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What is Fortified Wine?

December 11, 2020

If you enjoy a glass of wine for every meal, you're going to love the idea of fortified wine! The ultimate night cap, fortified wine has been enjoyed for centuries by people as a dessert. This final course of a meal has a long and interesting history and we're here to demystify this underrated wine. After you learn more about these delicious wines, you'll want to stock your wine refrigerator with every variety available.

What is Fortified Wine?

Better known as dessert wine, fortified wine has a higher alcohol content than other wines but not because of the distilling process like many believe. The higher alcohol content actually comes from the addition of spirits to the wine. Why are spirits added to fortified wine? Well, that goes into the history of the fortified wine.


The History

Prior to the invention of refrigeration and wine bottling techniques, the wine casks used were not air-tight, causing wines to oxidize and turn acidic during long sea voyages. In order to prevent loss of product, winemakers started adding spirits to their wines to reduce spoilage, which led to the invention of fortified wines.

Since this was quite an unorthodox practice among winemakers, some people opposed this method and believed that failing to ferment the wine fully, leaving extra sugar, was simply a way to cover up poor quality wine. However, this trend of fortifying wines has continued to our modern day and these wines are enjoyed by many.


The Difference Between Sweet and Dry Fortified Wines

Both sweet and dry fortified wines go through the same process of fermentation and then the addition of spirits to the wine. However, when winemakers discovered they could alter the taste of the wine by adding spirits at different times during the winemaking process, they developed sweet and dry fortified wines. When spirits are added before the wine has finished fermenting, it results in a sweet fortified wine. When added after fermentation, you will have a dry fortified wine.


How does this work?

Wine fermentation occurs when yeast breaks down sugar molecules in grapes to produce ethanol. Eventually, without any more sugar to feed the yeast, they will die off and the fermentation process is complete. If winemakers wait for the yeast to completely break down all the sugars, it results in a dry wine with a high alcohol percentage. If the spirit is added early on in the fermentation process, it will kill the yeast, leaving behind more sugar and resulting in a sweeter wine with a high alcohol content even though the wine did not complete its fermentation process. If the wine lacks sweetness, additional sweetening agents will be added to the wine.


Types of Fortified Wines

While there are many varieties of fortified wines, we're going to go over the most popular varieties you will come across. Each winemaker has their own style and every fortified wine will have its own unique characteristics.


Port wines originate from the Douro Valley in Portugal. This typically sweet red wine is created when brandy is added in the middle of the fermentation process. It is often enjoyed as dessert wine because of its richness and sweetness. While typically a red wine, you can find white, rosé, and an aged style called Tawny Port.

Port wines typically have a sweet taste with the most common notes being raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate sauce. It is recommended that ports should be served just below room temperature, around 60 °F (16 °C). This wine is known to pair beautifully with rich or bold cheeses, chocolate and caramel desserts, salted and smoked nuts, and sweet-smoky meats.


This fortified wine comes from the region of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. Since brandy is added after the fermentation process, sherry is typically a dry wine. However, you can find sherry blends that have more of a natural sweetness or added sweetness after fermentation.

Due to its dry finish and lower sugar content, sherries tend to have a more umami and earthy flavor but you will also find rich, nutty, and caramel notes. Some varieties will also provide a rich, fruity, and raisin notes. Like all wine, there are so many varieties with different flavors to suit your mood or palate. Most sherries are served cold or chilled, depending on the variety.


Hailing from the region of Madeira, Portugal, this fortified wine can range from sweet to dry. Typically made by adding brandy, madeira can be a dry or sweet wine depending on when the brandy is added. What is particularly unique about the madeira making process is that the wine is actually exposed to heat and oxygen, which is typically the bane of wine making. This originates from the tropical voyages that typically exposed these wines to hot climates and oxygen.

Madeira notes range from being very crisp and fresh to smokey and caramel-like. Common notes are coffee, cacao, raisins, and burnt caramel. Dry madeiras are often served slightly chilled at about 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain its fresh crispness. Sweet ones are poured slightly cooler than room temperature.


Produced in the small town of Marsala on the island of Sicily, Italy, this fortified wine is typically dry but sweet varieties are available too. Many people enjoy using marsala as a cooking wine to add complex flavor to their dishes. You can discern the sweetness level of marsala by its color and age.

Amber marsalas will give you notes of nuts and fruits, while ruby marsalas have more tannins and a fruity flavor. Gold marsala has a rich golden color, produced with white grapes, it has notes of vanilla, hazelnuts, and licorice. The younger wines tend to have more sugars while wine aged for over 10 years have no added sugar, making them much drier. Marsalas a best served slightly chilled around 55-60 degrees to maintain its crisp freshness. Sweet marsala is best when poured at room temperature or slightly cooler.


How to Drink Fortified Wines

Each fortified wine has a unique, small, and typically stemmed glass that allows you to pick up the fragrant nose of the wine and enjoy the rich flavors. Glassware is extremely important for enjoying fortified wines because of the complex flavors. Learn more about the anatomy of a wine glass here and how it plays a role in tasting wines. Since they are high in alcohol content, you will often be served small portions and you are meant to slowly sip the wine. Fortified wines are typically enjoyed as a dessert but can be paired with desserts, cheeses, nuts, and charcuterie. As you can tell, maintaining a consistent temperature with fortified wine will enhance and maximize your experience. Learn more about recommended wine serving temperatures in our blog here. We highly recommend using a wine refrigerator to ensure your fortified wines are ready to drink but also to maintain the quality of opened bottles.