Fortified wine is made by adding a neutral distilled spirit or Brandy (a spirit produced by distilling wine) to wine. Preservation was the original reason that wines were fortified. When people began exporting wine, they found it went bad before it reached its destination, so, in an effort to preserve the wine, distilled spirits were added to boost the alcohol content. The unique flavors created by adding spirits to wine were enjoyed by many, so the practice continued even after other methods of preservation were developed. Madeira, Sherry, Port, Málaga, Marsala and Vermouth—a fortified wine that is flavored with herbs and spices in addition to alcohol—are some of the most popular fortified wines.
Whether a fortified wine is sweet or dry depends on when the fortifying alcohol is added. The earlier the alcohol is added, the quicker the yeast dies and stops converting sugar to alcohol, creating a sweeter wine. If the alcohol is not added until late in the process, giving the yeast an opportunity to convert as much sugar into alcohol as possible, then the product is drier. Fortified wine generally has between 17% and 21% alcohol by volume (ABV). Table wine, by contrast, generally has between 8% and 14% ABV.
Distinct from high-end fortified wines, such as Port, Madeira, Vermouth and Sherry, there is a group of wines known as “low-end fortified wines.” These wines became very popular in the US in the 1930s. According to Barber, Hutchins and Dodd, the authors of A History of the American Wine Industry, Prohibition resulted in the population’s taste in wine becoming “corrupted by a hard-drinking bootleg style” and wine was valued more for effects of the alcohol than for its taste. As a result, after 1933 when Prohibition was repealed, these wines accounted for 75% of total volume. Today, table wine once again accounts for the majority of wine sales, but some low-end fortified wines are still sold—many of them have added sugar and artificial colors or flavors.
Fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port are popular aperitif and dessert wine options—cheese, nuts, chocolate, caramel, creamy desserts and fruit desserts all pair nicely with them. So the next time you are in search of an aperitif, or you are perusing the dessert list, and would like a wine that will complement your choice, keep them in mind.