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Complete Guide to Fortified Wine: 6 Types of Fortified Wine

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 31, 2020 • 3 min read

A glass of fortified wine is a delightful treat before or after a meal. The higher alcohol content allows you to relax with just one glass, and both dry and sweet varieties are available to satisfy all flavor palates.

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What Is Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine is wine that's had a distilled spirit added to it during the winemaking process in order to boost its alcohol content. There are several types of fortified wines, each classified by its own unique set of regulations. These regulations include the type of base wine, type of base spirit, range of alcohol by volume (ABV), amount of sugar, and aging length.

How Is Fortified Wine Made?

The basic process for making fortified wine involves fermenting a base wine and adding distilled spirits. Winemakers control how dry or sweet the fortified wine is by adding the distilled spirits at different stages of the process. Adding the spirit before fermentation is complete creates a sweet fortified wine; adding the spirit after fermentation is complete creates a dry fortified wine.

To understand why this happens, it's necessary to be familiar with the fermentation process. Wine fermentation occurs when yeast breaks down sugar molecules in grapes and produces ethyl alcohol. Adding a spirit mid-fermentation kills off the yeast and results in a sweeter fortified wine due to the larger amount of residual sugar left behind. If fermentation ends before the spirit is added, the yeast is able to break down a higher percentage of sugar content, resulting in a drier fortified wine.

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6 Types of Fortified Wine

The rules and guidelines for making fortified wine vary depending on the region. Here are some of the most popular types:

  1. Sherry: This fortified wine is produced in the Jerez region of Spain and is made from the Palomino, Muscat, or Pedro Ximénez grape. Sherry production is unique in that the winemaker intentionally exposes the wine to oxygen, which imparts a nutty and briny flavor profile. Before bottling, entire barrels are blended with portions of older wines. This is known as the solera method and is almost entirely exclusive to sherry. Sherry, like vermouth, is fortified with brandy and typically clocks in at around 15 to 18 percent alcohol by volume. Like any wine, it should be refrigerated but will retain its freshness about four times as long as a typical wine. There are many styles of sherry, ranging from the lighter fino style to the darker oloroso style. For those seeking an especially sweet drink, try a Pedro Ximénez sherry.
  2. Port wine: Port wine comes from the Douro Valley region of Portugal. There are many varieties of port, but its most popular form is a sweet red wine perfect for a post-meal digestif. Those seeking a different type of dessert wine might consider a white port, rosé port, ruby port, or tawny port.
  3. Vermouth: Vermouth is an aromatized wine, which is a subcategory of fortified wines flavored with fruits, herbs, spices, and florals. Dry vermouth, sometimes referred to as French vermouth, has a distinctly crisp and floral character. Dry vermouth is produced by blending white wine with herbs and spices before adding brandy for fortification, and it’s an essential building block of the classic Martini. Sweet vermouth, sometimes referred to as Italian vermouth, has a heavier mouthfeel and a more caramelized, fruity character than dry vermouth. It doesn’t have to be made from red wine, although some producers insist on it. Sweet vermouth finds its home in countless classics like the Manhattan and Negroni, but it can also be enjoyed on its own with a bit of ice or soda.
  4. Madeira: This type of fortified wine gets its name from Portugal's Madeira Islands, the region where it's produced by a unique artificial heating process known as estufagem. Types of Madeira range from dry wines served as an apéritif to sweet wines served with dessert.
  5. Marsala: Marsala is a fortified wine from the island of Sicily. It is available in both dry and sweet varieties. Marsala is produced using white Italian grapes and, depending on its type, contains between 15 and 20 percent alcohol by volume. The various types of Marsalas are classified depending on their sweetness, age, and color.
  6. Moscatel de Setúbal: This a Portuguese fortified wine that comes from the municipality of Setúbal. Guidelines specify that it must be made with at least 85 percent Muscat white grapes and contain between 16 and 22 percent ABV. Moscatel de Setúbal is definitely on the sweeter side and commonly has notes of apricot and orange zest.

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