Like much of life, fortified wines were born from necessity. In this case, to preserve European wines on long trade voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brandy was added either before or during the fermentation process to stabilize the wines, and improve their shelf life. As might be imagined, traditional wines did not store well in the wildly fluctuating temperature and motion they were subjected to on the voyages. Once fortified, they are more stable than traditional wines and have a much longer shelf life once open.
While the reasons no longer apply, the methods used today are nearly identical to those of old, so the fortified wines of today bear a close resemblance to their brethren of old. The final product typically contains between 14% to 21% alcohol, and are more stable than ordinary table wines. If brandy, or the alcohol of choice is added after the fermentation process, the result is a dry wine. If the alcohol is added before fermentation, the result is a sweet wine with a high sugar content, with port being a classic example and consequently categorized as a dessert wine. Wines are found to be drier when the brandy is added after the fermentation process such as dry Vermouth. Depending on how the wine makers approach the process the results can vary greatly from the mellowness of a cream sherry to the pucker producing tartness of an extra-dry vermouth.
Why the difference in sweetness?
When the alcohol is added before the fermentation process is complete, it kills off the yeast and the sugar that would have been consumed in the process remains. Typically the yeast survives in a mixture where the alcohol is less than 16.4%. As these wines have more sugar than usual, they are sweeter than their non-fortified cousins. So a general rule of thumb, is that the earlier the alcohol is added to the fermentation process the sweeter the fortified wine.
What’s the difference between fortified wine and spirits?
Fortified wine is distinguished from spirits made from wine in that spirits are produced by means of distillation (brandy being a good example), while fortified wine is simply wine to which the spirits have been added.
Why are certain spirits or alcohol used and when?
The choice of spirits plays an important part in the final product of the fortified wine, as it has influence on the organoleptic qualities of wine. The alcohol used for fortification is produced with a variety of methods and substances – and it can be obtained by the distillation of grape’s pomace, wine, sugar beet, sugar cane, or agricultural byproducts. In some cases are also used wine brandies aged in cask, such as Cognac. The selection is important, because the wine maker does not want the characteristics of the spirits to overshadow those of the wine. So frequently neutral alcohol, lacking organoleptic properties are selected. They would not be desirable on their own for consumption, but serve to showcase the wine’s attributes through the fortification process. Also, depending on the desired final product, certain attributes need to be played up. Higher quality alcohol is generally used in fortified wines destined for a long period of aging in bottle; so for fortified wines intended for early consumption, the quality of alcohol is generally lower.
Continuous versus discontinuous distillation of spirits
The alcohol mainly used in fortified wines is produced with the continuous distillation method, the same system used, for example, for the production of many brandies. The most neutral alcohols, poor in aromatic substances, are commonly used for the fortification of wines destined for early consumption, or in wines which must keep their primary aromatic characteristic, such as fortified wines produced with Muscat Blanc grapes. The alcohol produced with the method of discontinuous distillation – the same system used for the production of grappa – is rarely used in fortification because of its high quantity of aromatic substances which would greatly influence the aromas of wine. The alcohol or the fortifying agent, have their own aromas and enrich the aromatic qualities of the base wine.
What are some examples of fortified wines?
- Madeira (Spain)
- Marsala (Italy)
- Moscato (Italy)
- Port (Portugal)
- Sherry (Spain)
- Vermouth (Italy)
Italian Fortified Wines
Moscato and Marsala are examples of liquoroso, the Italian name for fortified wine: typically sweet, and with a high alcohol content, by the addition of brandy, or other grape alcohol (brandy being favored). The sweetness indicating that the grape alcohol is added before the fermentation.
Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands. The wine is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry (consumed as an aperitif) to sweet (commonly consumed with dessert).
Marsala hails from Sicily, and is available as both a fortified and unfortified wine. First produced in 1772, it served as a cheap substitute for sherry and port, and gets its name from the island’s port, Marsala.
Port is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It is typically a sweet red wine, but also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from the white grapes grown near the town of Jerez, Spain. The word “sherry” is an anglicization of Jerez. In earlier times, sherry was known as sack (from the Spanish saca, meaning “a removal from the solera”). After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. Most people do not understand the difference between sherry and port – this is it, the timing of when the alcohol is added to the fermentation process: before for port, after for sherry.
Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices – the exact ingredients are a closely guarded secret, but some herbs may include cardamom, cinnamon, marjoram and chamomile. Vermouth may be sweetened; however, unsweetened, or dry vermouth tends to be bitter. Vermouth is credited to Antonio Benedetto Carpano who named his concoction “vermouth” because he was inspired by a German wine flavoured with wormwood, famously used in distilling absinthe. The modern German word “Wermut” means both wormwood and vermouth.
Vins doux naturels
Vins doux naturels are lightly fortified wines typically made from white Muscat grapes or red Grenache grapes in the south of France. The production of vins doux naturels was perfected in the 13th century and are now common in the Languedoc-Rousillon of southwest France. As the name suggests, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, and Muscat de Frontignan are all made from the white Muscat grape, while Banyuls and Maury derive from the red Grenache. Regardless of the grape, fermentation is stopped by adding up to 10% of a 190 proof grape spirits.
Fortified wines make great aperitifs, and port in particular is famous for how well it pairs with blue cheese. Of course, cooking with fortified wines offers a lot of variety and creativity, and about everyone has heard of chicken marsala. In case you have not, here is a delicious recipe courtesy of Tyler Florance.
- 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (~ 1 ½ pounds)
- Flour, for dredging
- salt and black pepper
- ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 oz prosciutto, thinly sliced
- 8 oz crimini or porcini mushrooms, stemmed and halved
- ½ c sweet Marsala wine
- ½ c chicken stock
- 2 T unsalted butter
- ¼ c chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
Put the chicken breasts on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them; pound with a flat meat mallet, until they are about ¼” thick. Put some flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper; mix well.
Heat the oil over medium-high flame in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, dredge both sides of the chicken in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess. Slip the cutlets into the pan and fry for 5 minutes on each side until golden, turning once – do this in batches if the pieces don’t fit comfortably in the pan, and to control the temperature of the oil (adding too much chicken lowers the temperature of the oil). Remove the chicken to a large platter in a single layer to keep warm.
Lower the heat to medium and add the prosciutto to the drippings in the pan, saute for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and saute until they are nicely browned and their moisture has evaporated, about 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Add the Marsala in the pan and boil down for a few seconds to cook out some of the alcohol. Add the chicken stock and simmer for a minute to reduce the sauce slightly. Stir in the butter and return the chicken to the pan; simmer gently for 1 minute to heat the chicken through. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley before serving.