A heady mix of wine and spirit (usually brandy), fortified wines formed the backbone of the Australian wine industry for the longest of times. While the prevalence of fortifieds might have faded somewhat over recent decades, their impact on Australian winemaking is as apparent as ever.
Fortified wine. To many it is a blast from the past; a drink belonging to generations preceding. It’s this fact, perhaps, that explains the apparent mystique that fortified wines carry today – ask a person on the street to tell you how a fortified wine differs from a non-fortified, and you’ll most likely get a blank stare.
But as recently as the 1970s fortifieds weren’t the exception, they were the rule. In fact in the first half of the 20th century if you were to sample fermented grape juice at a dinner party, with a nice meal out or during a day at the park, it’d most likely be in a fortified form.
Building the fortifications
Fortified wines are those that feature added alcohol, which serves to ‘fortify’ the liquid – better preserving the wine while making it sweeter and more alcoholic. Most commonly this added alcohol comes in the form of brandy, although neutral spirits made of grapes, sugarcane or grain are becoming ever more common. In some markets only a particular spirit is allowed. In the US, for example, wines can only be fortified with spirit made from grapes.
The added alcohol kills the yeast in the wine, and this process leaves behind residual sugar. The end product is therefore sweeter and stronger than normal wine, with alcohol levels hovering around 14% - 18%.
A suite of strong and sweet
There are a variety of wines that fall under the fortified umbrella. The most common in Australia include:
Port: One of the very first fortified wines, this sweet red from the Douro Valley in the north of Portugal is perhaps the most celebrated fortified in the world. Much like Champagne, wines labelled ‘Port’ should in theory come exclusively from this region. The base wine is made from one of any hundreds of grape varieties (although only Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz [Tempranillo], Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional are most widely used), and a grape-based alcohol often referred to as ‘brandy’ – but that differs greatly from an off-the-shelf product – is used to fortify.
Tawny: Australian fortified drinkers will generally refer to this fortified as port, and it does share many similarities with the Portuguese native. Tawny can be identified by the use of wooden barrels during the wine-aging process. Tawnys mellow to a golden-brown colour, and have a distinctly nutty taste.
Sherry: Like Port, Sherry is technically a wine emanating from a particular region – in this case near the town of Jerez in Spain (sherry being the anglicisation of the name). The fermentation techniques used for sherry result in a dry wine, which is sweetened to varying degrees before bottling. Sherries use brandy for their additional alcohol.
Vermouth: The most mysterious of all fortified wines, vermouth is produced using a variety of herbs and spices which remain a closely guarded secret to this day. Known for its bitter taste, vermouth is said to have originally been designed to make low quality wines palatable, although these days it has come full circle, and now sits amongst the most prized fortifieds.
Other fortifieds of note include commandaria, madeira, marsala, mistelle and vins doux naturels.