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Fortified wine is a style of wine which has had a neutral spirit, normally grape brandy, added to the wine, which in turn raises the alcohol level.  (Photo: Flickr user, jacquiek)
Fortified wine is a style of wine which has had a neutral spirit, normally grape brandy, added to the wine, which in turn raises the alcohol level. (Photo: Flickr user, jacquiek)

Fortified wines

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Every year since 1996, the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival has featured a regional focus such as wines from a specific country and starting in 2004, a global emphasis. This year, it is the Wines of Spain with the global focus being Fortified wines.

When thought about, fortified wines usually fall under the Port or Sherry banner. However, almost every warm wine region in the world produces some sort of fortified wine. Along with Port and Sherry, the category includes Madeira, Malaga, Marsala and the Vin Deux Naturels from France, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury. The little known Vin de Liqueur also falls under the Fortified wine banner. And from Australia, one should not forget the fabulous fortified Muscat from the Rutherglen district.

Fortified wine is a style of wine which has had a neutral spirit, normally grape brandy, added to the wine, which in turn raises the alcohol level. This was originally done to stabilize the wine during its voyage from Europe to England. Most often than not, the fortification is done during fermentation so the wine is left naturally sweet although some wines are fortified before fermentation and others after.

Port is probably the most famous of all fortified wines. But not because it’s been around the longest. In all probability, it was the British wine market which fuelled the popularity of this style of wine. It is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley region of Portugal, one of the oldest defined wine regions in the world, having been established in the mid 1700’s. About 30 different varieties are grown for the production of Port but normally only five are considered to be of exceptional quality Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, and Touriga Francesa.

During the production of Port, the fermentation process is stopped at an alcohol level of about 7% by the addition of pure wine alcohol of 77%, in a ratio of around 1 — 4. The unfermented grape sugars are left in the wine making it a naturally sweet wine with an alcohol content of between 19% and 22%. By varying the quantity of alcohol and when it is added, Port can be made a little sweeter or dryer.

Sherry is produced in what is called the “Sherry Triangle”, an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Here the dominant grape is Palomino and approximately 90% of the grapes grown are intended for Sherry. Pedro Ximénez or PX as it is also called is used primarily to produce sweet wines while Moscatel, which is similarly to Pedro Ximénez, is less commonly used.

Fermentation starts off normally as for a white wine but when the wine is placed in barrels, they are only partially filled. This allows the wine to come into contact with the air, a destructive force normally but an essential part of the Sherry process. This curious method develops, without human intervention, a pale film of yeast on the wine called Flor.

When the new wine has been classified, it is racked (drawn off the lees from one cask to another), tested for alcohol content and adjusted if needed. Fino’s are adjusted up to about 16%, while an Oloroso, which has no Flor, is about 17% or 18%.

Madeira is a wine produced on the island of the same name 360 miles off the coast of Morocco and just north of the Canary Islands. An Autonomous region of Portugal, wine has been produced there since the mid-1700’s and the trade of the wine is tied to that of Port and England.

There are four grapes varieties used and are named on the label. Ranging from the sweetest to the driest style they are: Malvasia (also known as Malmsey), Bual (or Boal), Verdellho, and Sercial. Recent regulations enacted by the EU state that 85% of the grapes in the wine must be of the variety on the label.

Production of Madeira starts off normally and depending on the level of sweetness desired, the fermentation is arrested at some point by the addition of neutral grape spirits. What makes Madeira unique in the world of fortified wines is how it is aged. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, the aging was done by shipping the wine in casks to India and back. This was done to mature and age the wine by exposing it to the extreme heat of the tropics. Nowadays it is done by heating the wine in an “Estufagem”.

Estufagem dates back to 1794 and is the most important stage of Madeira production. It is meant to duplicate the aging process that took place on the voyage to India and back. The wines are heated or “cooked” for three to six months depending on the style of Madeira being made. Other producers may store their Madeira casks in “hot rooms” which are heated with steam-filled pipes however the finest of Madeira’s go through the Estufagem naturally in casks placed in the attics for around twenty up to one hundred years.

Some wines are selected to be age in “Canteiro”. These are wines that have not gone through the Estufagem process but rather are aged in casks, usually in the top floor of the wineries cellar where the temperature is higher and they are exposed to the sun's heat. This oxidative aging process develops complex aromas and intense flavours with the resulting wines having a fresh fruity taste with little of the caramel, butterscotch aroma. They also typically need much more time to develop than those produced via Estufa. As a rule of thumb, 5 years in Canteiro equal 3 months in an Estufagem.

Canteiro wines stay in cask (barrels or pipes of 480 liters) for a minimum of twenty years and most of them for a much longer time, up to one hundred years or more. During this time the sun's heat leads to further concentration and oxidation. The level of extract, acid, sugar and alcohol rises considerably over the decades due to reduction and concentration so extra care must be taken during this aging.

Madeira is classified as to how long it is aged. A Reserve is aged for a minimum of 5 years, Special Reserve is a minimum of 10 years and Extra Reserve is 15+ years. Colheita is a wine from a single vintage and is aged for a shorter time than vintage Madeira. A Vintage or Frasquiera Madeira must be aged for at least 20 years. A Solera is a designation reserved for extraordinary wines that have been in “Canteiro” for a minimum of five years. The labels may indicate the starting date of the Solera.

There are many other spectacular fortified wines produced around the world and probably the best place to try them will be at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. Click on the link to order tickets or call the Playhouse Box Office toll-free at 1-877-321-3121 or 604-873-3311.

In Vino Veritas

Weekend Wine Picks

Winemakers in Rutherglen have been making this luscious fortified dessert style of wine for almost 150 years and the wines are ranked as being some of the finest wines in the world. To enjoy these is regarded as an ethereal experience. The Rutherglen Estates Muscat NV ($33 LDB) is produced for the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or Brown Muscat as it is called it is harvest later than usually after developing a dehydrated condition. Orange- brown colour with green olive rim, aromas of toffee, marmalade and crushed raisins, followed by a hint of very fine brandy spirit. The palate is rich and delicious with a lush mouthfeel and flavours of honeyed, crushed raisins and a very fine honeyed, spiced, raisiny and marmalade aftertaste.

Castello di Querceto is located in the north-eastern side of the Chianti Classico area, in a small valley in the commune of Greve in Chianti. This 100% Sangiovese wine is aged 12 months in barrique (French oak barrels) and comes from a vineyard planted in 1973. The 1999 Castello di Querceto ‘La Corte” IGT ($55 PWS) is a full bodied, sexy red wine - think Chianti meets Pomerol - with plump, juicy cassis, black cherry, plum, ripe prune, chocolate pudding and vanilla flavours. The palate is full of lush red and black fruit flavours, hints of tobacco, ripe supple tannins and a long satisfying but lovely, soft finish. This is a great tasting Tuscan from an excellent vintage and with some age to it. Don't be afraid of pulling the cork.

If ever there was a Chardonnay that personifies the California style it’s this one. Just not another oak-flavoured wine, the 2009 Rombauer ‘Carneros’ Chardonnay ($59 PWS) shows a light straw-gold colour with a green tinge, luscious aromas of citrusy lime, pineapple, mango and papaya. The palate is rich and full with gobs of luscious tropical and orchard fruit, honeysuckle, creamery butter and crisp spicy acidity. The slight hint of nutmeg on the lush finish adds that little extra layer of complexity. A fantastic example of Chardonnay for those who like the rich, buttery style.

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