Fortified wines, also known as liqueur wines, are so called because they have been fortified (strengthened) by the addition of grape spirit. This addition increases the alcoholic strength and stabilises the wine.
The main categories of fortified wine are outlined below, with the range of styles in each category and their most significant characteristics. The stage at which the spirit is added is critical to the style: if it is added before or during the fermentation process, the wine will be sweeter than if it is added at the end of the fermentation process. This is because the addition of the spirit stops the fermentation.
It is widely believed that fortified wines can be kept for quite some time after they have been opened. However, this applies only to Madeira and to other wines that are exposed to heat during maturation. Other fortified wines should be treated in the same way as non-fortified wines, especially mature vintage ports. Delicate fresh styles such as Manzanilla and Fino sherry should be consumed as young as possible.
Sherry is made in and around the town of Jerez de la Frontera in south-west Spain. The main grape variety is Palomino Fino. Pedro Ximenez - often referred to as PX - is also grown and is used mainly for sweetening wines.
These base white wines are fermented to dryness before the spirit is added. The amount of spirit added affects the growth of a yeast called flor, which strongly influences the style of the wine. The yeasty flavour of flor is most evident in Fino and Manzanilla. Most sherries are between 15% and 18% alcohol by volume. Sweetness levels range from bone dry to very sweet.
Sherry is matured in what is known as the solera system, which blends wine from different vintages to create a consistent style. This sherry is generally a non-vintage wine. More recently, age-dated wines have been permitted but these are still blends of several vintages.
Traditionally drunk as an apéritif, sherry can be surprisingly versatile as a food wine, and starting at around 15% alcohol by volume, it is not much stronger than many table wines.
Manzanilla: Very pale, delicate, salty and crisp. Tends to be similar to Fino but lighter and even more tangy. Delicious served really chilled.
Fino: Pale, dry, tangy and ideal as an apéritif, with salted almonds or olives. Also very good with tapas, seafood and ham. Serve chilled.
Amontillado: Amber-coloured and slightly nutty. Available as a traditional dry style or sweetened to medium dry. Both work well as an apéritif. Serve at room temperature.
Oloroso: Dark, nutty, raisiny, full-bodied and traditionally dry, though sweetened versions are available. Good examples are complex and full of flavour. Dry styles go with olives or hard cheeses. Sweeter styles are good with desserts such as trifle, créme brûlée or chocolate cake.
Pale Cream: Fino sweetened by the addition of concentrated must. Serve chilled.
Cream: Oloroso sweetened by the addition of PX or Moscatel wine. Goes very well with rich desserts or cakes full of dried fruits such as Christmas cake or Christmas pudding.
Palo Cortado: An unusual and complex sherry that falls somewhere between an Oloroso and an Amontillado. Good as an apéritif but also goes very well with a wide range of cheeses.
Port is made in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. It takes its name from the city of Oporto, the port from which wines are shipped around the world. Most ports are also aged in the city.
Port is sweet because the grape spirit is added part-way through the fermentation, thus stopping the conversion of grape sugar to alcohol. It is therefore essential to extract colour and tannins as quickly as possible before the spirit is added. This is why grapes were traditionally trodden by foot. Most ports are between 18% and 20% alcohol by volume. With port, it is the way the wines are matured that most influences the style.
Most ports are red. There are more than 40 authorised black grape varieties but the most important ones are: Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain), Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Cao and Tinta Barroca.
The main grape varieties in white port are white: Gouveio (Verdelho), Malvasia Fina, Rabigate, Viosinho and Donzelinho.
There is a wide range of styles but they fall into two main categories: Those that are aged in wood and those that are aged in bottle.
Ruby: Young, deep ruby in colour, fruity, fiery and quite simple. Usually aged in bulk for 2-3 years before bottling, though some better ones, e.g. Warre's warrior Special Reserve, are aged for up to five years. For immediate consumption.
Tawny: In theory, a wine that has been aged long enough in wood for the colour to have changed from ruby to tawny though there are a wide range of styles and quality levels within this category. Good ones are smooth and soft thanks to the long ageing in wood. Cheaper versions are no older than most ruby ports and are made from paler grapes and sometimes with the addition of white port. The best are those with an indication of age on the bottle.
Aged Tawny: These wines have been aged in wood for at least six years and are usually soft and silky. These are still non-vintage wines so the age indication of the label (e.g. 10-Year-Old, 20-Year-Old) are approximations. Nutty and delicate, such tawnies are often drunk chilled in Oporto. They do not need decanting.
Vintage: Made in only the best years and from the very best grapes, vintage ports represent only about one per cent of the entire port production. They are blended, but all the component wines are from the same vintage. Because they are bottled after only 2-3 years in cask, they throw a sediment and need decanting. Vintage ports need to be aged further in bottle, some up to 20 or 30 years, and they need to be decanted. When young, they are very full-bodied, with rich fruit and very firm tannins. The tannins and the spirit soften with age as the wines become more and more complex and delicious. Traditionally served at the end of a meal.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): A wine made from a good but not great vintage and bottled in the 4th and 6th year after harvest. Confusingly, there are two broad styles within this category. Traditional LBV is bottled unfiltered and so needs decanting. It is rather like a lesser vintage port. The other, more common, style has been filtered and tends to be less intense. These wines do not need decanting.
Vintage Character: The name is confusing as these are not vintage wines. They are generally aged in bulk for up to five years and are rather like a premium ruby in style.
Crusted or Crusting: A British speciality that is not recognised in Portugal. A blend of wines is bottled unfiltered so that it needs decanting. Like Vintage Port, it continues to develop in bottle and so benefits from further ageing after purchase. The best ones are a very good alternative to Vintage Port.
Colheita: The Portuguese word means 'harvest' or 'crop'. These wines must be aged in wood for at least seven years so they are rather like tawnies but from a single vintage. Best drunk within a year or so of bottling. No need to decant.
Single Quinta Vintage: These are wines from a single vintage and from a single quinta or vineyard. Often made in a year when a port house does not declare a Vintage port. They are made in much the same way as Vintage ports but are often held back from sale by the producer until they are considered ready for drinking. Decant.
Made on the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean, these wines are very resilient and long-living thanks to their high acidity and the way they are made. They keep for a long time after being opened. This is because the wines are exposed to heat during wine-making, so they are effectively 'baked' and thus protected from oxidation. This process is known as estufagem.
The timing of the spirit addition varies but the better producers tend to add the spirit during fermentation, leaving the natural sweetness from the grapes. Lesser wines are usually fermented dry and then fortified and sweetened as necessary. Madeira may be aged further in casks and then blended or aged in a solera system similar to that used for sherry.
The main grape varieties are Tinta Negra Mole, Sercial, Verdelho, Bual and Malvasia. Tinta Negra Mole is by far the most widely planted and is used for the less expensive blends that are labelled 'dry', 'medium dry', 'medium sweet', 'rich', or 'sweet'. The better quality and more expensive wines are made from at least 85 per cent of a single grape variety and the name of the variety is shown on the label. Each of the 'noble' varieties is associated with a particular level of sweetness, from driest to sweetest. Common to all Madeiras is their high acidity - much higher than in sherry - and a slightly caramelised flavour due to the heating process.
Sercial: Pale amber in colour, dry, and almondy with very crisp acidity but balanced by the weight and impression of sweetness created by the alcohol. An excellent alternative to Fino or Manzanilla sherry. Serve chilled.
Verdelho: Slightly darker than Sercial. Medium dry but still very crisp and developing nutty, smoky, figgy aromas and flavour with age. Serve cool.
Bual: Dark, medium rich and raisiny, but still with a refreshing streak of acidity. Serve at room temperature.
Malmsey: Very sweet and dark, with aromas and flavours of burnt caramel, raisined fruit, yet not cloying thanks to the acidity. Goes well with Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies and other desserts that combine sweetness with acidity, such as baked apples. Serve at room temperature.
These range from Finest (a blended 3-year-old wine, rarely aged in wood) through to Vintage (wine from a single vintage aged for at least 20 years in wood). The various levels in-between include Reserve, Special Reserve, Extra Reserve and Solera. Madeiras may also show an indication of age on the label, e.g. 10-Year-Old or 15-Year-old.
Marsala is made on the Italian island of Sicily, around the coastal town of Marsala. It is made from the local grape varieties Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia, fermented to dryness like sherry, then fortified. Sweet styles result from the addition of boiled down must or mistela (grape juice blended with spirit).
Marsala is classified by colour: ambra (amber), oro (gold) or rubino (ruby). Each colour is made in secco (dry), semisecco (medium), and sweet styles. They are also classified into five categories according to how long the wine has been aged in cask. For example, Fino is matured for one year in cask, Superiore for two years, Vergine for five years.
These sweet wines are made by adding spirit to partly fermented wine. The literal meaning of the name is 'naturally sweet wines'. White wines are usually made from the Muscat grape variety so have a strong flavour and taste. They include Muscat de Beaume-de-Venise from the Rhône Valley and Muscat de Rivesaltes from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Chilled, they are good as apéritifs or with desserts. Red wines are usually made predominantly from Grenache, e.g. Maury and Banyuls from Roussillon and Rasteau from the Rhône. These red wines tend to go well with chocolate.
These wines are made mainly in the north west of Victoria, Australia, around the towns of Rutherglen and Glenrowan. Liqueur Muscat is made from a dark-skinned strain of the Muscat grape variety and Liqueur Tokay from Muscadelle. The grapes are partially dried on the vine and fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit. The wines are aged in wood, usually under a hot tin roof, and often in a solera system similar to that used for sherry. They are dark, sweet, rich, alcoholic and often of very high quality. Excellent with most desserts.