Knowledge Base

What is fortified wine?

When it comes to hip, interesting drinks, fortified wines are usually pretty far down the list. In fact, they usually don’t make it onto the list at all. Yet never let it be said that The Drinks Cabinet shies away from getting to grips with any drink – we’ve decided to find out all we can about a tipple that is friend to both the octogenarian and the broke student. So, what is fortified wine?

It’s not a spirit. Despite its strength and flavour a fortified wine is a wine which has had a distilled spirit added to it. In the days of long sea voyages this was an early attempt at stopping the stuff from spoiling.

In most cases this addition will be a brandy distilled from grapes. If this spirit is added before the fermentation process is complete it will kill the yeast and leave a lot of residual sugar – resulting in a very sweet product. With dry fortified wines this addition is only made after fermentation is complete. For quality fortified wines, aging is key.

How Jerez became Sherry

Historically the British played a big role in the development of fortified wines. Centuries of war with France meant that a stable alternative supply of wine became highly desirable. As a result English and Scottish merchants began to set up shop in Portugal where they did a roaring trade feeding the Iberian craving for fish with their own countrymen’s thirst for wine. Similarly Sherry, an anglicisation of the Spanish place name Jerez was heavily influenced by the British – who founded many of the best known cellars operating today.


David from Edinburgh based Henderson Wines, paints a very clear picture of how fortified wine fans are percieved:

“A monicaled, rather portly gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a ruby nose is the sort of image conjured up for your typical “fortified wine drinker” also probably suffering from a bout of gout. Or maybe a bespectacled grey haired lady supping her glass of sherry with a slice of madeira cake at her side.” 

“This is possibly the myth we have to shatter prior to popularising the fantastic range of these drinks available in the market today,” he says.

On the other hand it does seem that, as more wine dealers promote it, quality sherry is begining to make a name for itself. 

“Although port still has an “older generation” image sherry is having a coming of age with the wide range of styles available,” says David.

“I always include sherry at tasting events and many who start by saying that they never drink it as it was, in their eyes, “the drink that granny always had at new year” and not really their image, finish their sample sip and are regularly surprised just how great a drink it is.” 

John, from Scottish wine merchants WoodWinters reports that, despite the traditional image of sherry, it can appeal to a variety of drinkers.

“There is a perception of sherry as a sweet drink for older people, thanks to brands like Croft, or Bristol Cream,” he says.

“However we had a fortified wine themed tasting in store last year where we had sweet, medium and dry styles of sherry to explain how they can be fortified to be sweet or dry, by adding spirit during or after fermentation. We also had a 10 year old dry Marsala at a tasting during December and everyone who tasted it bought it!” he adds.


A quick guide to fortified wines


Port bottles

For centuries the favourite tipple of the British elite, Port is produced exclusively in Portugal’s Douro Valley. It is often served as a dessert wine thanks to its sweet and full bodied taste. As the first wine in the world to be officially classified Port has an extensive heritage and vintages to rival Bordeaux.

Madeira bottle by Dgies

The isolated islands of Madeira played an important role in the Age of Exploration and it was at this time that the fortified wines came to the fore. This is reflected in the unique aspect of Madeira production in which barrels are deliberately heated to simulate the effect of a long sea voyage in the tropics. Madeiras tend to be drier than ports and seem to be making a comeback.

Bottles of SherrySherry 

Made from whiter grapes near the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera – there are a wide variety of sherries, although consumers in the UK will often think of cheap, sweet cream sherry. However, this very underappreciated drink has a lot more to offer. Popular types in Spain include the pale and dry Fino or Manzanilla which David describes as “great dinner party wines for soup starter and aperitifs.” 

Marsala bottles by Dedda 71Marsala

Sicilian fortified wine Marsala was first produced as a cheaper version of Port. John from WoodWinters recommends a 10 year old Marsala, which can be purchased at £15 which he describes as “a stunning before or after drink.”

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