What Is Fortified Wine And How To Taste It
The world of the fortified wines is fascinating. It is full of strong aromas and rich and irresistible flavors that enchant the senses of the taster. But what is fortified wine? Often underrated, this beverage stands halfway between a traditional wine and a spirit. At least in terms of alcoholic strength.
In fact, the fortified wine has an alcohol concentration between 15 and 22%. There are various ways to obtain this noble drink. The manufacturing process determines the final taste of the fortified wine, but before having a word about this, let’s find out more about this beverage.
What Is Fortified Wine
Before dealing with the aspects related to the production, it is essential to understand what a fortified wine is. This type of wine, which can also be defined as liqueur wine, is different from all the others because it is fortified with a certain quantity of alcohol during production.
But the process, called fortification, doesn’t have the sole purpose of increasing the alcoholic concentration of the wine. In fact, fortification is a delicate process in which the quality of the fortifying agent plays a fundamental role. The fortifying agent is either ethyl alcohol or brandy and the choice determines the quality of the final beverage.
A quality fortified wine is that wine in which the ethereal impact of the fortifying agent doesn’t affect the primary organoleptic characteristics of the base wine. In other words, the ethereal aroma of the added alcohol must be hardly perceptible and it shouldn’t cover the main and typical aromas of the wine.
Understanding Fortified Wine
Now, a question arises. If the ethereal aromas of the fortifying agent should be imperceptible and the increase of the alcohol concentration is not the main purpose of the fortification, why is alcohol added? And what is the purpose of fortifying an already great wine?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to underline that not all fortified wines have high alcoholic gradations. Typically, the alcoholic concentration in a fortified wine varies between 15 and 22%, but there are examples of fortified wines with alcoholic concentrations of 14%.
The main advantage of the fortification is the guarantee of a longer shelf life of the wine, ensuring a greater longevity and reducing the risk of alterations. In fact, it is believed that fortification emerged precisely for this purpose.
This “trick” was well-known to wine merchants who often fortified wines to preserve them during transport. One of the most famous fortified wines in the world, the Sicilian Marsala, was created by John Woodhouse who added spirits to the wine in barrels before shipping them to England.
Another advantage of fortification is the preservation of the sweetness of a wine. Alcohol kills wine yeasts, that’s why many wineries simply fortify the wines during winemaking to stop fermentation and preserve the sweetness of a wine.
Yeasts generally don’t withstand gradations above 16.4° and once deactivated, the sugar residues present in the wine will not be transformed into alcohol.
Some of the most famous wines fortified for this purpose are sweet Madeira and some types of Port wine.
Lastly, the fortification also ensures a higher microbiological stability of the wine, preventing the activation of a further fermentation. However, the interruption of the fermentation is not the only way to produce fortified sweet wines. Some wineries simply start the wine from a mixture of unfermented grape juice and alcohol that increases the alcohol content of the final product while maintaining the sweetness of the wine.
How Is Made A Fortified Wine
For the most part, the production process follows the same steps as for a traditional wine. An important role in the production of a fortified wine is played by alcohol. The quality of the alcohol has a great influence on the organoleptic properties of the fortified wines, that’s why there are major differences between apparently similar beverages.
The alcohol used for fortification is produced with different methods. Quality fortified wines are obtained after the addition of grape distillates or ethylic alcohol produced from sugar beet or sugar cane. In some cases, wine brandies are also accepted fortifying agents.
Since in quality fortified wines the ethereal characteristics must be imperceptible, choosing a high-quality type of alcohol is utterly important. However, quality alcohol is expensive, therefore quality fortified wines are also expensive.
What Is The Best Fortifying Agent?
If you’re planning to make fortified wine at home, the best fortifying agent is an alcohol obtained through a continuous distillation process, such as brandy. You’ll probably argue that brandy has its distinctive aromas and flavors, and it is true. But the aromatic qualities of the spirit shouldn’t be confounded with its etherealness.
As mention above, it is the presence of the ethereal characteristics that must be imperceptible. The aromatic qualities of the spirit, when the spirit is of high quality, do nothing but enrich the aromatic qualities of the base wine, creating a noble fortified wine.
Obviously, the more neutral and poor in aromatic substances the spirit is, the less it will alter the aromas and flavors of the final product. However, poor aromatic spirits are generally used for the fortification of wines destined for rapid consumption or if the primary aromatic characteristics have to be retained, such as in fortified wines made of White Muscat grapes.
Alcohol produced with a discontinuous distillation method, such as grappa, is rarely used as a fortifying agent because of its highly aromatic characteristics.
Fortified Wines Production Process
The production process of fortified wines begins in the same way as for any other wine. The wine is started with high-quality grape juice or must, but the fortification is achieved in various ways.
In some wines, such as some Port wines, Madeira dessert wines and Vin Doux Naturel, the fermentation of the must is interrupted by the addition of a spirit with the purpose to inactivate the yeasts and conserve the residual sugars. This process contributes to the sweetness of the wine.
In some fortified wines, the fermentation of the grape juice is avoided altogether by the addition of the spirit before the fermentation starts. These are the so-called “vin de liqueur” and one of the finest examples is Pineau de Charentes, produced in the region Cognac in France.
This fortified wine is often served as a sweet aperitif and is obtained from grape must and Cognac. The mixture is maturated in oak barrels for at least a couple of years and, since the alcohol prevents any fermentation, this beverage is actually a fortified grape juice.
In the production of dry fortified wines, such as Jerez Fino, Virgin Marsala or Manzanilla, the fortifying agent is added to a base wine, after the fermentation has stopped naturally. In this case, the base wine is obtained from the normal fermentation process and, when the maturation process ends, the wine is fortified with a certain quantity of alcohol until it reaches a concentration between 15 and 22%.
The fortification marks the beginning of a new production phase and the fortified wine achieved in this way is maturated in oak barrels for at least 12 months.
Fortified Wine Aromas
When thinking of the organoleptic characteristics of a fortified wine, inexpert wine drinkers may argue that the fortification is nothing but a deliberate degradation and contamination of the base wine that loses its properties and becomes undrinkable.
The truth is that the organoleptic qualities of fortified wines are complex and fascinating. The preservative capacity of alcohol allows fortified wines to develop sublime aromas and flavors. The aging process also plays an essential role in the development of the character of a fortified wine.
In fact, all those practices considered pejorative in the normal maturation of wine, such as temperature and humidity fluctuations, are essential for the proper maturation of a fortified wine and are deliberately favored.
The evolution of fortified wines is generally carried out in oak barrels filled in such a way to expose wine to oxidation. This gives the wine interesting organoleptic characteristics that only connoisseurs can understand.
During the maturation process, some wineries allow the formation of a yeast veil on the surface of the wine. This gives wine characteristic aromas, and one of the most famous fortified wines achieved with this method is Jerez or Sherry.
Another method used for some Jerez wines and for Marsala consists in a long maturation that can last for decades. In this period, the wine develops unique qualities and a complex body.
Tasting A Fortified Wine
The flavors and aromas of a fortified wine are more intense and deep than those of aged dry wines. From the moment when the wine is poured into the glass, fortified wine gives an impression of considerable viscosity. The liquid forms abundant bows on the wall of the glass.
From a visual point of view, the greenish reflections given by young dry wines is absent. The dominant color of a fortified wine is golden, although the shade can range from pale gold to antique gold and everything in between.
Aged fortified wines tend to become coppery and those aged for decades present darker colors, such as amber, mahogany, tawny, or even brown.
From an olfactory standpoint, the aromatic range of a fortified wine is complex and dominated by fruity scents. Young fortified wines usually have fresh floral notes, such as orange blossom or citrus, followed by aromas of exotic fruits such as lychee, pineapple, and mango.
Fortified wines obtained from Pinot Grigio or Gewürztraminer develop spicy notes and aromas of toasted caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, and even aniseed. Aromas are complemented by hints of honey, praline, and almond. These are also the typical aromas of ages fortified wines.
In regard to the flavors, fortified wines are characterized by an equilibrium evaluated in the base of the alcohol concentration. The main defect of a fortified wine is considered the burning character given by the addition of too much alcohol. Other characteristics to evaluate are the acidity and the greasiness, two factors that determine the aromatic complexity and the tactile sensations of the liquid.
Complex, concentrated and flavorful, fortified wines have all the necessary characteristics to have an impressive gustatory persistence.
Fortified wine is a complex and amazing beverage. Obtained in a rather simple way, the quality and character of these wines are given by the quality of the fortifying agent and by the maturation process. The result is often surprising and, if you’re rather skeptic about it, you’ll simply have to try it to understand its character!