What are fortified wines and how do they differ from each other?

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What are fortified wines and how do they differ from each other?


Fortified wines are wines that undergo a fortification process through the addition of a distilled spirit. Brandy is commonly used in the process of fortifying a wine. By adding this spirit, fermentation is stopped.

There are various versions of fortified wine, but the most commonly recognized are Port, Marsala, Sherry, Madeira and Vermouth.


Port originates from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. However, there are other wine-producing countries around the world that also produce their own version. In Portugal, it is officially known as Vinho do Porto.

Port is made first by the fermentation of a base wine from various grapes. For red Port and red Port styles, the main grapes are Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cao. For White Port varieties, the main grapes used are Malvasia Fina, Sercial and Verdelho, among others.

Many know Port as a sweet red wine, but there are also dry, semi-dry, rose and white Port. Within the category of Port originating from red wine, there are a few other categories which vary in style; Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Reserve or Vintage, Colheita, Garrafeira, late-bottled vintage (LBV), crusted and Single Quinta Vintage.


Marsala originates from the city of Marsala on the Italian island of Sicily. Just as Port, it is also classified according to its style. It is categorized according to its sweetness, age and color. Marsala has a very special history; it dates back to the 1800s. These wines are fortified with brandy to stop fermentation and then aged in the special solera system in which marsala is blended from various vintages in order to maintain consistency in style from year-to-year.


Sherry, calledJerez from its original homeland in Andalucia, Spain, is a very special type of fortified wine. Rather than it being fortified with a distilled spirit, the wine is aged by a special micro-oxidation process. The barrels are only filled ¾ full, allowing “head-space” for a special yeast to enter the barrel, called flora.

It is this yeast which allows further fermentation of sugars to create more alcohol, fortifying the wine. Jerez is classified in the following categories: Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.


Madeira is from the islands of Portugal. There are many styles ranging from dry to sweet versions. Its special aging process is called estufagem, a process by which the wine is aged by exposure to heat or the sun. Once a distilled spirit is added to the base wine, the skins of Muscat grapes are then added, thus creating the particular musky aroma profile of Madeira wine.


Vermouth is a fortified wine which is known for its flavors of various herbs and botanicals. The first versions are from Turin, Italy during the 18th century, and they were traditionally used for medicinal purposes. The two versions of Vermouth are sweet and dry. The wine starts out as a neutral wine or grape must (for sweet versions) in which a spirit is added along with selected aromatics from roots, herbs and bark.

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Written by Christie Kiley
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International Sommelier and Chef Christie Kiley has over a decade of combined experience in both restaurants and wineries. While working in kitchens under talented chefs, she spent nights off serving guests in the dining room.

Her passion for food began overflowing into the wine industry and while laboring during wine harvests in Napa, she learned the nature of the product from soil to bottling. Experience working the back- and front-of-the-house in restaurants, wineries in sales, and as a food and wine educator, Christie has vast knowledge of the two industries.

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