Fortified Wines: What To Know

Even while vermouth and sherry, two fortified wines, are receiving more attention these days, there is still some misconception about what they exactly are. What are sherry and vermouth? What on earth is a fortified wine, anyway?

One explanation for this lack of awareness could be a persistent association with subpar goods, like cheap, extremely sweet cream sherries, which many people grew to associate with the entire category.

Fortified wine is defined as a wine made by adding a neutral spirit (usually grape-derived, colourless spirit that is neutral in flavour and odour) to a base wine – that is, fermented, partially fermented, or unfermented grape juice – this process is known as “fortification.” To put it another way, fortification can occur before, during, or after fermentation.

There is a broad range of fortified wines, and vermouth and sherry are actually two different varieties that fall under this umbrella term.
Although the concept is straightforward, the trick is that each type of fortified wine has a unique set of rules that define it.
Regulations for fortified wines often cover the permitted ABV range, age minimums and styles, kind of base wine, type of spirit that can be added and how, amount of sugar on a scale from dry to sweet, etc. Although fortified wines can be produced anywhere, regulations for particular geographical areas frequently apply to a particular category. For example, Madeira coming from Portugal’s Madeira Islands.

Types of fortified wine

Sherry: Fortified wine from Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalusia, Spain, and is made from the Palomino, Muscat, or Pedro Ximénez grape varieties. The distinctive feature of Sherry production is that these wines are deliberately exposed to oxygen, promoting the development of their deep, nutty flavour profile. The Solera method of ageing Sherry wines by blending different ages is almost entirely unique to Sherry. Sherry is fortified with brandy and has an ABV of 15 to 18%. The majority of Sherries are made in a dry style that is very fresh and salty, but sweeter styles do exist!

Port: The Duoro Valley in Portugal is where port wine is produced and is made from the Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinata Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão grape varieties, among others. The Port wine is obtained by the addition of brandy before fermentation is complete. The finished wine is sweet and has an ABV of around 20%. Ruby Ports and Tawny Ports are the two traditional Port styles. The primary distinction between the two is their distinct ageing processes. White, rosé, and dry Ports are less traditional styles.

Madeira: There are four main grapes used to make high-quality Madeira, and they also serve as sweetness categories. Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, and Sercial are the sweetest to the driest. Terrantez, which has a similar level of sweetness to Verdelho, is also rarely seen.

The Madeira winemaking process evolved into a one-of-a-kind practise that stems from the taste of Madeira, which was once the result of long voyages in hot climates. The fact that this 500-year-old winemaking tradition is produced by an artificial heating process known as estufagem distinguishes it. Heat ageing, along with oxidation and mild pasteurisation, is done in two ways: naturally over decades or over months using hot water tanks or steam.

Madeira wines can be made in a variety of styles, ranging from sweet wines best served with dessert to dry wines best served as an aperitif.

Moscatel de Setúbal: The Portuguese love their fortified wine, and this is another geographically specified rendition. This one is from Setbal, a city on the nation’s coast that is part of the Setbal Peninsula. A single business, José Maria da Fonseca, dominates the market for this wine, which is predominantly produced from the muscat of Alexandria vine. The addition of muscat grape skins after the distilled alcohol has been infused into the wine gives the style its more flowery and occasionally funky scents.


Marsala is named after the city of Marsala on the Italian island of Sicily. It is made from local white grape varietals such as Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino.

The first Marsala appears to have been created by an Englishman in an attempt to make a cheaper version of Sherry and Port. Marsala, like other fortified wines, is fortified by the addition of brandy after it has been aged in barrels for five years. The ABV ranges from 15 to 20%, and the styles range from dry aperitivos to sweet dessert wines.

Commandaria: Commandaria is primarily a sweet dessert wine from Cyprus. It is made from only two types of grapes native to the island, xynisteri and mavro. It is said to have a production history dating back nearly 3,000 years. The maximum alcohol content is 20% ABV, and the wine tastes extremely rich, sweet, and fruity.

Also worth noting is mistelle, which can be either a fortified wine or the ingredient used to fortify wine. Mistelle is grape juice mixed with a spirit; however, if the grape juice has been partially fermented (turned into wine), adding a spirit transforms it into a fortified wine.

Aromatized Wine: It is made by combining a low abv wine with a neutral grape spirit. The spirit is then infused with a variety of herbs and spices (and sometimes wormwood) to give it its distinct flavour profile, and sugar syrup may be added depending on the desired level of sweetness. Vermouth is the most famous of this category.

Modern vermouth is primarily produced in Italy and France, though some form of the drink has been around for centuries. The name was derived from the German word ‘wermut,’ which means ‘wormwood,’ an ingredient commonly used and thought to have medicinal properties.

Although the style can vary hugely, many Vermouths can be enjoyed as an aperitif. The most popular use, however, is in mixology, with it serving as a key component for many quintessential cocktails, including the Manhattan, Martini and Negroni. 

How To Drink Fortified Wines?

Given the diversity of fortified wines, the recommended serving style will also vary, some are best chilled, while the others are best enjoyed at room temperature, you may find some of them more interesting in a coupe or in a cocktail or simply straight from the bottle. Play around and discover how you enjoy them best!

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