Fortified Wines: Sherry and Vermouth


In recent posting we've addressed fortified wines including Port, Madeira and Marsala. All these wines are produced by adding either Brandy or neutral grape spirit to wines during the fermentation process or after fermentation is complete.

Without getting too much into the details of distilled spirits, Brandy (derived from the word brandywine, or burnt wine) and grape spirit are produced by heating wine to the point where the alcohol evaporates and is collected separately. Fortified winemakers then use these distilled alcohols to increase the alcohol levels in fermented wines.

While grape spirit is simply neutral-flavored grape alcohol, Brandy takes this grape alcohol one step further by aging it in wooden casks to smooth out the flavor of this otherwise harsh alcohol and give it its unique flavor.

Other popular fortified wines include Sherry and Vermouth.  Sherry, from Spain, is typically fortified with Brandy after fermentation is complete to produce a dry fortified wine. There are sweet styles of Sherry but the finer ones, from Spain, are dry.  The Spanish Sherries are made in multiple styles:

Dry Sherry: Made predominately from the Palomino grape:

  • Fino & Manzanilla - Very light in flavor. Can have salty fruit flavors.
  • Amontillado - A bit bolder with nutty flavors.
  • Palo Cortado - This is much richer with roasted flavors of molasses and coffee.
  • Oloroso - This style is intentionally exposed to oxygen during aging resulting its dark appearance and nutty flavors.

Sweet Sherry: Made from Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes:

  • Pedro Ximéniz (PX) - This is the sweetest style with flavors dates and figs.
  • Moscatel - This has sweet caramel flavors.
  • Sweet Sherry: A blend of Oloroso and PX Sherry.

Vermouth is another fortified wine originally from Italy. Vermouth is produced from neutral grape wine or unfermented wine must. Producers then add additional alcohol and their own mixture of botanical products including fruits, herbs, spices and roots. After the wine is aromatized and fortified, the Vermouth may be bottled dry, or sweeteners such as sugar may be added to create the sweet style of Vermouth.

So during the past few entries we've made a quick pass through the most popular fortified wines. Next, we'll investigate dessert wines.  Cheers!

Fortified Wine: Marsala

Previously we've established that fortified wine is wine that has grape spirit added. While typical wines have between 10 to 15% alcohol by volume (ABV), fortified wines end up with 15 to 20% ABV.  Early on, this proved to be quite beneficial, as the high alcohol levels would preserve the wine when making long journeys across oceans.  These fortified wines became known by the city or region where the wine originated; Port from Oporto in Portugal and Madeira wine from the Portuguese Islands of Madeira. This time we'll focus on Marsala wine from the town of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily.

True Marsala still only comes from Sicily and is produced from Sicilian indigenous grapes. And much like Madeira, Marsala is most often thought of as a cooking wine.  But, there are actually five quality levels:

  • Fine - Aged for 1 year and commonly used in cooking
  • Superior - Aged for 2 years and used most commonly in cooking
  • Superior Reserve - Aged 4 years
  • Virgin or Solera - Aged 5 years
  • Virgin Stravecchio/Virgin Reserve - Aged for 10 or more years

Marsala has three levels of sweetness:

  • Secco - Dry (little to no residual sugar). This wine completes fermentation before it is fortified.
  • Semisecco - Semi sweet. This wine is fortified near the end of fermentation so as to leave a small amount of residual sugar.
  • Dolce - Sweet. This wine is fortified during fermentation. The higher level of the fortifying alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation is complete, hence sugar remains in the wine.

There are also three styles of Marsala wine:

  • Gold - Produced with white grapes (Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Domaschino and Grecanico)
  • Amber - Also produced with white grapes but the grape must (unfortified grape juice) is cooked to the point where the natural sugars caramelize, giving the wine the amber color
    • Flavors of Gold and Amber Marsala include apricot, brown sugar, and vanilla
  • Ruby - Produced with red grapes (Pignatello, Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Frappato)
    • Flavors of Ruby Marsala include cherry, dried fruit, honey, walnut and licorice. 

High-end Marsala wines are produced by a system called 'Soleras' where new and old wines are blended. This will be the subject of a future posting.

A glass of Marsala wine should be served at approximately 55 degrees F and is wonderful when paired with Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other bold cheese. Cheers!

Fortified Wine: Madeira

Madeira is another of the fortified wines. But it is the way that it is produced that is quite unique.

Madeira first became popular in the mid-seventeenth century when the Madeira Islands, part of Portugal, were heavily used as key supply stations for ships heading to the New World or India.  To preserve the wine, additional alcohol (typically Brandy) was added to keep it from spoiling on the long ocean voyages. But these long voyages, in the subtropical heat, and via a rocking ship caused the wines to be kept quite warm, and often get exposed to air.

It was only after these wines reached their destinations that their unique flavors were 'discovered' and became appreciated.  The heating and oxidation causes the natural sugars in Madeira wines to caramelize, resulting in flavors that included burnt sugar and hazelnut, along with fruit flavors of peach and orange peal.

Today, Madeira wines continue to be produced by deliberately heating the wine. The most basic Madeira wines are heated in large tanks to 120-140 degree F for at least 3 months. Other production techniques involve storing the wine in large wooden casks in heated rooms for 6 months to a year, or just storing the casks in a warm sun-lite room for 20 years or more.

There are many styles of Madeira wine. The most commonly available Madeira is typically used in cooking, but there are many others that are meant to be enjoyed as an aperitif or dessert wine:

  • Fine - The lowest quality. Made from the Tinta Negra grape. Aged for 3 years. Used for cooking.
  • Rainwater - A fruity blend from the Tinta Negra grape. Aged at least 3 years. Used for cooking or mixing in cocktails.
  • Reserve - Also made from the Tinta Negra grape, but aged 5 years.
  • Special Reserve - Typically made from one of the 'Noble' grapes (see below) and aged 10 years.
  • Extra Reserve - Also made from one of the "Noble' grapes and aged 15 years (quite rare).
  • Colheita or Harvest – A single vintage wine, but aged for a shorter period than a true Vintage Madeira.
  • Vintage or Frasqueira – A single vintage but aged at least 20 years.

While the majority of Madeira wines are produced from the Tinta Negra grape, the most authentic Madeira is made from the following "Noble' grape varietals:

  • Sercial (Ser-seal) - Nearly dry (very little residual sugar), high acidity (bright and crisp), with flavors of toasted almonds
  • Verdelho - Fermentation is halted earlier than Sercial, resulting in higher residual sugar, with smoky and rich flavors
  • Bual - Just a bit more residual sugar, dark in color, with flavors of caramel, cacao, dates and raisins
  • Malmsey - Having the highest residual sugar, its sweetness comes along with fruity flavors, roasted nuts and chocolate

So, if you are really interested in enjoying a glass of Madeira wine, skip the grocery store cooking variety and seek out a nicer bottle. You will certainly enjoy!  Cheers!

Fortified Wine: A Further Look at Port

Last time we discussed fortified wines - wines with added alcohol. And Port is one of the classic fortified wines. 

From Portugal, this is a sweet fortified wine that was originally created so that it could be put on-board ships in Oporto Portugal and transported to London without spoiling. The high alcohol level (~20% ABV) acted as an excellent preservative. Soon the Oporto style of wines became known to the world as Port.

Port is made from indigenous Portuguese grapes. And while there are more than fifty grapes that fall into that category, the primary grapes used to produce Port are Touriga Franc, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.  Also note that to be called Port, it must be made in Portugal.

Styles of Port include:

  • Tawney Port: Blended, sweet, and amber-brown in color, this Port is barrel aged 2 to 40+ years. Tawny Ports tend to have nutty aromas and caramel flavors from natural oxidation in the cask.
  • Colheita: A single vintage Tawney Port, aged 10+ years. This Port is bottled only when the producer decides it is ready to drink, and should be enjoyed in the following year or so. The label should carry both the vintage and the bottling date.
  • Ruby Port: This style of Port is widely produced and aged just 2 to 3 years before being bottled. These Ports are meant to be enjoyed young. Aging is done in cement or steel tanks to prevent oxidization so the Port retains its fresh, fruity qualities. Because it is filtered (and sometimes pasteurized) before bottling, Ruby Ports do not improve with bottle age.
  • White Port - White Ports are blended together using a large number of grape varieties. The most commonly used varieties include Bical, Cerceal, Donzelinho Branco, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho. White Port is often lost in the mix by the better-known styles of Port but it is not rare or expensive, just not as widely distributed.
  • Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port: This is Ruby Port from a single year, chosen for its high quality and bottled after aging for four to six years in wood. It is released ready to drink.
  • Vintage Port: This is the highest quality single vintage Port. It is wood aged for two years before being bottled.  This Port matures well in the bottle transforming into a smooth, mellow wine that is rich and wonderfully aromatic.  Not just any year can be used to produce a Vintage Port. The major Port producers must declare it.  Typically three or four years out of a decade have harvests worthy of being called Vintage Ports. Recent vintage years were 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2003.

A Port glass is usually smaller than a regular wine glass and a serving size is around 3-ounces. It should be served just below room temperature, around 60 degrees F. So skip that dessert on a plate or in a bowl and enjoy a glass of Port for your next dessert. And try it with blue cheese and salted or smoked nut!  Cheers!

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!