Before or after a meal, a glass of fortified wine is always a special treat. As there is a great range of fortified wines out there, it is almost certain you will find at least one or a couple of them, absolutely matching your preferences, whether you are looking for an aperitif or a digestif, or just the enjoyment of this exciting and rather special wine styles.
What Does Fortified Wine Mean?
By definition, fortified wine is a wine that is made by the addition of a neutral spirit (usually grape-derived, colourless spirit, neutral in flavour and odour) to a base wine – that is, fermented, partially fermented or unfermented grape juice – this process itself is called “fortification”. In other words, fortification can happen before, during or after fermentation.
Fermentation is a process performed by a living microorganism, yeast, that eats sugar, and subsequently produces alcohol. Yeast needs a certain environment to survive. This is not the case when the alcohol level in the grape juice reaches roughly more than 15%. And so, what happens after increasing the alcohol level above 15% (fortification) is that the yeast dies and leaves behind the “unprocessed” leftover sugar. We call this “residual sugar”. When the yeast eats all the existing sugar, such wine is called “dry”. The amount of residual sugar in the wine determines how sweet or dry the final wine will be. Therefore, the resulted wine will have as much sweetness as the winemaker decides by choosing the time for stopping the fermentation. Some wines are fortified after the fermentation is finished (thus, dry wines) but the majority of fortified wines will feature residual sugar.
Another thing that fortification does to a wine is that the wine becomes more stable – less prone to microbial spoilage.
Before the widespread adoption of sulfur dioxide, a lot of wines in southern Europe would fail to resist to the action of spoilage yeasts and bacteria. The solution discovered, following the evolution of distillation, was the addition of distilled spirit. Raising the alcohol level to above 18% was found to be effectively preventing microbial spoilage, permitting wine’s stable transportation long distances.
Ever wondered why traditional fortified wines, in particular Ports, Sherries, Madeiras or Marsalas are produced in the proximity of harbours?
This is not a mere accident! That’s where the English traders would ship them from in the late 17th century. It was, indeed, the English who were massively influential in popularising the fortification process in order to preserve the wines, or in other words, to make them more stable for long voyages. These were the sailors, thanks to whom the popularity of Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala, was widespread. Subsequent developments in different regions led to the evolution of the three major modern styles of fortified wines: Sherry, Port, and Madeira.
Major Fortified Wine types
There are several types of fortified wines, each with its own set of regulations. These regulations include the type of base wine, type of fortifying spirit, permitted range of alcohol by volume (ABV), sugar content, and the duration of ageing.
The most popular fortified wines in the world are Sherry, Port, Madeira and Marsala.
This fortified wine is produced in the Jerez de la Frontera, in the Andalusia region of Spain and is made from the Palomino, Muscat, or Pedro Ximénez grape varieties.
The uniqueness of Sherry production is that these wines are intentionally exposed to oxygen, promoting the development of their deep, nutty flavour profile. The Solera method, of ageing Sherry wines by blending the portions of different ages, is almost entirely exclusive to Sherry. Sherry is fortified with brandy and typically has between 15 – 18% ABV. The majority of Sherries are made in a dry style, very fresh and salty, however, sweeter styles do exist as well! The most appreciated style nowadays seems to be Manzanilla Pasada – a drier, lighter sherry ideal for drinking with food. Other notable Sherries include: Fino, Palo Cortado, Amontillado and Pedro Ximenez.
The Port wine is obtained by the addition of brandy before fermentation is complete. The final wine is sweet and has around 20% ABV. The two traditional Port styles are Ruby Ports and Tawny Ports. The main difference between the two lies in their distinct ageing processes. Rather less traditional styles are white, rosé and dry Ports.
Port wine comes from the Douro Valley region of Portugal and is made from the Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinata Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão grape varieties, among others.
Madeira wine comes from Portugal’s Madeira, a small volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There are four main grapes used for high-quality Madeira, and they function also as categories for sweetness. From sweetest to driest they are: Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. Rarely we also see Terrantez, which has around the same level of sweetness as Verdelho.
Madeira Island first became famous during the exploration age, between the 15th and 18th centuries, when the island was a crucial stopping point for ships heading to Africa and the Americas. Madeira wine barrels were loaded onto ships and transported through tropical climates on long voyages which would give the wine a distinctive character and flavour.
Over time, the Madeira winemaking process developed into a unique practice that comes from Madeira’s taste, which was once the result of long voyages in hot climates. The uniqueness of this 500-year-old winemaking tradition is the fact, that it is produced by an artificial heating process known as estufagem. Heat ageing is practised along with oxidation and mild pasteurisation, in two ways: over the decades, naturally or over months, by using hot water tanks or steam.
Wines of Madeira can be made in a variety of styles that can range from sweet wines, best served with dessert, to dry wines served as an aperitif.
Marsala comes from Marsala, a city on the Italian island of Sicily. It is made with local white grape varietals including Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino, among others.
The first ever Marsala seems to be created by an Englishman in an attempt to make a rather rip-off, cheaper version of Sherry and Port. Like other fortified wines, Marsala is also fortified by the addition of brandy, but only after it has been aged in barrels for five years. This wine contains between 15 – 20% ABV and the styles range from dry aperitivos to sweet dessert-style wines.
Other Notable Fortified Wines
There are plenty of other examples of fortified wine. Some of the most known are Commandaria from Cyprus and Moscatel de Setúbal from Portugal. Indeed, the Muscat grape is massively used in the production of regional fortified wines from Portugal, France, Spain, and Cyprus, among others. These wines are usually called ‘Muscat de…’ or ‘Moscatel de…’ and tend to be more on the sweeter side.
Where Can You Try the Best Fortified Wines
Wineries to visit in Porto and Douro Valley
Found way back in 1981, Churchill’s Port was founded by Johnny Graham. The winery is still run by him today with a refreshing approach by the next generation. The last remaining independent British Port House in the region, Churchill’s Port might just have a few stories up their sleeves that would interest you, especially if you are a wine enthusiast.
Quinta de Tedo
Burgundian Vincent Bouchard and Californian Kay Steffey Bouchard have lovingly restored and modernized this 18th-century estate. By respecting the land with traditional viticultural methods and while also incorporating essential modern technology, they create Douro DOC Wines, Ports and Extra Virgin Olive Oil that showcase the Douro Valley terroir.
Wine & Soul
Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges began their adventure in 2001. To begin, this young couple had no vineyards and no wine, but they shared a dream, a personal project to which they have devoted themselves, with body and soul.
Where you can taste Sherry in Jerez de la Frontera
Bodega De Mora
The history of Osborne dates back to the end of the 18th century, when a young merchant, named Thomas Osborne Mann, came to Cadiz to market the wines of the area. He became a popular seller, slowly acquiring several wineries that he later merged into a single brand: Osborne. At the winery of Mora you will experience the perfect harmony between the great wines from Marco de Jerez and the Cinco Jotas Iberian hams, carefully curated to bring out the best flavour of both.
Bodega Vinificate was born in 2011, by Miguel and Jose, two winemaker brothers, in San Fernando, Cadiz. They will personally welcome you and introduce you to their wines and vines of the Sherry region.
Bodega Gutierrez Colosia
The first cellar at Bodega Gutierrez Colosia was established in 1838. Your guided visit to this winery will tell you all about the Solera system and sherry winemaking techniques.
Wineries to visit in Setubal
José Maria Da Fonseca Manor House
When you visit the house where José Maria da Fonseca was founded in 1834, you’ll get to know the essence of a Wine Family with almost 200 years of history, where the values passed down from generation to generation are kept alive while allowing the company to project itself into the 21st century.
Quinta Do Piloto
Quinta do Piloto Winery is located in the region of Palmela and is full of history and tradition. Humberto Cardoso bought the estate in 1910, and currently, Filipe Cardoso, the fourth generation of the family, owns the winery and is the current chief winemaker. Take a tour of their cellar and know about the process of winemaking and bottling. The guide will explain to you the process and tell you about the history and traditions of the winery.
Adega Cooperativa De Palmela
Founded in 1955 with the name Adega Cooperativa da Região do Moscatel de Setúbal, the winery began its activity in 1958.The coorporative is marked as a major development centre of agriculture and a region where the vineyards and wines have a great historical importance. The winery leads you on a quest to discover all the love, care, and passion that is being put into the production of the splendid wines.
Curatolo Arini 1875
Curato Arini is one of the most important references in the Marsala region. It was founded by Vito Curatolo Arini with the idea to challenge the large and established producers of the time by focusing on the quality of products and the development of foreign markets. Here you will discover the history of Marsala and its production techniques by tasting one white wine and five Marsala wines, accompanied by tasty and unusual pairings.
Preserving the winemaking tradition for over four generations, this winery was established in 1884. Here you can enjoy the magical tale of Marsala in the cellar, along with all the production processes and winemaking regulations, narrated by one of the team members.