The notion of naturally produced wines has gained significant support and popularity in the United States. Left behind have been naturally produced wines that are fortified. These wines have been further processed with alcohol, typically brandy, a good deal of which are naturally produced.
I was never a big fan of fortified wines. But I’ve been fortunate in the past few years to enjoy a number of excellent, palate pleasing wines that happen to be fortified.
Sometimes it’s been port, other times sherry, on a few occasions madeira. I will freely admit that it has taken me a number of years to develop an appreciation for this style of wine. I believe my experiences were likely influenced by the bad rap to which these wines were subjected.
There was the fortified wine of my teenage years (Thunderbird) followed, as a responsible twenty-something by Dry Sack Sherry (yecch). It was a bottle of vintage 1970 Dow Port I received on my 40th birthday that opened a new world of sensory pleasures to me; it was more sophisticated and more complex than many table wines I had previously enjoyed.
Even today, each time I pour a glass from an open bottle, it is different than the first or most recent pour from that bottle. I find this is the defining element of these wines. They are living, breathing organisms that for several decades undergo constant changes in aromas and flavors. Each pour is steeped in nuance and is meant to be contemplated. Think of a Shakespearean passage that holds a different meaning each time it is read.
There are several types and styles of fortified wines, depending on their country of origin, the fortification process employed and the length of aging.
- Port. This has been the signature wine of Portugal since the 16th century. The fortification is achieved from adding brandy to fermenting red wine, which halts the fermentation at a critical stage, sustaining the sugars present in the barrel. In this manner, the wines are able to develop their signature structure of raisins and a slight sweetness, making them perfect as dessert wines.
- Sherry. During the Age of Discovery, Spanish explorers stocked their ocean-going ships with fortified wines, ensuring that the wines would not spoil on long voyages. Produced from white grapes and ranging from lighter-bodied to deep, complex, full-bodied styles, sherries have a much more diverse profile than port. Although fortified in the same manner as port, the brandy is added at the end of the fermentation process, resulting in a drier style than port and easier to blend to a winemaker’s preference. This makes most Sherries a preferred aperitif wine.
- Madeira. On this island off the Portuguese mainland, wine is fortified in a manner similar to sherry, with one pronounced difference. Upon completion of fermentation, the wine is distilled in oak casks – literally slow-cooked for up to three months before bottling. The concentrated end product has sophisticated, complex flavors that are best enjoyed in front of a roaring fire (with your favorite cheese).
- Marsala. This is not the bottle that is in your kitchen pantry. Produced in Sicily from white (or red) indigenous grapes, it is fortified in a similar manner to port. It is a lighter, softer, nuanced wine that is best when served chilled and paired with fruit or hearty cheeses. Recently revitalized, Sicilian winemakers have made this a wine to be sought out.
The best way for you to introduce yourself to these wines is through a wine-by-the-glass list at a local restaurant, tapas bar or wine bar. Once you’ve isolated your personal palate preferences, purchase a bottle at a local wine shop.
I encourage you to take a step back – clear your perceptions of fortified wines – and enhance your wine experiences with a fresh look at what’s being offered today. Your palate, and your psyche, will thank you.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.