glass of fortified wine on outdoor table

Port, Sherry, Madiera. All unique and tasty wine, but what exactly is a fortified wine and how is it made?

Fortified wines start out being made the same as non-fortified wines, from many of the same grapes. Unlike regular wine, near the end of production, a higher alcohol grape spirit is added to the wine to fortify it.

People originally started to fortify their wines in order to stabilize and preserve the wine. The story goes that the English fortified their Portuguese wine so that it wouldn’t spoil on its long journey back to England. The English fell in love with this new product, and the resulting wine is what we know as Port.

No restaurant wine list is complete without some type of fortified wine as an option, particularly to pair with your desserts.

But how do you know which wines to add? Taste different kinds and see what works well with your dessert menu.

To get you started, here is the lowdown on three popular types of fortified wines are Port, Sherry and Madeira. Each is made is a different process and result in different types of wine.

red wine fi

Port Wine

Port is most often made with red wine, although not always, there are white Ports available but mostly just for local consumption in Portugal.

  • When making Port, the winemaker begins by making a base wine.
  • When that wine has the characteristics desired, the winemaker adds aquardente vinica (a spirit with a high alcohol content) to stop the fermentation of the base wine by raising the alcohol level in the wine to a point where the yeast die off. This means there is a level of sweetness still left in the wine, because the yeast didn’t get a chance to turn it all into alcohol.
  • The aquardente vinica fortifies the wine, and raises its alcohol levels to around 18-20% and stabilize it against additional spoilage.
  • Ports are then aged, according to strict regulations for different types of Port.

Sherry Wine

Sherry is a fortified wine made using a different technique.

Once again, it starts by making a base wine. Unlike Port, you let this base wine completely ferment and become a completely dry wine. Brandy is then added to the base wine to increase the alcohol content. If additional sweetness is desired by the winemaker, sweetness is added to the wine after it completes fermentation.

Madeira Wine

A fortified wine named after the island of the same name, located off the coast of Portugal, this wine is unique in that it goes through a process that generally ruins other wines.

It is first made in a process similar to Sherry for dry styles, or a style similar to Port for sweeter styles. What makes Madeira unique is the maderized flavor. After being made, the wine goes through a baking process where it is exposed to heat and oxygen in a baking shed called a estufagem. This process produces its characteristic caramelized flavors and color. Madeira is unique in that it is often considered ageless wine, since the elements that would usually ruin a wine over time (heat and oxygen) are an integral part of the process and desired effect.

Dessert wines such as Port, Sherry and Madeira are a great way to add some additional revenue by having wine options that pair with dessert. You may just see more alcohol sales instead of coffee sales.
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Kristin lives on the West Side of Providence with her wine blogger husband. When she's not co-hosting their monthly wine tastings, she's planning her next travel adventure and daydreaming about Spanish jamón. She can often be found pouring over travel guides at her favorite neighborhood spot, Nick's on Broadway.