What is a Fortified Wine?

You may have heard of "Fortified" wine and wondered what it is. Or, wondered if it really is wine?

Simply put, fortified wine is wine to which additional alcohol has been added. And its origin comes from the days when wine spent considerable time being shipped at sea. It was found that adding additional alcohol to the wine acted as a preservative, allowing the wine stay fresher longer. 

Today fortified wines are produced in one of two ways. The first method involves the addition of alcohol (typically grape brandy which is distilled, not fermented) during a wine's fermentation process.  When added during fermentation, the alcohol will kill the remaining yeast before it gets a chance to consume all the natural sugar in the grape juice.  With the residual sugar in the grape juice, this results in a fortified wine that is sweet. The second method has the additional alcohol added after the wine is fermented, producing a dry fortified wine. One way or the other, fortified wines end up being 15-20% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Examples of fortified wines include:

  • Port - From Portugal, this is a sweet fortified wine. The name was originally derived from the Portuguese city of Oporto where wines were shipped.  Styles of port include:
    • Tawney Port: Aged 2 to 40+ years
    • Ruby Port: Aged 2 to 3 years then bottled. Meant to be enjoyed young
    • Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) port:  Single vintage bottled after 4 to 6 years
    • Vintage Port: The highest quality single vintage port that is wood aged for 2 years
  • Sherry - From Spain's Andalucía region. Two basic styles of Sherry:
    • Fino: Light and dry with alcohol levels of 15-16%
    • Oloroso: Oxidation makes this style deep brown in color, with higher alcohol levels (18-20%). Often sweetened and colored for variation. Also available as a cream Sherry
  • Marsala - From Sicily, this wine can be sweet or dry. It is produced through repeated heating and oxidation cycles.  Although Marsala is most often thought of as a cooking wine, the higher quality Marsala wines are meant to be enjoyed as a fine wine.  Quality levels include:
    • Fine: Aged for 1 year. Typically a cooking wine
    • Superior: Aged for 2 years
    • Superior Reserve: Aged for 4 years
    • Virgin (or Solera): Aged for 5+ years
    • Virgin Stravecchio Reserve: Aged for 10+ years
  • Madeira - From the island of Madeira, this can be dry or sweet, blended or single varietal. Like Marsala, this wine is repeatedly heated during production. Two main types:
    • Blended:
      • Reserve: Aged 5+ years
      • Special Reserve: Aged 10+ years
      • Extra Reserve: Aged 15+ years
    • Single Varietal:
      • Colheita: Aged 5+ years
      • Frasqueira: Aged 20+ years
  • Vermouth - Made from white wine that is then infused with herbs, fruits, and spices. There is no official, legal definition of vermouth, and no regulation controlling which grapes are used in its production.  Vermouth can be dry or sweet. A typical sweet vermouth contains somewhere between 10-15% sugar that is added during the production process. Dry versions, which are lighter bodied, usually have less than 5% sugar.

While these fortified wines are often served as an apéritif before or after a meal, they are different from dessert wines. In future posts we'll address some of these fortified wines in more detail and discuss dessert wines. For now, cheers!