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Catherine's Guide to Fortified Wines

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Catherine Housdon Catherine Housdon / 14 April 2020

Tastings and Events Co-ordinator Catherine Housden explains the basics of fortified wines, including the secrets of Sherry and Port.

Fortification is a way to stop fermentation. Grape spirit is added which kills the yeast and increases the alcohol level of the wine. It also adds a preservation element which is why fortified wines can generally be left open for longer than other still wines without diminishing the quality, that's if you can hold off drinking them of course! Two of the most recognisable fortified wines are sherry and Port.

Sherry

Sherry is a wine gaining hugely in popularity and comes in a range of styles. Jerez is the centre of sherry production and along with coastal towns Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María makes up the Sherry Triangle – the wines have to be matured in one of these locations.

The three permitted grape varieties for sherry are:

  • Palomino – Holds majority of plantings in Jerez, naturally low acidity and little varietal flavour
  • Pedro Ximénez/PX – Thin skins mean it's great for being dried in the sun and is used to make sweet styles. Most actually grown in Montilla-Moriles but is permissible to be used to make Sherry.
  • Muscat of Alexandria – Very small amounts grown and used to make sweet styles.

Barrels of Sherry in Jerez
Barrels of Sherry in Jerez

Styles of Sherry

Manzanilla is a dry white wine made from palomino grapes and aged under a layer of yeasts known as veil de flor. It is produced exclusively in the bodegas of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Fino is a dry white wine made from palomino grapes, which, as is the case with manzanilla, is aged under a layer of yeasts which make up the veil of flor. It is stored and aged in American oak butts using the traditional solera y criaderas system in the bodegas of Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa María.

Amontillado is a very unique wine due to its dual ageing process: first under the veil of flor, typical of fino and manzanilla, followed by a period in which the flor disappears, and the wine is exposed to oxidation. Made from palomino grapes, this fusion of ageing processes makes the amontillado wines extraordinarily complex and intriguing.

Oloroso is a wine made from palomino grapes. The special structure that it demonstrates at an initial tasting destines it for oxidative ageing. For this reason, alcohol is added to 17°, thus preventing the development of the veil of flor and allowing the wine to age while exposed to oxygen. The result is a wine both structured and complex.

Pedro Ximénez is a naturally sweet style of sherry. The grapes are dried in the sun to really concentrate the sugars and flavours before fermentation. The level of concentration means that the yeasts can only ferment to a few degrees alcohol before stopping. The wine is then also fortified to 17°. The resultant flavours are those of raisins, dried fig, molasses and coffee and it is lusciously sweet and viscous.

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The Solera System

Sherry maturation occurs through a Solera system which is method for fractional blending and allows consistency in flavour and quality of the end product.

The Solera System
The Solera System - photo credit @sherrynotes

Port

Port is a sweet, fortified wine from the Douro in Portugal. It is made in red, rosé and white styles with red being the most prolific although the popularity of white Port is surging, particularly when served as a long drink with tonic.

Grape Varieties

Red Ports are generally a blend of many Douro varieties that have thick skins and high tannins with perfumed dark fruit flavours however the following five are considered the best varieties for premium Port production.

  • Touriga franca
  • Tinta roriz
  • Touriga nacional
  • Tinta cão
  • Tinta barroca

The base wine has a short fermentation to retain the sugars to make Port sweet, so extraction techniques are often used by the winemaker to ensure there are good levels of tannins and colour. The fortification takes the overall alcohol level up to about 19%-22% abv and the wine is fortified using a neutral spirit called aguardente that is no higher than 77% abv. Port is usually then transported downstream of the Douro river to Vila Nova de Gaia as it is cooler and so the Port can mature at a slower rate.

Port grapes on the vine in the Duoro
Port grapes on the vine in the Duoro

Styles of Port

Tawny Ports are aged in casks. This gives them a lighter (in both body and colour) and silkier style. There are two major types of Tawny: a blend of several recent vintages with no specific statement of age – known as basic Tawny Port – and older-aged Tawnies, marked as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old.

Late Vintage Bottled Port is made entirely from grapes harvested in a specific year from a variety of vineyards, but is then left to age in barrel for four to six years before bottling, compared to around 18 months for Vintage. LBV does not have the grandeur, intensity and concentration of Vintage Port, but the finest examples boast mature, well-rounded, velvety fruit and a rich, smooth finish.

Crusted Port is a peculiarly British invention, and rarely seen. It is produced by British Port shippers to provide wines with a similar style to Vintage Port, but quicker, and at a cheaper price. Essentially this is a very fine non-vintage Ruby Port.

Vintage Port accounts for only a fraction of the total Port production – which includes Tawny, Ruby, Late-Bottled Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage styles, among others – but is the finest, longest-lived and most expensive style around; the best are as good as any wine in existence. Made from a blend of wines from a producer's finest plots, it is aged for around 18 months in wooden casks, followed by at least 15 years ageing in bottle.

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Other Sweet and Fortified Wines

Below are some other sweet and fortified wines you may have at home or want to look out for when exploring new options.

Flavours of coffee, walnuts, citrus and dried fruits can be found in sweet and fortified wines
Flavours of coffee, walnuts, citrus and dried fruits can be found in sweet and fortified wines
  • Fortified Muscats – Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from the Southern Rhône has beautiful varietal fruity and floral notes. Rutherglen Muscat from Australia is an aged style so has more of a coffee, treacle and dried fruit flavour. Moscatel de Setúbal from Portugal offers a caramelised citrus, nutty character.
  • Madeira – A range of styles available from the driest Sercial to the sweetest Malmsey. Expect flavours of walnut, caramel and orange peel.
  • Vin Santo – Mainly produced in the Tuscany and Umbria regions of Italy using the appassimento method of drying the grapes on straw mats for up to six months before a very slow fermentation. Produces wines with dried fruit, toffee and caramel flavours.

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