Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: May 10, 2023

What is Fortified Wine? [Ultimate Fortified Wine Guide]

Fortified wine being poured into glass

The world of the fortified wines is fascinating. It's full of strong aromas and rich and enchanting flavors.

But what is fortified wine?

Often underrated, this drink stands halfway between a traditional wine and a spirit.

At least in terms of alcoholic strength.

In fact, fortified wine usually has an alcohol concentration between 15 and 22%.

But, it's not that simple. Let's see what makes fortified wine different.

What is Fortified Wine?

Before dealing with the aspects related to the production, it is essential to understand what a fortified wine is.

This type of wine, which can also be defined as liqueur wine, is different from all the others because it is fortified with a certain quantity of alcohol during production.

But the process, called fortification, doesn’t have the sole purpose of increasing the alcoholic concentration of the wine.

In fact, fortification is a delicate process in which the quality of the fortifying agent plays a fundamental role.

The fortifying agent is either ethyl alcohol or brandy and the choice determines the quality of the final beverage.

A quality fortified wine is a wine in which the impact of the fortifying agent doesn’t affect the primary organoleptic characteristics of the base wine.

In other words, the aroma of the added alcohol must be hardly perceptible and it shouldn’t cover the main aromas of the original wine.

fortified masala wine

Understanding Fortified Wine

Now, a question arises.

If the aromas of the fortifying agent should be imperceptible and the increase of the alcohol concentration is not the main purpose of the fortification, why is alcohol added?

And what is the purpose of fortifying an already great wine?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to underline that not all fortified wines have high alcohol contents.

Typically, the alcoholic concentration in a fortified wine varies between 15% and 22%, but there are examples of fortified wines with alcohol concentrations of 14%.

The main advantage of the fortification is the guarantee of a longer shelf life of the wine, ensuring a greater longevity and reducing the risk of alterations.

In fact, it is believed that fortification emerged precisely for this purpose.

This “trick” was well-known to wine merchants who often fortified wines to preserve them during transport.

One of the most famous fortified wines in the world, the Sicilian Marsala, was created by John Woodhouse who added spirits to the wine in barrels before shipping them to England.

Glasses of port wine

Another advantage of fortification is the preservation of the sweetness of a wine. Alcohol kills wine yeasts, and that’s why many wineries simply fortify the wines during winemaking to stop fermentation and preserve the sweetness of a wine.

Yeasts generally don’t withstand temperatures above 16.4° and once deactivated, the sugar residues present in the wine will not be transformed into alcohol.

Some of the most famous wines fortified for this purpose are sweet Madeira and some types of Port wine.

Lastly, the fortification also ensures a higher microbiological stability of the wine, preventing the activation of a further fermentation.

However, the interruption of the fermentation is not the only way to produce fortified sweet wines.

Some wineries simply start the wine from a mixture of unfermented grape juice and alcohol that increases the alcohol content of the final product while maintaining the sweetness of the wine.

fortified wine

The Different Types of Fortified Wine

The most common types of fortified wine are Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Port, and Vermouth.

Types of Fortified Wine

Sherry - Sherry is a fortified wine from Andalucía in Southern Spain. It comes in a variety of styles, from very sweet all the way to very dry. Sherry is most commonly associated with a nutty, dried fruit flavor.

Popular varieties of Sherry include: Oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Cream, and Palo Cortado.

Madeira - originating from the Portuguese island of the same name, Madeira is made from white grapes and can be dry or sweet.

It is often served as an aperitif or dessert wine and is also very popular in cooking. The younger wines are typically used in cooking.

Port - the most famous of fortified wines, Port comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal.

Typically full bodied and sweet, Port can possess aromas of dried fruit, plum, and spices.

Varieties of Port include: Tawny, Ruby, Rosé white, and Colheita.

Vermouth - probably most commonly known as an ingredient in a Martini cocktail, Vermouth can be dry (white) or sweet (red) and is flavored with herbs and spices

Dry Vermouth is the French variant while sweet Vermouth hails from Italy.

Marsala - Marsala wine hails from Sicily in Italy and is fortified with Brandy. It's usually nutty in flavor and is very popular in cooking.

How is Fortified Wine Made?

For the most part, the production process follows the same steps as for a traditional wine. 

An important role in the production of a fortified wine is played by alcohol.

The quality of the alcohol has a great influence on the organoleptic properties of the fortified wines, that’s why there are major differences between apparently similar beverages.

The alcohol used for fortification is produced with different methods.

Quality fortified wines are obtained after the addition of grape distillates or ethylic alcohol produced from sugar beet or sugar cane. In some cases, wine brandies are also accepted fortifying agents.

Since, in quality fortified wines the characteristics must be imperceptible, choosing a high-quality type of alcohol is extremely important.

However, quality alcohol is expensive, therefore quality fortified wines are also expensive.

What is the Best Fortifying Agent?

If you’re planning to make fortified wine at home, the best fortifying agent is an alcohol obtained through a continuous distillation process, such as brandy.

You’ll probably argue that brandy has its distinctive aromas and flavors, and that's completely true.

But, the aromatic qualities and flavors can enhance what's already there if blended carefully.

The aromatic qualities of the spirit (when the spirit is of high quality) should do nothing but enrich the aromatic qualities of the base wine, creating a beautifully rich fortified wine.

Obviously, the more neutral and poor in aromatic substance the spirit is, the less it will alter the aromas and flavors of the final product.

However, poor aromatic spirits are generally used for the fortification of wines destined for rapid consumption or if the primary aromatic characteristics have to be retained, such as in fortified wines made of White Muscat grapes.

Alcohol produced with a discontinuous distillation method, such as grappa, is rarely used as a fortifying agent because of its highly aromatic characteristics.

Two glasses of fortified Madeira wine

The Fortified Wine Production Process

The production process of fortified wines begins in the same way as for any other wine. The wine is started with high-quality grape juice or must, but the fortification is achieved in various ways.

In some wines, such as some Port wines, Madeira dessert wines and Vin Doux Naturel, the fermentation of the must is interrupted by the addition of a spirit.

This has the purpose of inactivating the yeasts and conserving the residual sugars. This process contributes to the sweetness of the wine.

Madeira wine bottles

In some fortified wines, the fermentation of the grape juice is avoided altogether by the addition of the spirit before the fermentation starts.

These are the so-called “vin de liqueur” and one of the finest examples is Pineau de Charentes, produced in the region Cognac in France.

This fortified wine is often served as a sweet aperitif and is obtained from grape must and Cognac.

The mixture is maturated in oak barrels for at least a couple of years and, since the alcohol prevents any fermentation, this beverage is actually a fortified grape juice.

In the production of dry fortified wines, such as Jerez Fino, Virgin Marsala or Manzanilla, the fortifying agent is added to a base wine, after the fermentation has stopped naturally.

In this case, the base wine is obtained from the normal fermentation process and, when the maturation process ends, the wine is fortified with a certain quantity of alcohol until it reaches a concentration between 15 and 22%.

The fortification marks the beginning of a new production phase and the fortified wine achieved in this way is maturated in oak barrels for at least 12 months.

3 bottles of port

Fortified Wine Aromas

When thinking of the organoleptic characteristics of a fortified wine, inexpert wine drinkers may argue that the fortification is nothing but a deliberate degradation and contamination of the base wine that loses its properties and becomes undrinkable.

The truth is that the organoleptic qualities of fortified wines are complex and fascinating. The preservative capacity of alcohol allows fortified wines to develop sublime aromas and flavors. The aging process also plays an essential role in the development of the character of a fortified wine.

In fact, all those practices considered pejorative in the normal maturation of wine, such as temperature and humidity fluctuations, are essential for the proper maturation of a fortified wine and are deliberately favored.

The evolution of fortified wines is generally carried out in oak barrels filled in such a way to expose wine to oxidation. This gives the wine interesting organoleptic characteristics that only connoisseurs can understand.

During the maturation process, some wineries allow the formation of a yeast veil on the surface of the wine.

This gives wine characteristic aromas, and one of the most famous fortified wines achieved with this method is Jerez or Sherry.

Another method used for some Jerez wines and for Marsala consists in a long maturation that can last for decades.

In this period, the wine develops unique qualities and a complex body.

Madeira wine bottle on wall

Tasting a Fortified Wine

The flavors and aromas of a fortified wine are more intense and deep than those of aged dry wines.

From the moment when the wine is poured into the glass, fortified wine gives an impression of considerable viscosity. The liquid forms abundant bows on the wall of the glass.

From a visual point of view, the greenish reflections given by young dry wines is absent. The dominant color of a fortified wine is golden, although the shade can range from pale gold to antique gold and everything in between.

Aged fortified wines tend to become coppery and those aged for decades present darker colors, such as amber, mahogany, tawny, or even brown.

From an olfactory standpoint, the aromatic range of a fortified wine is complex and dominated by fruity scents.

Young fortified wines usually have fresh floral notes, such as orange blossom or citrus, followed by aromas of exotic fruits such as lychee, pineapple, and mango.

Fortified wines obtained from Pinot Grigio or Gewürztraminer develop spicy notes and aromas of toasted caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, and even aniseed.

Aromas are complemented by hints of honey, praline, and almond. These are also the typical aromas of ages fortified wines.

In regard to the flavors, fortified wines are characterized by an equilibrium evaluated in the base of the alcohol concentration.

The main defect of a fortified wine is considered the burning character given by the addition of too much alcohol.

Other characteristics to evaluate are the acidity and the greasiness, two factors that determine the aromatic complexity and the tactile sensations of the liquid.

Complex, concentrated and flavorful, fortified wines have all the necessary characteristics to be impressive conversation pieces.

Final Thoughts

Fortified wine can be a complex and simply amazing drink (if done right). 

It gets a bit of a bad reputation as simply being all alcohol with little nuance but that's just not true.

Obtained in a rather simple way, the quality and character of these wines are given by the quality of the fortifying agent and by the maturation process. 

The result is often surprising and, if you’re rather sceptical about it, you’ll simply have to try it to understand its character!

A great place to start is this 10-year Old Sandeman Tawny Port. It's sweet, fruity, rich and absolutely delicious!

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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