If you’re like most wine drinkers, you’ve probably seen the fortified wine section in your local store, but passed it by because you didn’t know what it means for a wine to be “fortified.” In short, fortified wines are specialty wines that have a higher alcohol content as a result of the addition of a distilled spirit during the winemaking process.
Years ago, before the invention of air travel, wine was transported via ship across the ocean in casks, which were not as air-tight as contemporary wine bottles. These conditions often caused the wine to become oxidized and turn into vinegar. To prevent their product from being ruined this way, some winemakers decided to add a distilled spirit to their wine, which both prevented spoilage and gave the wine a higher alcohol content. Although other winemakers were opposed to the addition of spirits, the tradition has continued and has led to some highly celebrated fortified wines today. The following is a list of six of the best fortified wines and an explanation of their origin.
Perhaps one of the most well-known fortified wines, Port comes from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Port is usually a sweet fortified wine that results from the addition of brandy before the fermentation process is complete. However, Ports can also be dry or semidry. After adding the brandy, winemakers age their Port in oak barrels. By law, they must allow the wine to age for at least two years, and they can sell no more than 30% of their vintage at that time. This law serves as a way to promote the production of more aged Ports. Ports are often served as a dessert wine, and they usually have a 20% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Made in Jerez de la Frontera in the south of Spain, Sherry differs from Port in that it is a drier fortified wine. This difference results from the timing of the addition of brandy to the fermenting Palomino grape. To make Sherry, vintners add brandy after the fermentation process, which lends to the final product’s dryness. The aging process involves blending different batches of sherry by transferring the liquid from barrel to barrel, but never fully emptying any barrel. This so-called “solera” aging system ensures that the final product is a mixture of different vintages—including very old vintages—and a more consistent quality is achieved.
Another wine made in Portugal, Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Africa. This wine can be dry or sweet, and it used to undergo oxidation during long voyages through tropical climates. Today, the wine gets its flavor from one of two unique heat-aging processes. Used for younger wines, the first process is called “estufagem” and entails heating the wine to 45 to 50 degrees Celsius, after which the wine sits for 90 days prior to aging in casks. The alternative method, Canteiro, is used for higher quality wines and involves aging the wines in casks in lodge attics or outside under the sun for at least two years. By law, these wines can’t be bottled until three years of age, and some are left in casks for over 20 years.
Made in Sicily, Italy, Marsala comes in different forms, with dry versions served as aperitifs and sweeter styles served as dessert wines. Brandy is typically added to Marsala following fermentation, in a process similar to that used for Sherry. When you search for Marsala, you’ll find several categories that describe the wine’s color, age, and sweetness. The ABV level of Marsala varies from 15% to 20%.
This dessert wine hails from Cyprus and consists of two grape varieties: xynisteri and mavro blue. Sometimes cited as the oldest wine in the world, Commandaria has been in existence for some 3,000 years. Only 14 villages on Cyprus are authorized to produce the wine, with the grapes coming from the nearby Troodos Mountains. The vintners pick the grapes when they are very ripe and allow them to dry in the sun for a week or two to ensure maximum sugar content. The result is a fruity, sweet wine with an ABV of 15% to 20%.
Moscatel de Setubal
Another fortified wine from Portugal, Moscatel de Setubal is produced in the Setubal Peninsula along the coast. The wine is mostly produced with the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety, which arrived in Europe from Egypt many years ago. The wine is known for its combination of aromas, including citrus flowers, honey, rose, lime, and pear, among others. In part, these notes come from the addition of grape skins to the wine.
With a little knowledge of the above six wines, you can confidently go to the fortified wine section of the store and know what to look for. As you learn more about fortified wines, look for details about the age of each wine and its fortification process. A little research will help you choose the right fortified wine for your next dinner party and will help you appreciate the unique qualities of each wine.