What is Fortified Wine?

Question from Michael: I think you made reference to “fortified wine” in a previous post. Can you explain what it is?

Reply: Thanks for asking, Michael, and shame on me for tossing wine jargon without explaining it! 

The phrase immediately brings to mind wonderful, often robust, wines like Port, Sherry and Madeira. A bump up in alcohol due to added grape spirits (the spirits are the “fortification”) provides much of the heft. And, my knee-jerk reaction is to also think of dessert wine.

Let me quickly make some exceptions. Fino Sherry isn’t so robust and it isn’t sweet. It’s bone dry and only fortified to 15% alcohol – no higher than a number of warm-climate red wines. It makes a very nice dry aperitif. In fact, Sherry wine, in general, is designed to be dry. When it’s sweet it’s because the winery added sweet wine to dry Sherry. And, Sercial Madeira is tangy and dry.

But those exceptions are still fortified wines because spirits are added at some point. If the wine is meant to be dry, it’s fortified after the fermentation is over. If the winemaker’s shooting for a sweet wine, the spirits are introduced during the fermentation, before the yeast has used up all the grape sugar.  

Port is traditionally red, nearly always fairly heavy and noticeably sweet. It’s delicious with chocolate and nutty desserts. Or, you sip a glass slowly instead of having dessert! Ruby Port is the fruitiest and lightest. It’s also the least expensive option. If you want a wine to put away for your child’s 21st birthday, pick up a good vintage Port, which will live and live…

The only dry Madeira is the Sercial (which is the name of the grape). From there they get sweeter and sweeter, Malmsey (also the grape variety) being the sweetest. It has a wonderful caramelized character that’s to die for with custards, dried fruit desserts, creme brulee…

As I said, Sherry is born dry and the Fino and Manzanilla will stay that way. Amantillado can be dry or sweet, so just ask. Oloroso is wonderfully sweet!

If you happen to run across a bottle of Pedro Ximenez, it’s syrupy sweet. The Spanish pour it over their ice cream! And sweet Sherry is generally made sweet by the addition of wine made of this grape (PX for short).

Maybe this is more than you wanted to know – I couldn’t stop myself! Iove these wines! Cheers!

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