Port, Sherry, Madeira, Banyuls, and Marsala all hover in that all-inclusive dessert category of wine that most casual wine drinkers don’t take the time to ponder, leaving the dirty work to sommeliers and wine retailers. Others reach for these wines only when they’re busy in the kitchen, looking for something to deglaze a pan or to enrich a sauce for braised meats. While these wines definitely serve a culinary purpose, there’s so much more to explore within this often overlooked category of wine miscellany.
So what do all of these wines have in common and what makes them different from other popular dessert wines like Moscato d’Asti or Sauternes, for example? One word: Fortification.
Fortified wines, put plain and simply, are wines to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy (which is made from grapes rather than grains), is added. The original purpose of adding spirits to wine was to preserve it for long-term storage and consumption, since ethanol (AKA alcohol) which results from the distillation process, acts as a natural preservative.
Besides giving the wine an extended shelf life, the addition of grape brandy serves to flavor the wine. Different appellation laws in each of the countries where fortified wines are produced dictate which types of brandies or in some cases, neutral spirits, are permitted in the production process, as well as which types of grapes are permitted in the base wine. While fortified wines hail from different parts of the world, namely Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy, they’re all produced using the same old-school method that has been in practice for centuries.
The process starts with the standard fermentation process by which most wines are made (sugar + yeast = alcohol), except the brandy is added to the base wine before the fermentation process is complete — that is, before all of the sugar in the grape must has been consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol. The alcohol in the brandy kills the remaining yeast cells in the wine, which stops the fermentation mid-process, leaving behind what’s called residual sugar. The resulting wine is both sweet from the residual sugar and higher in alcohol from the addition of the brandy.
The earlier the brandy is added to the base wine, the sweeter the resulting wine will be, since only a small percentage of the sugar in the grape must has had the opportunity to ferment into alcohol. On the other hand, if the brandy is added late in the fermentation process, the resulting wine will be drier and less sweet.
Sweeter-style fortified wines such as Port, Banyuls, or Pedro Ximenez Sherry work perfectly with chocolate desserts or as an accompaniment to pungent or aged cheeses, while drier-style fortified wines such as Fino Sherry or dry Vermouth make wonderful aperitifs to sip with nuts, olives, and cheese before dinner. Generally speaking, fortified wines show best when served chilled or at cellar temperature as opposed to room temperature.
Do you have a favorite dessert wine? Let us know in the comments!
Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.