What in the World are Fortified Wines?

spanish waiter pouring sherry into glasses

I’d hazard a guess that one of your first memories of a bottle of sherry was that screw top bottle from which your granny used to fill her small, dainty glass with an amber coloured liquid. If it wasn’t sherry it was vermouth which also got a bad rap over the years because of all the grandmas with oxidised bottles in the back of the cupboard.

The arrival of International Sherry Week made me think a little more about fortified wines and the lack of awareness and understanding about them. One reason for a lack of awareness could be a lingering association with poor quality products, such as bargain basement, highly sweet cream sherries which came to represent the entire category for many, over the years.

I believe that sherry, and increasingly vermouth, both of which fall into the fortified wine camp, are getting more attention these days. In this post, I’d like to delve into the fortified world and try to clear up any confusion as to some definitions.

Fortified Wines are Nothing New

Fortified wines have their roots in ancient Greece. Historically, wine was fortified so that it could be readily shipped elsewhere without spoilage. Before the process of fermentation was fully understood it often restarted in wine casks which damaged the wine during its transportation. Over time this practice became established to the point of representing an entire family of wines.

What are Fortified Wines?

A simple definition is that a fortified wine is a wine that has a distilled spirit added to it, to increase its alcohol content.

A fortified wine is a wine that has a distilled spirit added to it, to increase its alcohol content. #discoverwine #greenacresirl #fortifiedwines Click To Tweet

They are rich in sugar, flavour, and alcohol. Technically, by adding alcohol to the wine it stops the action of the yeast and prevents further fermentation, thus preserving some of the sugar from the grapes. Sherry, Port and Madeira from Spain and Portugal, vins doux naturels from France and Marsala from Sicily are all fortified wines you might have heard of.

Formally, you can classify a fortified wine as any wine, of more than sixteen percent (16%) and no more than twenty-four percent (24%) alcohol by volume, made by fermentation from grapes, fruits, berries, rice, or honey; or by the addition of pure cane, beet, or dextrose sugar; or by the addition of pure brandy from the same type of grape.

Fortified means Strengthened

Obviously, if you add more alcohol to a wine it is going to have a stronger ABV (alcohol by volume) rating. Most commonly the added alcohol is brandy but it can be any neutral spirit distilled from grapes, grains or sugar. There are many factors which affect the style of a fortified wine, including:

  • The type of spirit being used
  • The type of wine the spirit is added to
  • The point at which the spirit is added [during (port) or after (sherry) fermentation]
  • Any additional botanicals, aromatics or flavours

Varying the use of these elements can result in a wide range of fortified wines. Some of the most common would be sherry, port, madeira, marsala, and vermouth. Let us look at each of these in a little more detail.

Common styles of Fortified Wines

bottle of Dry-Oloroso-Sherry

Sherry

Sherry comes with its own subset of over half a dozen different styles. However, to be sherry, you have to come from a specific region in southern Spain (in Andalusia – Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María). Sherry has a range of styles, from dry (manzanilla) to sweet (cream). It is divided into two families Finos (dry and light) and Olorosos (deep coloured and powerful). The blending and ageing of sherry give it its complexity, each bottle containing wine from different barrels and of different ages.

bottle of Port-Fonseca-1997-

Port

Port takes its name from the city of Oporto, situated where Portugal’s Douro River joins the Atlantic Ocean. Grapes must be grown and processed in the region, and to become port, the wine is fortified with unaged brandy before fermentation is complete to yield a product with around 20 percent ABV.

Although all Port is sweet, and most of it is red, many styles exist. The styles vary according to the quality of the base wine (ranging from ordinary to exceptional), how long the wine is aged in wood before bottling (ranging from 2 to 40-plus years), and whether the wine is from a single year or blended from wines of several years. Here are the various styles of port:

 – White Port: Made from white grapes, this wine can be off-dry or sweet. It can also be a bracing warm-weather apéritif.

 – Ruby Port: This young, non-vintage style is aged in wood for about 3 years before release. It is a style that’s fruity and simple. If labelled Reserve or Special Reserve, the wine has usually aged about six years.

 – Vintage Character Port: Vintage Character Port is actually premium ruby blended from higher-quality wines of several vintages and matured in wood for about five years. Full-bodied, rich, and ready-to-drink when released.

 – Tawny Port: Tawny is the most versatile Port style. The best tawnies are good-quality wines that fade to a pale garnet or brownish red color during long wood aging. Tawny Ports are appropriate both as apéritifs and after dinner.

 – Colheita Port: Often confused with Vintage Port because it’s vintage-dated. Colheita is actually a tawny from a single vintage. It has aged (and softened and tawnied) in wood for many years. Unlike an aged tawny, though, it’s the wine of a single year.

 – Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV): This type is from a specific vintage, but usually not from a very top year. The wine ages four to six years in wood before bottling and is then ready to drink, unlike Vintage Port. Quite full-bodied, but not as hefty as Vintage Port.

 – Vintage Port:  Vintage Port is the wine of a single year blended from several of a house’s best vineyards. It’s bottled at about two years of age, and it therefore requires an enormous amount of bottle aging to accomplish the development that didn’t occur in wood. Vintage Port is usually not mature (ready to drink) until about 20 years after the vintage.

 – Single Quinta Vintage Port: These are Vintage Ports from a single estate (quinta) that is usually a producer’s best property. They’re made in good years, but not in the best vintages, because then their grapes are needed for the Vintage Port blend.

HH-Sercial-bottle-madeira

Madeira

Similar to Port, Madeira is a little bit more exotic, coming exclusively from an island off the coast of Africa (Portugal’s Madeira Islands). The wine can range from dry to sweet, and is most notable for its aging process known as estufagem. This now mandated practice stems from Madeira’s taste, which was once the result of Madeira barrels being shipped through tropical climates on lengthy voyages. The wines are fortified and also heat treated, making them nearly indestructible and the best can age for a century. They range from dry to sweet.

Marsala_Wine_bottle      Bottle of Vermouth

Marsala

Marsala comes from Marsala, a city on the Italian island of Sicily. The wine is classified by age, colour, and sweetness levels, as measured by grams of residual sugar per litre. Alcohol content ranges from 15 to 20 percent ABV, and styles run from dry apéritives to sweet dessert-style wines.

While that’s a starting overview of 4 fortified wine types, it’s crucial to remember that there’s a huge range of sub-classifications and categories to explore. For example, vermouth, which I mentioned earlier, actually belongs to a subcategory of fortified wine known as aromatised wine.

Vermouth

Vermouth is produced by starting with a base of a neutral grape wine or unfermented wine must. Each manufacturer adds additional alcohol and a proprietary mixture of dry ingredients, consisting of aromatic herbs, roots, and barks, to the base wine, base wine plus spirit or spirit only (which may be redistilled before adding to the wine or unfermented wine must).

After the wine is aromatised and fortified, the vermouth is sweetened with either cane sugar or caramelised sugar, depending on the style. At the simplest level, most people consider vermouth to be split into two halves. There’s red vermouth, also known as sweet or Italian vermouth, and white vermouth, also known as dry or French vermouth. A typical range of ABV is between 16 and 18 percent, although that’s not specified per regulation.

A Fresh Interest in Fortified Wines

This return to fortified wines, particularly botanical-heavy ones such as vermouth, mimics the recent resurgent gin movement. Actually, when you think of it, your granny probably drank gin as well. I mean, gin was considered an old-fashioned drink until not that long ago – we even have our own gin here in Green Acres.

bottle of green acres irish gin

Increasingly, people’s understanding of botanicals may well help them to understand why wine can have aromas and botanicals, too. As with gin, small batch producers operating on a small scale might encourage fortified-wine producers to tap into and capture styles that bigger producers cannot. In the near future, we might well have a small-batch vermouth that is very different from standard vermouths.

There is one other trend that is adding to the better understanding and awareness of fortified wines – the re-surfacing of the cocktail bar (or list in a bar). Recently, vermouth and sherry have made a comeback more so than any other fortified wine. That resurgence, I believe, is thanks in part to the so-called millennials embracing the cocktail culture. Vermouth is a key component in many classic cocktails, while sherry is a key ingredient in some of the earliest cocktails.

sherryweek_poster 2018

I started this post mentioning International Sherry Week so I’ll finish with a further reference to sherry. At the end of the day, sherry is wine. Therefore, not only is it extremely versatile with cocktails but with food pairings also. In particular, it pairs well with Asian cuisines. The beauty of a sherry with this soy doused, pickled and fermented food is that it accentuates each flavour.

Dry sherry works with almost any starter. They pair well with cured meats, olives, salty fish and pickled veggies. OK, so ordering a sherry at the bar might not be your thing – but at least give it a go, either with a meal or as an aperitif. Go on – it’s International Sherry Week after all.

As usual, you can contact me if you would like to discuss anything about fortified wines – they are very popular as gifts. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.

We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, James.

wine bottle and glass silhouette