Jeff Flowers on November 8, 2013 4 Comments Fortified wine, also called dessert wine, has a higher alcohol content than other wines. Contrary to popular belief, this higher alcohol content is not a result of distilling these wines; it is due to the addition of spirits. Why were spirits originally added to wine, and what are the features of the varieties of fortified wine? Let’s take a closer look at the history and types of fortified wine: The History of Fortified Wines Before refrigeration, wine bottles, and the ability to air mail products, winemakers had a serious problem. Wine casks were not as air-tight as wine bottles, so during long sea voyages, the wine would oxidize and turn into acetic acid (vinegar). Desperate to prevent this loss of product, winemakers added spirits to their wine, which resulted in a higher alcohol content, less spoilage and much happier customers. Not everyone was in favor of the fortification of wine. Joseph James ‘Baron’ Forrester campaigned against the fortification of wines in the Douro valley, arguing that the fortification of such wines was an adulteration. He also claimed that failing to ferment the wine fully, leaving extra sugar, was simply a way to cover up poor quality wine. Baron Forrester died soon after beginning his campaign. As to his claims about the quality of fortified wine, it seems that history has proven him wrong as port and other fortified wines are still widely enjoyed centuries later. The Difference Between Sweet & Dry Sweet and dry fortified wines are both made using the same principles: Wine is fermented, and then distilled spirits are added to the wine. However, winemakers have learned that they can control how sweet or dry their fortified wine is by adding spirits at different times. If winemakers add spirits to the wine before it has finished fermenting, they produce a sweet fortified wine. For a dryer fortified wine, the spirits must be added after the fermentation has finished. Why does this work? Wine ferments when yeast breaks down the sugar molecules in grapes to produce ethanol (alcohol). These strains of yeast all die off at the end of the fermentation process, which occurs when the yeast runs out of sugar or the ethanol content is too high (typically above 15 percent). When winemakers wait for fermentation to be complete, the yeast ends up breaking down almost all of the sugars in the wine, resulting in a dry vintage. Early addition of spirits prematurely raises the alcohol content of the wine above 15 percent, killing off the yeast and leaving intact sugar behind. If this does not result in a sweet enough wine, winemakers sometimes include additional sweetening agents. Types of Fortified Wine There’s many different types of fortified wine that are available, but each have their own distinct characteristic that makes it unique in its own right. Port & Sherry The two most well-known varieties of fortified wines are port and sherry. Both of these are fortified with brandy and, like most wines, are named for their locations of origin. Port comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. Sherry is a Spanish wine that comes from Jerez de la Frontera. However, there are some key differences between these two types of wine. Sherry is a dry fortified wine, which means that the brandy is added after fermentation is complete. Port, on the other hand, is a sweet wine, created by adding brandy mid-way through the fermentation process. Fortifying the wine with this method will stop the sugar from turning into alcohol. Most of the port wines you come across will be a red, but there are some white and dry/semi-dry versions out there. Likewise, Sherry is also available in a few different styles. These would include dry and light, to dark and sweet. Madeira & Marsala Other types of fortified wines include Madeira and Marsala. Marsala wine originates in Sicily and is also fortified using brandy after fermentation, similar to the process used when making sherry. Winemakers who prefer a sweeter Marsala add a sweetening agent, rather than adding the brandy earlier. Madeira wine also tends to be similar to sherry, but winemakers produce sweeter Madeira wine by using a Port-like process of fortification. This style originated in the Madeira islands. Fortified Wine: The Perfect Pairing for Desserts Whether you prefer sweet or dry wines, there are a variety of different fortified wines to try. Sweet fortified wines, such as Port or sweet Madeira, are often served with desserts. There’s no better way to end that perfect dinner than by pairing it with a delicious dessert wine. Dry varieties make delicious sipping wines. Although fortification was originally just a method of preservation, it survives today as a process for creating a wide variety of delicious wines to try.