Fortified wines: everything you need to know about truly amazing and complex drinks

How to Drink Better: Before, during or after dinner, there is a fortified wine, Sherry, Port, Madeira or Marsala, that will fit the bill

Q. What is a fortified wine?

A. Fortified wine does not have added vitamins, although our predecessors were sometimes prescribed tonic wine by their doctor, which was wine with added vitamins and iron. A fortified wine is simply a wine that has been strengthened and stabilised through the addition of a spirit – almost always grape brandy.

Until the 1960s, wine was usually shipped in barrels and bottled on arrival at its destination. Quite often, it would oxidise or go off. Alcohol acts as a preservative, so producers in parts of Spain, Portugal, France and Italy began adding brandy to prevent spoilage. It changed the taste of the wine, sometimes for the better. Many fortified wines are sweet, but some are dry. They have more alcohol than standard wines, anything from 15 per cent to 25 per cent Once very popular, they are less fashionable now, which is a pity as there are some truly amazing complex wines. A small glass before or after a meal can really add to the occasion.

The best-known fortified wines are Port and Madeira (both Portuguese), Sherry (Spanish), and Marsala (Sicilian), but other countries have a long history of fortified wine production, including South Africa and Australia. Each is made by a slightly different process.


Port is one of the most famous fortified wines. It is made from grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. To make Port, brandy is added during fermentation, killing the yeasts before all the sugars have converted to alcohol, leaving a naturally sweet wine. Tawny Port is aged in barrel for long periods, giving it a pale colour and flavours of nuts and caramel. Ruby and Vintage Port is aged in bottle, has more colour, and flavours of plums and dark fruits.

Sherry is made from grapes grown around the Andalusian city of Jerez in southern Spain. All sherry starts life as a normal dry white wine. Grape brandy is added after fermentation, creating a completely dry fortified wine. It is then aged in barrel using a unique process.

Young sherries such a Fino or Manzanilla are pale in colour with flavours of almonds, green olives and herbs. Aged sherries such as Oloroso and Amontillado are deeper in colour with flavours of toasted nuts and dried fruits. Cream sherries are medium dry or sweet. They are produced by adding naturally sweet raisined wine made from the Pedro Ximénez grape. Pedro Ximénez sherry by itself is intensely sweet – great served over ice cream.

The most unusual fortified wine is Madeira. In the 17th and 18th century ships travelling to the East Indies and Americas would stop off at the island of Madeira to take fortified wine on board. It acted as ballast and provided provisions. It was soon noticed that by passing over the equator, Madeira took on an extra intensity and complex flavours.

These days, the process is replicated on dry land in Madeira. The fortified wine is gently heated for several months. Uniquely, a bottle of Madiera will keep for years once opened. Good unopened bottles will keep and improve for a century or more. Madeira can be dry, medium dry or sweet. Bakers will be familiar with Madeira cake, apparently solicitors would serve a slice of this alongside a glass of Madeira to clients who called to their offices.

Marsala is made from vineyards surrounding the city of the same name in western Sicily. It can be dry or sweet and is made by adding grape brandy. Quality Marsala can be very good, but sadly these days much is made purely for cooking.