What is fortified wine?
The art of wine-making dates from ancient times. It was known to the Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. But distillation is a much more recent development, that was discovered by Arab scholars during the Middle Ages, from the 8th to the 12th century. By distilling wine, the alchemists were able to produce what we call today “brandy.” This process was learned by the Spanish when they reconquered their lands from the Moors by the end of the 15th century.
Not long after, the Spanish and Portuguese began exploring and colonizing the world, and transporting vast quantities of commodities to and from those colonies. Wine was one of those commodities. However, the intense heat and jostling associated with storing wine in the holds of wooden ships traveling through tropical waters meant that much of the wine that was shipped this way ended up spoiling.
In the 16th century, it was discovered that blending an amount of brandy into the wine stabilized and preserved it, allowing it to reach its destination intact. Of course, the process of adding brandy to wine also increases its alcohol content, but there weren’t too many complaints about that. This style of wine is known as fortified wine.
The Portuguese style of fortified wine is made in the Duoro River Valley in northern Portugal. There, the brandy is added to the wine while it’s fermenting. The sudden increase in alcohol kills off the fermenting yeast, and leaves residual sugar remaining in the final product. This yields a sweeter wine known as Port. Port wine is popular as a dessert wine, and pairs extremely well with a variety of cheeses, chocolates, and cigars.
Since England is too cold for grape cultivation, the English traditionally imported most of their wine from Spain. But after the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, there was a split in relations between the two countries, and England’s wine supply was cut off. As a result, a treaty was signed with Portugal for the importation of Port wine; and since then, communion wine in the Anglican churches has often been Port.
While the term “Port wine” is legally protected and can only refer to specific wines made in the Duoro Valley, there are some Texas winemakers who produce a similar style of dessert wine here. One of the most popular is called Port Rubino, made by Texas Hills Vineyard. It is what’s known as a “Ruby” style of port. That means it’s younger and fruitier, with intense flavors.
Spanish fortified wines have been made for centuries in a region known as Jerez, in the southwestern corner of the country. Jerez was called Sherish by the Moors, and that’s how the wine got its name. Unlike with Port, Sherry is made by adding the brandy to the wine after the fermentation is complete, resulting in a dry style of wine. Also, it’s actually made from white grapes, although the fortification and aging give it a darker color than white wines. Because it’s not as sweet, Sherry is often consumed as an aperitif before the meal, in addition to being a dessert wine.
Like Port, the term “Sherry” is legally protected. Sherry-type wine is not commonly made in Texas. One similar product is made by Messina Hof Winery, called Solera. This is a wine made from black Lenoir grapes, and is not fortified, but is fermented to approximate the qualities of a Sherry.
The third type of fortified wine comes from the Madeira Islands, which are an archipelago off the coast of Morocco, controlled by Portugal. The Madeira Islands were usually the last stop for cargo ships leaving Europe on their way to the New World, and they became a center for wine production and trade. On occasion, some of the wine made there would remain unsold in the Americas, and would return all the way back home. The winemakers discovered that months of heating and turbulence onboard the ships had not been able to spoil their fortified wines; on the contrary, the flavors of the brandy and the barrels had been intensified and stabilized even more. So, the wineries began to intentionally expose their fortified wines to these processes to produce the same results.
Madeira wine is darker, nuttier, and sweeter than traditional Ports, and they are virtually indestructible. Since they’ve already been oxidized, heated, and jostled about, they will remain in good condition for many years after being opened.
Because American colonists had to pay taxes on goods imported from England, there was a healthy black-market trade in Madeira wine, which was less expensive. In fact, Madeira was the most popular wine consumed in America prior to the War of Independence.
As with Port and Sherry, Madeira wine can not be labeled as such unless it comes from its legally-designated origin. But William Chris Vineyards here in Texas makes a Madeira-style dessert wine from white grapes, called Cibola.
If you’re an aficionado of a strong, sweet wine paired with some chocolate or fine cheese after dinner, exploring the world of fortified wine will yield some excellent discoveries.