wine? Don’t feel bad if you don’t know…many wine drinkers are confused by the term. The simple answer is a fortified wine is a wine that has had a distilled spirit, such as brandy, added to it to increase the alcohol content and to enhance the wine’s flavors. Most fortified wines are enjoyed as a drink before or after dinner. The most common types of fortified wines are Madeira, Marsala, Port (my favorite), Sherry and Vermouth.
Non-fortified wines can be called dessert wines. It is easy to confuse fortified wines and dessert wines. Some dessert wines are not fortified yet others are fortified. For example, our 2008 Tiedemann Dessert Wine is a non-fortified wine, yet it has all the characteristics of a Port wine. It has an alcohol content of 19.2% (similar to a Port). The wine is a blend of 73% Tinta Cao, 17% Touriga and 10% Tempranillo. It was aged in oak barrels for over 10 years before bottling. It tastes very similar to a tawny port. Tawny port is rich with delicious flavors like caramel, apricot, peanut brittle, plum and walnut all knitted together. Top tawny ports are released in 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old versions. The age refers to the time spent in wooden barrels.
Another dessert wine which is also not fortified is Three Clicks 2008 Dessert wine. Also produced in Napa Valley, it is also a blend of Tinta Cao, Touriga and Tempranillo. This wine has an alcohol content of 19.5%.
These two dessert wines have all the same tastes as a fortified Port wine. They just do not have any spirits blended into them.
The Difference Between Sweet and Dry
Both sweet and dry fortified wines are made the same way with one exception. The wine is first fermented, and then distilled spirts (such as brandy) are added to the wine.
Winemakers can control how sweet or dry their wine is by adding the spirits at different times. If the spirits are added before the wine has finished fermenting, a sweet fortified wine is produced. If the spirits are added after fermentation is finished, the fortified wine will be dryer and less sweet.
Types of Fortified Wines
Port and Sherry:
The two most popular fortified wines are Port and Sherry. Both are fortified with brandy.
Sherry is a Spanish wine made from white grapes grown in the region around the town of Jerez de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz in southwest Spain. Sherry is a dry fortified wine with brandy added after fermentation is completed which is the reason for the dryness.
Port wine, one of my favorites, is the world’s best known fortified wine. It is from the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. Most Port wines you drink will be red in color. Port is a sweet wine created by adding brandy mid-way through the fermentation process. When you fortify the wine in mid-fermentation the brandy stops the sugar in the wine from turning into alcohol thus the sweetness. The exact level of sweetness depends on the winery’s style. You find Port runs from semi-sweet to sweet.
Madeira and Marsala:
Madeira is a white fortified wine from a Portuguese island of the same name. This wine can vary in style based on the grape variety. About 85% of Madeira is made from the high-yielding red grape Tinta Negra. The best Madeira wines are generally made from Maderia Island’s four white varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. The dry versions can be consumed on their own as an aperitif while the sweeter wines are normally consumed with dessert.
Marsala wines are from Sicily and are available in both fortified and unfortified versions. Marsala is among the world’s most historic wines, first fortified in 1773. Today some say that due to commercialization the quality has declined. But some producers in western Sicily have reduced production in order to get back to making high quality Marsala. It may be a good idea to check the label to see where the wine you are considering is produced.
There are generally two fortified versions blended with brandy. The younger version, called “Fine,” is slightly weaker, has lower alcohol content and is aged at least four months. The “Superiore,” which is aged at least two years, has a higher alcohol content (18% or higher). The unfortified Marsala wine is aged in wooden casks for five years or more and reaches an 18% ABV by evaporation.
Moscatel de Setúbal:
Moscatel de Setúbal fortified wine is a Portuguese wine produced around the city of Setúbal on the Peninsula de Setúbal along the country’s coast. The wine is made from the Muscat of Alexandria grape and fortified with aguardiente (an anise-flavored liqueur made from distilled sugar cane with an alcohol level of between 24% and 29%). The wine production is dominated by the producer José Maria da Fonseca, founder of the oldest table wine company in Portugal dating back to 1834. The style is known for more floral aromas. The aromas come from the grape skins that are added after the distilled spirit is incorporated into the wine.
The amber-colored Commandaria is produced on the island of Cyprus and is predominantly a sweet dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes including Xynisteri (indigenous white grape grown on Cypress) and Mavro (indigenous red grape grown on Cypress). Commandaria is said to have a history dating back nearly 3000 years. The maximum alcohol content is 20% ABV.
Vermouth is an aromatized wine generally split into dry and sweet categories. Vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with aromatic herbs and spices. Some Vermouth is sweetened, however unsweetened or dry Vermouth tends to be bitter. Vermouth has been around for a very long time. While Vermouth is enjoying its resurgence right now, it has always been a staple for civilizations across the globe.
There are many different types of fortified wines that are available. Each has its own distinct characteristics that makes it unique in its own way. The fortified wines are the most popular and generally form a basis for all fortified wines.
Whether you like dry or sweet wines there are a variety of different fortified wines to try. I prefer semi-sweet to dry fortified wines such as Port and Sherry to be served with dessert. There is no better way to end a great meal than by pairing it with a delicious dessert wine.
Dry fortified wines make delicious sipping wines prior to dinner or at cocktail parties. But remember, these wines have a higher alcohol level than other wines so one needs to watch the consumption of fortified wines. This is especially true if you are going to sit down to a four- or five-course meal with wine pairings.
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Look Forward To These Happy Things:
Upcoming LEX 530 Events!
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, July 17, 2020 – Live music by Patti Lightfoot and Jim Whitmer
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – August Date TBD
Oktoberfest Dinner – Tuesday, September 22, 2020 – with Elkhart’s Iechyd Da Brewing Company
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, November 20, 2020
Important Wine Holidays
August 1-5 – International Albariño Days
August 4 – National White Wine Day
August 18 – International Pinot Noir Day
September 3 – International Cabernet Day