What is fortified wine?
Wines come in all shapes and sizes. You know the difference between red, white and rosé; you may even know your grape varieties and appellations/regions well (and if you’ve been keeping up with our blog posts, you’ll be an expert!). But outside of the Chablis, the Bordeaux and the Champagne that you know and love, exists a whole different breed of wine: the fortified wine. There’s no doubt you’ve encountered these rare treats before; some you may not have even known were a wine at all as you unsuspectingly gulped them down concealed in a cocktail. One thing is for sure, however: these are not your run-of-the-mill fermented grape juices. Let’s take a trip across Southern Europe and discover the world of these delicacies that have fluctuated between immense popularity and relative obscurity over the centuries.
First though, what is fortified wine, exactly? Joshua from the Cuvée Privée team gives a brief introduction here (or here if you prefer Instagram). Fundamentally, fortified wine is a wine to which a distilled spirit has been added, typically before the fermentation process is complete. In most cases, this is a grape brandy, though other alcohol sources can be used, such as spirits made with different fruits, grain or sugarcane. The additional alcohol from this spirit kills the yeast carrying out fermentation - the conversion of sugar in the grape must into alcohol. As such, the wine is left sweeter than usual (as fermentation was incomplete and residual sugar remains in the liquid) and more alcoholic thanks to the added liquor. These fortified wines vary, of course, like any other type of wine. Some have the alcohol added later in the fermentation process, producing a drier drink. Some have aromatic botanicals, spices and herbs, infused into them to offer a host of different flavours. But we can be sure of one thing: the end product is a sweet, strong wine (typically between 15 – 22% ABV).
In one sense, the history of these wines is said to stretch back thousands of years. The Sumerians and Greeks alike are known to have made wines to which herbs and spirits were added; Hippocrates even championed the use of wormwood-infused wine as a health tonic for jaundice and menstrual pains some two thousand years ago. However, true fortified wines - in the way we know them today - cropped up around four or five hundred years ago. It is not known where exactly the first ever fortified wine originated, but we can make some educated guesses as to why it was created. For one thing, the additional alcohol creates an environment in which it is difficult for microbes to survive and flourish, and as such acts as a preservative for the wine. When being transported on long sea voyages with no refrigeration, wine kept in casks (more porous than the glass bottles of today), would oxidise and turn to vinegar. As such, a fortified wine would be protected from this spoilage and became a popular choice for marine merchants – and their customers alike, of course, who made no complaints about the extra alcohol in their wine! The fact that these wines have some level of natural preservative also contributes to their good ageing potential, and as a result many fortified wines today are aged (and often this is an indicator of their quality).
Now we understand the basics, let's take a closer look at each of the most well-known types of fortified wine.
Sherry comes from Jerez de la Frontera (“Jerez” gave rise to the name “Sherry”), a Spanish region rich in winemaking since the Phoenicians introduced the practice there in around 1000BC. However, the Jerezanos only began to fortify the wine around the 17th century, when they noticed the rising popularity of similar Portuguese wines in the European wine trade. Prior to this though, Sherry had already made a name for itself internationally, mostly thanks to the use of the wider region of Cadiz as a departure point for voyages to the New World during the “Age of Exploration”. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan famously spent more funds on wine than he did his ship’s armaments and weapons when he set off with his fleet around the world. Decades later, Sir Francis Drake of England set fire to the harbour in Cadiz during the Anglo-Spanish war, and plundered 2900 butts (1.4 million litres) of Sherry that was due to be sent to South America (whose inhabitants had since acquired a taste for the stuff). The English, who had already become fans of Sherry as an alternative to Bordeaux wines in the previous century thanks to war with France, were very happy to see the return of Drake’s haul. It soon became a cultural phenomenon in England, so much so that William Shakespeare wrote Sherry into the personality of his greatest comic character, Falstaff – a fat, vain, cowardly knight who couldn’t get enough of the fortified wine from Jerez.
The Jerezanos continued to experiment with the wine to give us the Sherry we know and love today. While most young wines are generally kept in airtight barrels to avoid oxidation and contamination from bacteria or funghi, sherry barrels are left partially empty and the bung is not fully sealed, allowing a skin of yeast (known as “flor”) to form on the surface. This skin acts as a protective film against oxidisation, and the yeast gives the sherry a distinctive taste, with underlying aromas of fresh bread. “Fino” sherries are left to ferment fully under the flor, giving them a drier, fresher flavour; they are only fortified at the very end of the process. “Oloroso” sherries are fortified earlier, meaning they are less fresh and yeasty and instead take on nutty flavours and darker colours as they face oxidative ageing in the barrel, no longer protected by the yeast’s skin-like shield from the air.
Marsala is Italy’s answer to fortified wine. More specifically, it is the namesake town of Marsala in Sicily where this wine emerged (another place conquered by Phoenicians, who introduced the tradition of winemaking there in 400BC). In 1773, a rich English merchant from Liverpool by the name of John Woodhouse was driven into the port of Marsala by a storm. During his stay, he tried a local wine that reminded him of the strong wines of Portugal that were popular at the time in England and was determined to take it back with him to sell. As such, he fortified the wine for transport and Marsala as we know it today was born. It soon replaced rum as the favourite tipple of the British Royal Navy men, and thanks to the successes of Lord Admiral Nelson during the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, became a wine of “victory”.
Marsala is usually made from white Italian grape varieties such as Grillo and Inzoli, though some reds can be used, like Perricone and Nero d’Avola. Much like other fortified wines, it can be classified by colour, sweetness and the length of the ageing period, from Oro (gold) to Rubino (ruby), and Fine (aged for one year) to Soleras Riserva (aged for at least ten years). Today, Marsala is potentially best known, particularly in the USA, for its uses in cooking, especially in the food of Italian Americans. It is used in both savoury (Chicken Marsala) and sweet (Zabaglione) dishes.
Madeira, much like Jerez, was a famous stop off for ships during the Age of Exploration, particularly those headed to the “East Indies”. By the 17th century, The Dutch East India Company were already purchasing huge casks of a wine from Madeira that had had liquor made from cane sugar added to them for preservation. Their trips to India meant the casks travelled in very warm conditions, transforming their contents in the heat into a totally new style of fortified wine unlike that of anywhere else in the world. Initially known as “vinho da roda” (round-trip wine), it resembled the Madeira wine we know today, whose unique character can be attributed to oxidisation both from ageing and heat-exposure. This heat lends aromas of caramel, roasted nuts and burnt sugar.
In the 1700s, Madeira was an exceptionally popular drink, particularly with the thirteen colonies that had established themselves in that new exciting landmass across the Atlantic. When John Hancock had his ship, Liberty, seized by the British over duties owed to them regarding its cargo of 3000+ gallons of Madeira, riots took place all over Boston, which contributed to the underlying distaste for the British and, ultimately, Revolution! The Founding Fathers toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira.
Madeira can be either Blended or Single-Varietal, the latter of which is usually of higher quality and is mostly made from 4 different grape varieties: Boal, Malmsey, Sercial and Verdelho. These varietals can really vary: Sercial is a citric, minerally, crisp style compared to Malmsey’s rich, sweet nature which can be reminiscent of dried fruit, toffee, vanilla and honey.
The most famous of the fortified wines, Port set the historical bar for sweet, alcoholic wines. Port is frequently hailed the lovechild of the long-standing diplomatic relationship between the Portuguese and the British. While the British always loved wine, the climate in England historically never favoured viticulture, and as such the English had to rely on merchants to bring wine into the country from other, more wine-friendly nations: where better, then, than the steep banks of the river that meanders through the rolling mountains of the Douro valley, its summers blanketed in golden sunlight. The most common theory of the origin of Port stems from a meeting of English wine merchants with an abbot in Lamego, a city in the Douro. It is believed that he was the first to perform the special trick for wine preservation that we’ve now heard many times, and the merchants followed suit, fortifying the barrels they had just bought from the monastery by adding brandy (aguardente) to protect the wine on its journey back to the English shores. In this one brazen act, these mavericks created a whole new style of wine that would be adored worldwide and replicated across the continent by the Italians and the Spanish alike (as we have already seen!). The subsequent War of the Spanish Succession meant that trade with France became impossible, and so the English went Port-crazy as French wine was no longer an option.
As the English went mad for Port, the market was soon flooded with adulterated wines that claimed to be authentic Port from Douro but that were instead made with grapes from other regions of Portugal or Spain, supplemented with spices to give the wine certain Port-like flavours. As people caught wind of this, imports to England dropped, along with the price of Port. To remedy this issue, the Portuguese created a regulatory body, the Douro Wine Company, in 1756, to demarcate the region and lay out the rules for its winemaking. In doing this, they established Douro as what would be one of the world’s oldest appellations (for comparison, the French only set up the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées in 1937, after earlier laws of codification of wine standards were passed in 1889, mostly in response to the fraud that stemmed from the phylloxera crisis).
Following the Portuguese government’s intervention, Port quickly became a sensation in England once more. It began to become associated with elegance and gentlemanliness in Great Britain, a favourite of dandies and aristocrats as a digestif in the gentlemen’s clubs and stately homes of England. However, with the advent of other fortified wines (particularly sherry), by the beginning of the 19th Century Port was no longer the only option and its popularity plateaued.
Often cited as the most important aspect of Port wine is its blend of unique grape varieties native to Portugal and grown in the Douro valley. There are over 50 different varieties, and each one offers something different to the final mix. Some examples are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional (the most widely-planted). The fruit are generally rather small and concentrated, whose flavours lend well to the ageing process (as they are not overly fresh and quickly lost).
Thanks to the diversity in character borne of the blending of varieties, years of harvest and the potential for ageing, the categorisation of Port is relatively complex and there are many different types of Port available to enjoy. The main three categories are White (citric, nutty, light in colour), Tawny (caramel-like, fig-like, in shades of copper) and Ruby (raspberry and blackberry-like, chocolatey, deep red in colour). These can then be categorised further: Tawny can be a ‘colheita’ (a single-year vintage, usually at least ten years old) or blends of vintages with combinations of barrel-ageing indicated on the label (20 years, 30 years etc.). Rubies can be ‘reserve’ (slightly premium but intended to be drunk young), LBV (late bottled vintage – wine from a single harvest year, aged for 4 – 6 years in wood to then be drunk young) or true vintage (wine from a single harvest year aged for two years in a barrel before bottling but then aged in-bottle for much longer – to be enjoyed after 20 – 40 years).
Vermouth is a rather unique type of fortified wine. Its history goes back further than the aforementioned, but instead in the form of a host of aromatised wines with herbs and roots added to them for medicinal purposes (in Ancient Greece and China for example, with records dating back as far as 1000BC). Vermouth is a French variant of the German word “Wermut”, meaning wormwood, a root frequently used in the drink, prominently around the 16th century in Germany. Vermouth as we know it today (the bitter-sweet, fortified kind) began to appear in the mid 1700s in Turin, Italy, and came to prominence after Antonio Benedetto Carpano recorded the first true recipe in 1786. It soon became popular in Italy and France as an aperitif, with the logic being that its aromatic nature prepares the stomach for digestion. At this time it was a favourite of the royal court of Savoie. Two major variants of vermouth appeared over time: one sweet and red and the other dry and pale. As cocktails became the fashionable way to consume alcohol at the end of the 19th century, bartenders found that vermouth complimented other liquors very well, and it soon became a staple ingredient in a number of classics, from the Manhattan to the Martini. Aided by endorsement from high-profilers in the early 20th century, both non-fictional (Hemingway, Bogart) and fictional (James Bond) alike, vermouth cocktails soon took the world by storm.
Vermouth must be 75% wine (usually white grapes such as Picuepoul and Trebbiano), with the remaining 25% comprising sugar, alcohol and botanicals (like cinchona bark, licorice root, orange peel, juniper, chamomile etc.). Some well known vermouths are Lillet Blanc, Nouilly Prat, Carpano Antica Formula and, of course, those made by Martini & Rossi.
Fortified Wines Today
In the early 20th century, fortified wines picked up a bad reputation, as cheap flavoured versions saturated the market in the USA and parts of the UK and became the drink of choice for the impoverished (think Thunderbird during the Great Depression) and those looking to get drunk quickly and inexpensively (connotations of Buckfast in Scotland). In recent years however, cocktail culture has opened the door for a revival of fortified wines. Mixologists all over the globe have experimented with cocktails that utilise not only vermouth, but also sherry, madeira and even Port to great success. This being said, consumption of fortified wines as a savoured standalone aperitif/digestif (save on special occasions like Port at Christmas in the UK) still seems far off, something a little anachronistic in the Western drinking culture of today. Perhaps we will see a resurgence in time, especially as rising responsible consumption trends see young people taking greater care in what they consume and how they consume it. Regardless, the world of fortified wines is diverse and historic, and offers a great deal of potential for exploration and enjoyment for the learning wine-lover.