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What’s fascinating, fortified and fun to discover?

Did you say Fort Knox? Macao harbor? The Great Wall? The Rock of Gibraltar? Sorry. What I had in mind was fortified wine.

Previously in Wine Ways I discussed port wine, and in future I’ll individually discuss other fortified wines worthy of your attention: Madeira, Marsala, muscat, moscatal, sherry and vermouth. Tastes worldwide are moving away from sweet wines to light, dry types; it makes sense to turn to crisp, refreshing dry wines during the dog days.

But summer’s over. When typhoon rains pelt your window panes, a port, sherry or madeira might sometimes match your mood.

Why, one might ask, should wine be fortified in the first place? Chances are that some fortified wines were discovered during attempts to preserve wine by adding brandy. Adding spirit, usually brandy, is what makes fortified wine. In the days when fermenting techniques were still in their infancy, some wines may not have been stable when shipped in the barrel and hence may have been refermenting in transit, in storage, or even after bottling.

Adding spirit to fermented or still fermenting wine raises the alcohol level enough to kill the yeasts that produce alcohol by feeding on natural sugar in the juice. Result: a drink not only stable but also quite alcoholic — 15-22 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).

Port is one of the few major fortified wines made from red grapes; most others are made from white grapes. Let’s take a look at the “fortified field.”

Madeira: On the historic volcanic island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean this much prized fortified wine has been produced for over 300 years. Since Madeira lies between Portugal and North Africa (a tad nearer the later), European vessels called at Madeira’s capital, Funchal, en route to Africa and the East Indies and took on wine. Oddly, the wine improved on the long voyage east despite rough seas and tropical heat. Madeira was developed by simulating the tropical heat, and grape spirit was added.

There are four styles of Madeira: sercial (palest, driest); verdelho (not so dry and darker); bual (sweeter, darker); and malmsey (sweetest). Serve Madeira in a sherry glass, the first two lightly chilled (good with soup), the second two at 15-18 C (with richer food). Good Madeira is fantastic.

Marsala: Marsala, from Sicily, emerged in 1773 when an English wine merchant, John Woodhouse, fortified western Sicily’s traditional white wines with brandy and obtained good results shipping them. Marsala gained fame when Lord Nelson carried it on his ships (British naval crews ate and drank well) and Marsala flourished.

Good Marsalas are naturally sweet, not sweetened, by making them from ripe grapes, and are classified by sweetness (secco, semi-secco and dolce) and by age: fine (1 year old), superiore (2 years), superiore riserva (4), vergine (5) and stravecchio (10). Try Marsala at 15-18 C; serve it in sherry glasses as a digestif or with old cheeses (cheddar, gouda, etc.).

Muscat and Moscatel: These sweet fortified wines (usually 15-18 percent ABV) are made with grapes from the same family and may be drunk a solo or as dessert wines, always chilled. I’m not keen on any very sweet drink in summer, not even a chilled one, excepting a very delicate dessert wine, but some people would drink these in hot weather. A few to keep in mind are France’s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Portugal’s Setubal Moscatel and Australian Muscats (try Brown Brothers). Production methods vary.

Sherry: Sherry imitators are rife, if not always bad. The real thing is made in Jerez de la Frontera, Puerta de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda (all in southern Spain’s Alameda province) through a very complicated process. Since I’ll devote a full feature or two to sherry, for now simply remember to chill fino and manzanilla (pale, declicate, dry) and sweetened pale sherries. Fino, fortified to only 15 percent ABV, makes a nice aperitif.

Darker brown sherries, called oloroso, usually contain about 20 percent ABV. Serve them at 16-18 C and think rich flavors, or perhaps manchego, the flavorful Spanish sheep’s milk cheese that’s also at home with red Rioja. Note that the best sweet sherries bear a PX (for Pedro Ximenez), a Spanish grape variety.

Vermouth: Only rather loosely can vermouth be grouped with the fortified wines, since unlike the others it uses aromatizers (herbs and botanicals) and is a more everyday drink. It is made by briefly aging a low-alcohol wine and, for sweeter styles, grape or sugar-beet spirit and in turn adding this to a tank containing the aromatizers. Generations ago it was made at a center in Italy near southeast France (red, sweet, nonbitter style) and at one in France (pale, dry, bitter). Hence sweet and dry vermouths unto this day.

Coming in Wine Ways: wine and cheese (glorious together) and in-flight wine. Meantime, try some Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with pepperoni pizza. Mmm! Cheers!

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