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.

An Australian story

To tell the history of Australian wine is to tell the history of Australian fortified. While Australia’s early European settlers had a difficult time with extremes of the climate, by the 1870s they were producing wines of note. In fact in 1873 an Australian fortified wine was awarded a gold medal by French judges at the Vienna Exhibition – a global blind tasting event. On finding out that the award winner was Australian, the judges swiftly withdrew their praise, stating that ‘wines of that quality must clearly be French.’ In 1950 fortified wine accounted for no less than 86% of the wines that Australia produced. But palates changed swiftly from the 1960s onwards, and today fortified wine accounts for less than 2% of Australia’s total wine exports. But though tastes have changed over the decades, the quality of Australian fortified has never been in doubt. And with fortifieds like vermouth and sherry continuing to feature in both classic and contemporary cocktails, it’s fair to say that fortifieds aren’t going anywhere soon. That fortified flavour The breadth and depth of the fortified wine category makes tasting notes almost pointless. But to compare and contrast the style to a non-fortified wine, tasters can expect a sweeter, stronger flavour that offers deep warmth to the back of the throat. 

Fortified Wine titbits

  • Seppeltsfield is the only wine label in the world to produce a 100 year old single vintage wine each and every year, a tradition it began with its 1878 tawny.

  • Port is named after Porto, the Portuguese coastal city which began exporting the wine to the rest of the world after the signing of the Methuen Trade Treaty with Britain in 1703.

  • Sherry pairs surprisingly well with tequila.

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