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The history of fortified wines is long and intriguing. It’s hard to say who was the first to add grape spirit in wine and why, but whoever it was, was either crazy or pure genius. Here is a list of fortified wines you should know.
Port is undoubtedly the most popular fortified wine. The intensive Vintage Ports and nuanced Tawnies set the bar very high for other fortified wines.
Port wine takes its first steps in the beautiful vineyards of Douro Valley, just a two hour drive from the city of Porto. The unforgiving terrain means lots of man-hours goes into taking care of the vineyards and picking grapes during harvest. Autochthonous grape varieties such as Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional usually grow mixed in the vineyards. So, don’t bother to ask winemakers what grapes goes into the wine because even they are not entirely sure most of the time.
The two main categories are Ruby Port and Tawny Port. The deeply coloured Ruby Ports include wines such as Vintage Port and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV). Barrel aged Tawny Ports include wines like 10, 20 and 30-year-old Tawny Port and Colheita (single vintage Tawny). Also White Port and Rosé Port are produced. If you’re thirsty for some Port wine, a weekend getaway in the city of Porto makes for an epic vinous vacay.
A granny drink? Think again! This versatile fortified wine is making waves in the world of wine. If you want to be taken seriously as a wine lover you need to get into Sherry and fast.
Sherry is a fortified wine from Andalusia, Spain. The core area is located in the “Sherry Triangle” between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The wine region is known for the striking white Albariza soil and the majestic wine cellars where Sherry ages in tall piles of barrels called the “solera". All the different styles of Sherry makes it a bit of an enigma for the average Joe.
There’s Fino which is a bone dry Sherry that has been aged in barrels under a layer of yeast called “flor” that protects the wine from oxygen resulting in a pale, delicate and utterly delicious wine. Fino is made from the Palomino grape. Then there’s Sherry made from a grape called Pedro Ximénez and these are some of the most sweet syrupy wines out there. Then there’s Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado. It’s understandable why people get confused. The best way to understand the stylistic differences is to taste them side by side. It’s an acquired taste, but if you give Sherry a chance there’s no going back. It’s also good to know that Sherry is a very food-friendly wine so grab some gazpacho, put some flamenco on and let the wine do the talking.
On paper nothing about Madeira makes sense. The warm and humid climate doesn’t exactly scream high quality wine and the mountainous volcanic island is definitely not the easiest place to cultivate vines. Not only that but in the winery the wines are exposed to heat and oxygen in a way that would kill most wines but somehow it makes Madeira almost indestructible.
There is a handful of grape varieties used to make Madeira. For the so called noble varieties the level of sweetness goes pretty much hand in hand with the variety. From nearly dry to sweet there is Sercial, Verdelho, Bual (also Boal) and Malvasia (also Malmsey). There is also the widely planted Negra Mole which is usually associated with low-end Madeira, but when done right can produce great wine.
What makes Madeira really special is the hardcore longevity. A good Madeira can age for a century without breaking a sweat. If you’re looking to taste a wine from the 1800s grab the next flight to the island of Madeira.
Marsala is a lesser known fortified wine from Sicily, but worthy of a mention. Like most fortified wines Marsala was probably first fortified so that the wine would survive long sea voyages. Those thirsty sailors really knew what they were doing.
Marsala wine is produced in the western part of Sicily around the city of Marsala. Indigenous grape varieties such as Cataratto and Grillo among others are used to produce Marsala.
You can categorise Marsala by sweetness: Secco, Semisecco and Sweet. By colour: Oro, Ambra and Rubino. Or by age: Fine, Superiore, Superiore Riserva, Vergine and Vergine Stravecchio. Marsala is also a surprisingly versatile wine that you can serve chilled as an aperitif or sip it with some dessert. Either way it’s unwise to skip this wine if given a chance to taste it.
Fortified wines are produced all over the world, some better than others, but the diversity is what makes this category interesting. The fortified vin doux naturel wines of Southern France like Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes have great character and can stand the test of time. Australia has been making barrel aged Tawnies since the 19th century.
Also the intense and sweet fortified Muscat from Rutherglen is something quite unique. South Africa as well has a long history in making Port-like fortified wines and they still remain popular to this day.
These are just a few examples, but the list goes on. My advice is to keep an open mind and taste as many of these as you can to find the style you prefer.