A friend recently asked me what a fortified wine is. Perhaps she was hoping that wine makers were targeting the health-conscious market by making a more vitamin rich wine, so she could enjoy her taste for wine with an even clearer conscience. The truth is not so fortunate, yet much more fun.
Fortified wine is typically thicker, fuller and sweeter than non-fortified wine. To make them, a distilled spirit (usually brandy) is added at a certain point during the fermentation process. Adding these spirits brings the wine’s alcohol content up to around 17 – 20%. Wine’s alcohol content typically is around 13 – 16%.
Commonly known fortified wines are Sherry, Port, Marsala and Madeira.
Sweet or Dry
Although you would think that most fortified wines are sweet, they can be made more or less so by choosing when to add the brandy. The earlier the brandy is added, even up to within 36 hours of fermentation, the sweeter the wine. The science here is that as soon as the alcohol is added, the yeast stops the sugar-to-alcohol conversion process, and the remaining unconverted sugar remains in the wine as residual sugar.
By waiting and allowing more sugar to be converted to alcohol before adding the brandy, you naturally have a higher alcohol content with less sugar as sweetener.
Sherry and Port
According to bartender.com, when comparing Port and Sherry, there are three key differences:
- Port is from Portugal, and Sherry is from Southern Spain.
- Port is mostly made with red grapes. Sherry is made with white grapes.
- Sherry is generally dry, with the brandy being added after the wine has fully fermented. Port is sweet, with the brandy being added during fermentation.
Marsala and Madeira
According to foodsubs.com, Marsala is a Sicilian fortified wine used mostly as a cooking wine. It is a key ingredient in many Italian dishes, including zabaglione, tiramisu, and veal scaloppini.
Madeira is made on the Madeira island off the North African coast near Portugal. This fortified wine evolved during the East India trading routes by ship during the 1600s where the wine got better as a result of the long, hot trips in rolling ships. As a way to duplicate this sea-faring experience, Madeira is now made by heating the wine for an extended period of time and exposing it to some levels of oxidation. According to bartender.com, “This ‘baking’ of the wine results in a honey-sweet caramel aroma.” Can you say YUM?!?
Expensive or Inexpensive
Marsala was created in the late 1700s as an inexpensive answer to the more costly Ports and Sherries. Today, a less expensive fortified wine is aged for a shorter period of time in the oak cask. Some inexpensive Sherries are specifically designed to be used in cooking, and may come with some spices added, such as pepper or salt.
If you choose a less expensive fortified wine to drink, decant it as you would any wine that you want to “age” before drinking.
Dry fortified wines pair well with a wide variety of appetizers, including cheese (I recommend blue, stilton and mature cheddar), olives and spreads. Sweeter fortified wines make great after-dinner drinks, either by themselves or with a nutty cheesecake or a cheese and nut plate.
What Are Your Favorites?
What are your favorite fortified wines? What foods do you pair with them?