We're familiar with Sherry, Port, Madeira and Marsala wines called for in some cooking recipes, but fine fortified wines are extraordinarily powerful on the nose and palate. They range from tangy, dry fortified to dark, sweet fortified and are wonderful on their own.
Fortified wines have had grape spirit (brandy) added either before, during or after fermentation, which raises the alcohol content and also changes the flavor profile, making a very unique and distinctive wine. The fortification of wine began in the 16th century when a growing number of countries were exporting wine. Unfortunately, these wines were not shelf stable and often went bad during the shipping process that often had violent movements below decks. To preserve their wines, winemakers began adding brandy, creating fortified wine.
Sherry, the unsung hero of the great wine classics, is misunderstood, underappreciated and wrongly cast as the drink of choice by old ladies! Sherry is made in multiple styles. These range from hauntingly bone-dry to teeth-aching sweet. The fino-type Sherries are light, dry and crisp, and the oloroso-type Sherries are fuller bodied, darker in color, nutty, and sometimes sweet. Fino and manzanilla Sherries are bone-dry with no acidity at all. A heady, salty character almost reminiscent of the sea develops from aging in barrels in the presence of a special yeast called flor. Oloroso and cream Sherry are dark brown, nutty, and some aged olorosos can have alcohol as high as 22-24 percent. All Sherry goes through an aging process in a solera system where there is constant fractional blending of younger wines into older wines - a very complicated procedure.
There are ten different styles of Port: White Port, Ruby Port, Young Tawny Port, Aged Tawny Port, Vintage Character Port, Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBVs), Traditional Late Bottled Vintage Port, Vintage Port, Single Quinta Vintage Port and Crusted Port. So-called Ports are made in the United States, South Africa and Australia, among other places. These fortified wines while they may be quite extraordinary are not true Ports. Like authentic Champagne or Sherry, real Port comes only from its historic demarcated region in Portugal. The neutral grape spirits (clear brandy) is added to stop fermentation when about half the natural sugar has been converted. The alcohol in the spirits causes the yeasts in the wine to die, and fermentation subsides. The result is a sweet wine with about 10 percent residual sugar, fortified to about 20 percent alcohol.
Also from Portugal is Madeira. Made in the same fortification process as Port, Maderia's coffee-caramel-like character comes as a result of heating the wine, a process called estufagem. Only the very finest Madeiras (about three percent) carry out the heating process naturally - that is casks of the best wines are placed in the attics of the producers, sitting under the hot Maderian sun, building up tremendous heat. The casks remain undisturbed for about 20 years, sometimes longer. Obviously, there are quality ranges all across the board for this wine. At the lowest level, Madeira can be a cheap, bulk-processed wine consigned to cooking, but the fine Madeira is a handcrafted wine of breathtaking complexity and longevity. Styles to look for: Sercial, the driest, Verdelho, medium-dry, Bual and Malmsey, the richest, sweetest style.
Sicily's most famous wine is Marsala, a sweet fortified wine that, despite numerous cheap supermarket examples, can be extremely delicious when made by a first-rate producer. There are multiple and intricate ways Marsalas are made but the best are made by a method similar to the solera process of fractional blending used for Sherry. The most stunning Marsalas are the vergines and vergine stravecchios, which in finesse equal the best tawny Ports and oloroso Sherries.
So, as the cold weather closes in, sit back before your fire and enjoy a glass of Sherry, Port, Madeira or Marsala after dinner.
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