Accompanying stereotypes that pop-culture has attached to these wines can lead us to believe that all fortified wines are sickly-sweet and a sure way to get drunk quickly, however, this isn’t the case at all. Fortifying wine started as preservation method, which evolved into the development of some of the worlds most delicious and enjoyable wines.
The History of Fortified Wines
While low-end fortified wines became popular after prohibition and during the great depression as a cheap libation to ease weary minds about the days troubles, fortified wines have been made for hundreds of years. Wines were originally fortified as a way to preserve them so it would last longer before spoiling. By adding a distilled spirit that contained ethanol, which acted as an antiseptic and preservative, harmful bacteria were killed, allowing the wine to be stored for longer periods of time.
Originally, wines were fortified with sugar cane spirits until Brandy became popular during the 18th century. It became obvious that Brandy and the storage of wines in wood barrels added new flavors and characteristics to the wine, and new wines were created. The most well-known fortified wines are Port, Sherry, Marsala, Madeira and Vermouth, although almost every country that makes wine also makes fortified wine too.
How Wines are Fortified
As we already covered, wines are fortified by adding in a distilled spirit. The type of spirit and when it is added determines which flavors and characteristics the wine will have; the type of spirit itself will mix with the characteristics of the wine and determine the flavors and alcohol content that the final fortified wine will have. Grape Brandies will impart the concentrated flavors from the type of grape or wine used, while spirits made from sugar beet or sugar cane add more alcohol than flavor.
Wines can be fortified during fermentation or after fermentation, which changes the type of fortified wine that is made. When wine is fortified during fermentation, the yeast is killed, leaving more residual sugar, resulting in a sweeter wine, with close to a 20% alcohol by volume (ABV) per bottle. When the distilled spirit is added after the fermentation process is complete, the wine will be dry and contain less than 20% alcohol. Levels of dryness and sweetness in fortified wines are subject to the rules of the growing region they are regulated by and differ from the rules in place for white, red and sparkling wines.
Brandy is the spirit most widely used to fortify wines and is made by distilling wine or fermenting grape juice. Distilling wine into Brandy was originally a preservation method to preserve the wine. Distilling wine removed water and also concentrated flavor and aroma compounds while removing salts, sugars and pigments; the distilled wine had a unique flavor and a different appearance than the original wine and also had a higher alcohol content, typically of 20-30% ABV. Brandy was often diluted with water for drinking, though the distillation process became more of an art overtime, and Brandy styles such as Cognac became highly sought after wines to drink and enjoy for their complex flavors. Because of its concentrated flavors, Brandy was added to weak-tasting wines to enhance their flavor and to preserve them.
Inexpensive Fortified Wines
Inexpensive fortified wines are known more for their low-cost and high alcohol content, usually between 14-20%, than for their flavors. These wines are not regulated by growing region guidelines and are often made from grape and citrus juice, distilled cane sugar and artificial flavors. The most popular fortified wines are as follows:
From the Douro Valley in Portugal, Port is typically fortified halfway through the fermentation process with Brandy, resulting in a sweeter wine. Port is available as dry, semi-dry and sweet red wine and is also made in white wine varieties.
Made in the Spanish province of Andalusia, from the protected designation of origin also known as the "Sherry Triangle," Sherry is made from white grapes varieties. Sherry is fortified with Brandy, which is added after fermentation, resulting in wines that are typically dry. Sweet sherries can be naturally sweet or can have sweetness added after being fortified.
Marsala is made in Sicily and named after the famous port town of Marsala. Originally made as a less expensive alternative to Sherry and Port, Marsala is made as both an unfortified wine and a fortified wine. Fortified Marsala is available in two styles, a young Fine (aged for a minimum of 4 months) and an older Superiore (aged a minimum of 2 years).
A Portuguese wine, madeira is made in the Madeira Islands. It was originally fortified with a sugar cane spirit until Brandy became popular for fortifying wines in the 18th century. Madeira is made in a variety of styles, from sweet to a dry and is a popular cooking wine that is often flavored with culinary aromatics to compliment different foods.
Vermouth is a well-known fortified wine often used in mixed drinks, it is available unsweetened, sweetened or dry. Vermouth is known to have a bitter, almost medicinal, taste and is flavored with herbs and spices, depending on the brands, which each have their own secret recipes for the exact blend of cinnamon, marjoram, cardamom, chamomile and other additives.