What is Fortified Wine?

As a wine connoisseur, you know wine's main types and characteristics. You love learning about all things red wine, white wine, Rosé, aged wine, and dessert wine. You get the picture. 

But what in the world is a fortified wine, and why is it so important?

We’ll get into the main types of this particular category of wine. You’re likely familiar with at least a few of these wines, even if you don’t know what fortified wine is. 

That’s a great place to start, as the process of making fortified wine can be somewhat complicated. Don’t worry. We’re here to explain it all! 

What is Fortified Wine?

Types of Fortified Wine

In short, fortified wine means that a grape spirit such as brandy has been added sometime during the winemaking process. The spirit is usually added before fermentation is complete, but timing is everything, as when the spirit is added will affect the sweetness. 

If a spirit is added before fermentation, the fortified wine will be sweeter, whereas if the spirit is added after fermentation, the wine will be dry. 

We’ll get into the winemaking process a bit later. It’s time to breeze through some of the major types of fortified wine you might be familiar with. 

1. Port 

Famously produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal, Port wine is often proclaimed the ultimate dessert wine. It all started in the 17th century when merchants were looking for a solution to keep wine from spoiling during the long sail to England. Lo and behold, Port wine was invented!

Port is commonly considered a sweet, fortified red wine. Just about everyone knows and loves a bright red dessert Port. But did you know that apart from the sweet ruby red port, this wine also comes in dry, semi-dry, white port, rosé, and tawny port (barrel-aged) styles?

Ruby Port and Tawny Port

2. Madeira

Staying local for this next fortified wine, Madeira is a white wine from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. During winemaking, it goes through a process called “estufagem,” which is when the wine casks or tanks are repeatedly heated. This is what gives Madeira its nutty, woodsy, burnt caramel taste. Sweet Madeira tastes excellent with toffee and tiramisu. 

3. Marsala

Hailing from Sicily, Marsala is an Italian specialty. This fortified wine is classified by color, age, and sweetness level and ranges from dry to sweet. If you’ve been reminded of a certain chicken dish while reading this, you are correct, as this wine is the main ingredient for chicken marsala. 

With rich, nutty flavors that are slightly sweet, Marsala is versatile enough to be considered the perfect cooking wine. 

4. Sherry

In Southern Spain, Sherry is considered one of the major cooking wines. However, it’s more than that, as many Sherry wines are made for sipping. Sherry is regarded as a protected designation of origin (DOC) in the European Union and is made from white grapes grown in Jerez. 

This fortified wine ranges from dry and light to sugary sweet. For example, Finos is Sherry's driest and palest form, whereas Olorosos is much darker and sweeter. Sherry often has a nutty, dried fruit taste on the palate. 

Different Types of Sherry Wine

5. Manzanilla

Like Fino Sherry, Manzanilla is a fortified white wine produced in the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in Cádiz, Andalusia. While it’s difficult to tell the difference between Finos and Manzanillas as they are so subtle, Manzanilla is a bit brighter with a distinct salty note and subtle flavors of green apple. 

6. Vermouth

Formally named in the late 18th century in Turin, Italy, Vermouth is known as an “aromatic” fortified wine, meaning it has been flavored with herbs. It ranges from sweet to dry and is known to be bitter with pronounced cinnamon, chamomile, and cardamom notes. 

Vermouth can be used as a cooking wine and sometimes as a substitute for Marsala. It is also a key ingredient in many American cocktails. Manhattan, anyone? 

What is Vermouth Wine?

7. Commandaria 

A fortified wine as ancient as Greece, Commandaria is a sweet dessert wine from Cyprus. It is aged in oak barrels and sun-dried, lending to its rich, sweet, and fruity taste. With production dating back nearly 3,000 years, Commandaria is both a fortified wine and used to fortify other wines. Talk about versatility!

8. Moscatel de Setúbal

Let’s have an encore for Portugal as we travel back to the mid-1800s. This style of fortified wine was likely invented by José Maria da Fonseca himself, who founded the world’s oldest table wine company. With the incorporation of Muscat grape skins in the winemaking process, Moscatel de Setúbal has strong floral and sometimes funky aromas with notes of apricot and orange zest. 

Portugal loves its fortified wines; like Port, this one’s definitely on the sweeter side.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the fortified production process. 

Fortified Wine Fermentation Process

Due to the added distilled spirit, fortified wine has a higher alcohol content of 15-20% ABV (alcohol per volume). While this type of wine often has grape spirits like brandy added to the base wine, neutral spirits from grain, sugarcane, or beets can also be used. 

The sweetness of fortified wine will depend on when the distilled spirit is added during the winemaking process. When added before fermentation ends, the spirit kills the yeast, leaving more residual sugars behind. 

When the spirit is added shortly after fermentation, no more residual sugars are left as the yeast has eaten them up. This results in a drier fortified wine. 

Depending on the type, the fortified wine is then aged in oak barrels for a few years to a few decades.

Now that we better understand the variety of fortified wines and the production process, let’s see what foods we can pair with this wine. 

Fortified Wine Food Pairings

Because they are so rich, fortified wines are often served as an aperitif, with dessert, or with savory comfort foods. 

While sweeter fortified wines are a decadent complement to a gooey chocolate brownie, bread pudding, or pie, dry fortified wines are best enjoyed with meat, fish, pasta, rice, and game. A dry white fortified wine tastes heavenly with fatty cheeses and olives. 

As you can see, fortified wines are incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed with or without food! 

Made for Fortified Taste

Once you’ve discovered fortified wine, a new world of choices opens up, and there’s no going back. 

Whether you’re enjoying a fortified wine that’s sweet, savory, with dessert, or by itself, prepare your tastebuds! 

When distilled spirits are added to red, white, or Rosé base wines, flavors become bolder and more distinct. 

These wines are strong and not for the faint of palate, so sip slowly when starting.

Before you go, don’t miss our red, white, Rosé, and sparkling wine selection.   If you’d like to learn about more fabulous wine types, see our Macy’s Wine Shop Blog.