A fortified wine is a wine to which spirits such as brandy have been added. In addition to raising the alcohol content of the wine, the spirits also change the flavor profile, making a unique and very distinctive wine. While fortified wine was originally born out of necessity, consumers began to appreciate and enjoy the flavor, and so producers continue to make it.
There are a wide number of varieties of fortified wine, although some of the most famous are Vermouth from France, Marsala from Italy, Sherry from Spain, and Madeira and Port from Portugal. Most fortified wines are named after the regions that they are produced in, as each regional fortified wine has a distinct style. They may also be further classified by grade and fermenting process, as is the case with sherry, which comes in varieties like Fino and Oloroso. In some cases, a fortified wine may be protected with an Appellation of Controlled Origin, meaning that only wines from a certain region may bear that name. Wines not made in that region can only be labeled as being in the “style” of that particular area.
The origins of fortified wine can be found in the 16th century, when a growing number of countries were exporting wine. Unfortunately, these wines were not terribly shelf stable, and they often went bad during the shipping process. To compound the problem, the wines were also not able to stand up to the often violent movements belowdecks. In an effort to preserve their wines, winemakers began adding brandy, creating fortified wine.
If brandy is added before the fermentation process begins, the result is a very sweet, rich fortified wine such as Port, which is often used as a dessert wine. Adding brandy afterwards makes a more dry wine, like traditional dry Vermouth. Depending on how the wine is aged and handled, the flavor can vary widely, from the mellowness of cream sherry to the extreme tartness of an extra-dry vermouth.
In addition to being served on their own, fortified wines are also sometimes used in mixed bar drinks. They may also be used as cooking wines, as it often the case with sherry. In either case, fortified wines last much longer after opening than traditional wines do, allowing people to use and serve them in small amounts. Ultimately, however, the wine will go off, becoming unpleasant to drink. Storing fortified wines under refrigeration after opening can help to slow this process, as will using a good replacement cork.