What is a Fortified Wine?
A fortified wine is a wine that is "fortified" with additional alcohol that's been added to the base wine during fermentation, bringing the average alcohol content up around 17-20%. Fortified wines can be made in either dry or sweet styles (with the middle-ground of medium-sweet or medium-dry covered in virtually all types of fortified wine categories). The most common types of fortifed wines are Port, Sherry, Marsala and Madeira.
How is Fortified Wine Made?
Many fortified wines are blends of various grapes and various vintages. The majority of fortified wines are stylistically similar in their classifications of being made into either a dry fortified wine or a sweet fortified wine. The determining factor as to whether a fortified wine will ultimately lie on the definitively sweeter side of wine life or will remain in close company with its many still wine cousins as a dry fortified wine, is when the addition of alcohol (known as "neutral grape spirits") occurs during fermentation.
If a sweeter fortified wine is desired, then the neutral grape spirits are typically added within the first day and a half of fermentation. Once this additional alcohol is added to the still base wine, the yeast stop converting sugar to alcohol and all of the remaining grape sugar is left in the wine as residual sugar. So, if you are determined to make a dry fortified wine, you would allow the full fermentation process to run its course, consuming the remaining sugar and then add the neutral grape spirits to the wine.
How is a Fortified Wine Aged?
Many fortified wines undergo aging in wood casks. The actual aging time depends on the fortified wine, but in general the cheaper the fortified wine, the less time it has spent aging in oak. As a result of this deep wood aging, many fortified wines will benefit from decanting and aeration.
What Foods to Pair with Fortified Wines: Again it depends on which type of fortified wine you are drinking, but in general fortified wines are known for their long-standing contribution to the world of wine as both an aperitif and a dessert wine option. Many cheeses, nuts, cream-based desserts, chocolate desserts and fruit torts have found a magnificent pairing partner in a fortified wine. To learn more about pairing fortified wines with Port, Sherry, Marsala or Madeira, check out the individual articles on each specific fortified wine.