Fortified Wine: What It Is, How It's Made, and 5 Types to Try

Fortified Wine: What It Is, How It's Made, and 5 Types to Try

Whether you're mingling at a friend's dinner party or enjoying a night out at your favorite restaurant, chances are you've had fortified wine. Although most often served as a dessert wine or digestif after a meal, many fortified wines are also served as an aperitif before a meal. 

Many people think of fortified wines as sweet red wines, but these special sippers range in sweetness, color, flavor, and origin. In fact, the only thing they truly have in common is — wait for it — fortification.

Fortification is the process of adding a grape spirit to wine during or after fermentation. The word fortify means to strengthen, reinforce, and protect. In wine terms, that means increasing the alcohol content, halting fermentation in some instances, and extending shelf life.

Still, you might be wondering what fortified wine actually is. To satisfy your curiosity and help you develop an even deeper appreciation for wine, this guide will fill you in on everything you need to know about fortified wine, including how it's made and why. 

You'll also learn about the most popular varieties and the best way to pair them so you can fortify your own wine game. 

What Is Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine is any wine that has an added distilled spirit (specifically, a grape spirit such as brandy or cognac) for the sake of fortifying it. This added alcohol content is the most distinguishing feature of fortified wine compared to other types of wine

You might be wondering why someone would fortify wine in the first place. Well, back in the day before refrigeration and air-tight wine bottling was available, winemakers had to figure out a way to preserve their wine and prevent spoilage. As it turned out, adding distilled spirits to the wine did the trick. Now, centuries later, here we are still drinking the stuff. (Gotta love history, right?)

Fortified wines encompass a wide spectrum of colors, from the pale yellow of a fine fino to the richest ruby of a young port. These wines also run the gamut from sweet to dry, depending on when the spirits are added. (More on this in just a minute.) 

Fortified wines can be made anywhere, but they're often categorized and regulated based on their specific region of origin. For example, much like true Champagne can only come from that region in France (everything else is simply sparkling wine), only fortified wine produced in the designated region of Jerez, Spain, can be called sherry. 

How Fortified Wine Is Made

Whether a fortified wine ends up sweet or dry all comes down to timing. If a winemaker adds spirits to the wine before fermenting is complete, the result is a sweet fortified wine. Conversely, if the winemaker adds spirits after the fermentation process is finished, the outcome is a dry fortified wine. Why? Because fermentation breaks down the sugar in grapes (and grape juice) to produce alcohol. 

So, if you have more sugar left in the wine (a.k.a. residual sugar), you end up with a sweeter product. If you have less sugar, you produce a drier wine. For more fun facts on the winemaking process, be sure to check out the Usual Wines guide on how wine is made

5 Types of Fortified Wine

Fortified wine: Usual Wines bottles next to olives and container of ice

There are several main types of fortified wine, each with their own special characteristics. Fortified wines are often enjoyed before or after a meal, or with dessert. What's more, they all pair beautifully with a variety of cheeses. Here's a deeper dive into some of the most popular fortified wines along with top tips on food pairings

Sherry

Produced in Spain, most notably in the Douro Valley, sherry has a range of styles. Fino and Manzanilla are the palest and driest versions, Amontillado and Oloroso have a richer amber hue with a dry to medium-dry finish, and dessert sherries such as Pedro Ximénez are dark, rich, and seriously sweet.

Although sherry is generally considered an aperitif, it's not unheard of to enjoy it in a small wine glass after a meal or as a dessert unto itself. It all depends on the style of sherry you're serving. 

For Fino and Manzanilla, serve with foods that you’d typically pair with white wines, such as olives, nuts, fried foods, and seafood. These dry fortified wines are also great with Asian dishes, from sushi to noodles.

On the other hand, Amontillado and Oloroso are delicious complements for chicken and pork dishes, sautéed mushrooms, and hearty vegetables. Sweet sherries such as Pedro Ximénez are ideal alongside ice cream, bread pudding, or on their own.

Port

Unlike sherry, which ranges in color and sweetness, port is typically a red, sweet, fortified wine although there are lesser-known dry white and dry rosé varieties. Hailing from Portugal, port wine gets its sweetness from brandy that is added before the fermentation process is finished. 

Tawny port is a slightly sweet, complex, aged, garnet-hued red wine. Ruby port is a younger version with its lovely namesake color and fruity taste. Meanwhile, the more unusual rosé port is beautifully fragrant and bright with that signature pink hue made famous by rosé wine.

Port is considered a digestif or dessert wine, and pairs perfectly with a range of dishes. For tawny and ruby port, try chocolate truffles, chocolate cake, or smoked cheeses. For the rosé or white ports, pair with strawberry angel food cake, stone fruit, or lemon meringue pie. 

Madeira

Getting its name from Portugal's Madeira islands, Madeira is a fortified wine that goes through a unique heating and aging procedure called estufagem. By repeatedly heating the wine in casks or tanks (called estufas, which means "greenhouse" in Portuguese), winemakers create a distinct flavor profile that is said to be somewhere along the lines of woodsy, nutty, and burnt caramel-like. 

Enjoy young, dry, and light Madeira on its own as an aperitif or pair it with nuts, cheese, and mushrooms. Medium-dry, richer amber styles are great with sushi while darker, older, sweeter versions are best with tiramisu, toffee pudding, or sipped solo.

Marsala

Whether it's sweet or dry, Marsala must originate in Sicily to be called as such. Although often considered a cooking wine used to create rich, nutty, and slightly sweet sauces (hello, chicken Marsala!), this versatile fortified wine is great for sipping as an aperitif or as a delightful finish to a meal. 

Like the other fortified wines on this list, Marsala comes in both red and white wine varieties. For lighter varieties, pair with light appetizers like chicken or olives. For darker varieties, consider serving it with Brussels sprouts or chocolate desserts. And, of course, it's perfect for splashing in your pan with chicken and mushrooms.

Vermouth

Unlike any other fortified wine on this list, vermouth is aromatized, meaning it's flavored with herbs and botanicals. And, unlike the other fortified wines on this list, vermouth's original claim to fame was that it had wormwood — you know, that infamously hallucinogenic ingredient found in absinthe. (In fact, vermouth gets its name from "wermut," the German word for wormwood.) 

Red vermouth is typically sweet and fruity, making it a good match for light protein dishes like chicken stir-fry or salmon salad. White vermouth is dry and a touch bitter, so try pairing it with shellfish. Of course, you could always enjoy sweet red vermouth in a classic Manhattan cocktail for old time's sake. 

Sweet or Dry, Stay Fortified

Woman holding Usual Wines box

Whether your tastes lean toward sweet wine or dry wine, there's a fortified wine for you. While fortified wines come from all over the world, the one thing they have in common is the fortification process, which means a spirit was added to it. So, in a sense, you're getting a two-for-one deal every time you take a sip. (And who doesn't love that?)

The ancient practice of fortifying wine has remained to this day, with various regions creating their own version. The next time you're at a friend's wine-tasting party or perusing the menu at a restaurant, give a fortified wine a try. It's yet another reason to enjoy the wide world of wine.