The expression “fortified wine” includes Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Commandaria and Vermouth – and quite a lot of others that hardly anyone has heard of.
In the simplest terms, these are wines fortified with spirits – often a brandy made from compatible grapes – but they’re melded together in long skillful processes and acquire a character that is all their own..
In the production of wine, the fermentation process is the conversion of sugars in the must (squashed grapes in this case) into alcohol by the yeast, and normally it continues until the alcohol level reaches between 14%–17% at which point the build-up of alcohol overpowers the yeast, killing it and stopping the fermentation. Usually by the time this happens there is so little sugar left that you get a dry wine. For a sweeter wine you can either start with sweeter (e.g. riper) grapes or stop the fermentation earlier.
When added to wine before the fermentation process is complete, distilled alcohol kills the yeast while there is still sugar left behind – so the result is a fortified wine that is both sweeter and stronger (fortified wines are around 18-22% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 35-44 proof.
So adding distilled alcohol is one way of getting a sweeter wine, and this may well have been one of the original motives, rather than to increase the strength. The other motive was to preserve the wine so that it could be transported further or kept longer. The discovery that the process also produced wines of incomparable smoothness, richness and complexity was probably an accident.
Sweet grapes are often preferred for fortified wines as well as a shorter fermentation, but whether or not your port or sherry is sweet or dry, good quality fortified wine is much more than plonk with a vodka chucked in it. Try it – it won’t taste like sherry not even a bad one. Not only must appropriate grapes (or other fruits) be used to make the spirit, but the methods of wine production in order to get the specific qualities in the end result have taken centuries to master – they include storing it in the right vats. in the right kegs at the right temperature in the exact cellar conditions for the perfect amount of time.
There is an optimum alcoholic strength for a beverage to go straight into your bloodstream – beer is too weak, and spirits are too strong – the stomach actually adapts and thickens up to slow the absorption of spirit (which is why you suddenly get drunk when you mistakenly dilute it by rounding off the evening with a cup of coffee, or drink a glass of water the next morning and find yourself drunk again).
Fortified wines like Port and Sherry are at the perfect intermediary concentration – a few sherries on an empty stomach can have you reeling in minutes. Nevertheless, that’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing – so long as you are aware of it, (white port – for some reason – is surely the fastest route from bottle to brain short of injecting it).
Fortified wines – especially port for some reason – used to get a lot of blame for causing gout. Current thinking is that its just alcohol and rich living in general that can cause, or aggravate gout. I’m not so sure – mine comes and goes along with drinking port, but it’ll take a whole lot more bottles before I’m certain (beside if you’re stuck in a chair with your feet up what are you going to do with your hands?)
The earliest definite records of fortified wines in production in Western Europe are from around 1650 AD although the date was probably earlier in Spain as the art of distillation is believed to have been brought over by the Moors.
Over the centuries since then, hardly any variety of alcohol has excited as much connoisseurial devotion as fortified wines, especially vintage port and especially in Britain where it’s been more popular than anywhere else. But oddly, other than port and sherry few British people today even know the names of some of them any more. Navigate to the next page to learn all about these terrific drinks and their often strange histories.