Fortified Wines; Sherry, PX, Port

While often treated as a type of dessert wine, but it's so vast that it deserves a category on it's own. They can either be dry or sweet, but because of the deep complexity to their profile, as well as the weight of the alcohol & body, it's usually treated as a post dinner drink.

Made by adding grape brandy to a wine, fortified wines can often be barrel aged for years, and tend to have a much longer shelf life once opened due to the higher alcohol content

History & Winemaking of Fortified Wines

Fortification, by definition, refers to the adding of grape sprits to wine, as a way to increase alcohol content & stop fermentation. The purpose of this is to stabilise & preserve wines for long periods of time, and was developed in tandem with the long sea voyages by the British in the late 17th century. Still unfortified wines were often becoming spoilt on these voyages, and something new was needed to withstand the long journeys & fluctuating temperatures.

As this technique became popular across other regions, regional styles started emerging, especially among the Spanish & Portugese, who also were building colonial empires across the globe.

Most non-vintage fortified wines use a solera system of ageing, which is also used in some non-vintage sparkling wines. This creates consistency in the product over time. Fortified wines are barrel aged for years at ambient temperatures, and are topped up over time. When it comes to bottling, barrels are never drained more than part-way, and are refilled from barrels with younger wines. This results in a system of blending across multiple years, and the oldest barrels always contain some of the original vintage used in the solera.

Popular Styles of Fortified Wine

Fortified Wine

Today, there are a variety of styles, with the most famous being Portugese Port, Madeira, or Spanish Sherry, but there are a variety of other styles from within these countries as well as others like Italy, Australia, and California.

Port

Port is probably the name that most people associate fortified wines with, even though only fortified wines from Porto, along the Douro river. Made using a blend of various Portugese varietals, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz, the grapes are fermented together in open tanks & pushed down daily as the wines ferment. At some point, the wine is strained & a spirit such as brandy is added, to stop fermentation & fortify the wine. Different wine styles then take on different processes from here on.

Ruby & Crusted Ports are your entry level Port wines, and tend to be a very young & fresh style of port. Non-vintage, they are usually blending across different harvests. While they are sweet, they are much less sweet than a Tawny Port, with little aging

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) are vintage style Ruby Ports. It's a ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its high quality and bottled after aging for four to six years in wood. They are meant to be enjoyed young, but are sweeter & more complex than Ruby Ports

Vintage Ports are essentially LBVs that have been cellared & aged for longer. They tend to have a fuller body & luscious mouth feel, with a dominant deep dried fig note, together with heavy vanilla & spice wood influences. They are meant to be aged for 20 - 50 years before drinking.

Tawny Ports are aged at the winery in a mixture of cask & barrels before bottling. The longer they are aged, the more nutty & fig like they become. For a good Tawny Port, look for those that are 30-40 years old

    Sherry

    There are various styles of Sherry, from dry & light to sweet & bold. Wines are made using a mix of Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes at differing percentages based on the winemaker's style. Palomino is the dominant grape growing in the Spanish Andalusia region, which gives the wine low acidity, while Moscatel provides strong aromatics, and Pedro Ximénez for it's robust structure.

    The wines are oxidised purposefully to give it Sherry's signature nutty aromatics, and different style have different extent of oxidation. This oxidation happens in open tanks where the wine is fermented, and yeast layers that build on the surface are managed to control the amount of oxidation happening. This oxidative process creates these earthy nutty bruised apple notes.

     Style Sweetness Taste Notes & Remarks
    Fino Dry

    Light bodied

    Tart & nutty

    Manzanilla Dry Similar to Fino, but lighter
    Palo Cortado Dry

    Medium bodied

    Fruity & nut aromas, with some minerality

    Amontillado Mostly Dry Similar to Palo Cortado, but richer nutty notes, and more buttery
    Olorosso Dry

    Full bodied, dark aged Sherry

    Think of it as the scotch of Sherry

    Cream Sweet

    Made by blending PX & Oloroso

    Full bodied, with notes of fig, dates & caramel

    Moscatel Sweet Fig & date aromas
    Pedro Ximénez
    Very Sweet

    Full bodied, thick texture

    Notes of brown sugar & dried figs

     

    When it comes to fermentation, dry Sherry like Fino & Manzanilla are fermented under a viel of yeast, which prevents oxidation. Olorosso on the other hand, has the viel removed, which promotes oxygen contact. Amontillado and Palo Cortado are hybrids that undergo both and are blend afterwards.

    Sweet Sherries go through different winemaking decisions

    • Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are made from passito style grapes that are concentrated & dried, before fermentation. Due to their high sugar levels, even when the grape spirit is added, there is still plenty of residual sugar remaining.
    • Pale Cream & Cream are usually fermented til dry, then fortified & sweetened by adding unfortified Pedro Ximénez

    Madeira

    Made on the Portugese island of Madeira, these fortified wines are basically indestructible. Usually made with Tinta Negra, but the best quality Madeiras are made from Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia.

    Most Madeira are labeled by variety, and this would give you an indication of the level of sweetness. They are usually exposed to heat as part of the maturation process, to create the distinctive nutty note. This is either done rapidly in a process called estufagem, or over extended period in a warm, humid environment, called canteiro. The latter is of course more expensive and produces more complex flavour profiles, as the Madeira get's concentrated as it evaporates slowly. Typically, those that undergo the canteiro process would be aged for at least 20 years, and are used for vintage Madeiras. Entry level Madeira typically undergo estufagem  as it's cheaper & quicker.

    • Rainwater & Madeira When the label just says “Madeira” or “Rainwater” assume that it’s a blend of all 4 grapes and somewhere in the middle in terms of sweetness.
    • Sercial (dry) Sercial is the driest and the lightest of all the grapes in Madeira. These wines will have higher acidity and be dry with notes of peaches and apricot. They tend to be fortified later to dry out the wine, and it’s not uncommon to see Sercial Madeira aged for 100 years.
    • Verdelho (dry) Verdelho has citrus notes and will develop nutty flavors of almond and walnut with time.
    • Bual (sweet) Bual leans on the sweet side with notes of burnt caramel, brown sugar, fig, rootbeer and black walnut. It’s common to find 10 year old medium sweet Bual Madeira although there are several well aged 50-70 year old Bual as well.
    • Malmsey (sweet) Malmsey Madeiras have orange citrus notes and caramel to their taste along with the oily oxidized nutty flavor.

    Vin Doux Naturel (VDN)

    VDN generally refer to Port style wines that are made outside of Porto. The term comes from France but is a general term that applies to wines of this style. They can be made from a variety of base grape varietals, and can come from anywhere in the world. Usually, they have similarities with Port, and the main difference would be the grape varietals used, as well as the barrel aging timeframe.

    You would be able to find them in different styles, depending on the preferences & culture in the various regions. Examples include

    • Grenache-based VDN from the south of France, such as Maury, Rasteau and Banyuls from Languedoc-Roussillon
    • Muscat-based VDN Muscat de Rivesaltes, Muscat de Frotignan, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Ruthernglen Muscat (Australia), Orange Muscat and Vin Santo Liquoroso (Italy).
    • Malvasia-based VDN Mostly from Italy and Sicily such as Malvasia delle Lipari Liquoroso
    • Mavrodaphni From Greece, Mavrodaphni is a sweet red wine with many similarities to Port.

    Marsala

    First fortified in 1773, Marsala is among the world's historic wines. While commercialisation has greatly reduced the popularity of this, there are a select number of Italian wine makers still practicing this age old style. 

    Typically made from Grillo, Inzolia & Catarratto, the wine can be dry or sweet, and is done in a solera system with oak or cherry wood. Similar to port, it has different styles ranging from fine, which are released after a year of barrel ageing, to vergine or vergine stravecchio, which are relased only after 5 or years of barrel ageing respectively.

    Rutherglen Muscat

    Rutherglen Muscat is one of the few New World fortified wines that have gained in popularity. Coming from Australia's Rutherglen region, a red-skinned variant of Muscat called Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge is grown & fortified with a 96% abv spirit, creating a very sweet fortified wine style. Oxidative aging is used to nutty, savory, caramelized notes with a luscious thick texture. 

    While most traditional fortified wines hail from the Old World, Rutherglen Muscat is a gem of the New World. In Australia’s inland Rutherglen region, a red-skinned variant of Muscat called Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge is grown in warm vineyards.

    Sticky Shiraz, a fortified liquer style is also gaining in popularity, although not sold as a fortified wine, and more like a liquer.