Fortified Wines – Part I & II

On The Grapevine, Oct 2010
Bro Mike , Wine Correspondant
Fortified Wines

What is a fortified wine?

Fortified wine is wine to which a distilled beverage (usually brandy) has been added. Fortified wine is distinguished from spirits made from wine in that spirits are produced by means of distillation, while fortified wine is simply wine that has had a spirit added to it. Many different styles of fortified wine have been developed, including port, sherry, madiera and liqueur muscat and tokay.

The original reason for fortifying wine was to preserve it, since ethanol is a natural antiseptic. Even though other preservation methods now exist, fortification continues to be used because the fortification process can add distinct flavors to the finished product.The source of the additional alcohol and the method of its distillation can affect the flavor of the fortified wine.

Although grape brandy is most commonly added to produce fortified wines, the additional alcohol may also be neutral spirit that has been distilled from grapes, grain, or sugarcane.

When added to wine before the fermentation process is complete, the alcohol in the distilled beverage kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar behind. The end result is a wine that is both sweeter and stronger, normally containing between 18-22% alcohol by volume.

During the fermentation process, yeast cells in the must continue to convert sugar into alcohol until the must reaches an alcohol level of 16%–18%. At this level, the alcohol becomes toxic to the yeast and kills it. If fermentation is allowed to run to completion, the resulting wine will (in most cases) be low in sugar and will be considered a dry wine. The earlier in the fermentation process that alcohol is added, the sweeter the resulting wine will be. For drier fortified wine styles, such as sherry, the alcohol is added shortly before or after the end of the fermentation.

In the case of some wine styles (such as late harvest orbotrytised wines), a naturally high level of sugar will inhibit the yeast. This causes fermentation to stop before the wine can become dry.

In this article I will concentrate on one of myfavourite fortified– Port.
The article will briefly outline its history and styles.I will cover arguably Australia’s greatest and unique fortified wine - Liqueur muscat/tokay from North Eastern Victoria in a future article.



Port (Porto)

That a rich red wine from northern Portugal turned out to be one of the world's classic wines is an accident of history. introduced into Portugal the French pinot noir vine. The rich red wine it produced was arguably the forerunner for the ports we know today. Many different grape varietiescan be used in port from Portugal, however these mainly consist ofTouriga and Tempranillo.

Although appreciated in its country of origin, it was hardly known outside. Until the 17th century, French wines were infinitely more popular than wines from Portugal. However, by the end of the 17th century, relations between Britain and France had deteriorated so badly that the British government decided to impose

heavy import duties on French wines, and the discovery was made that the wines from the Douro valley were to the taste of the British. The British had forsaken the wines of Bordeaux in favor of those coming from the Douro valley.

By the end of the next century, thousands of casks of Douro wine were regularly being shipped to Britain, and the practice had slowly developed of fortifying the wine with brandy to stop the fermentation process, producing a naturally sweet wine that travelled very well across the ocean. This wine then came to be called port and even today its production is restricted to the Douro valley area, at the mouth of which is the city of Oporto, the port from which the classic wine got its name.

Port enjoyed great demand as the digestif of choice of nineteenth and twentieth century men’s  clubs, and is still very popular today as an after-dinner drink.

Fortified style wines have played a big part in Australian wine history. Up until the 1950s 80% of Australian wine was either fortified sherry or port with much of it going to Britain. With the influx of European immigrants after WW 2 our tastes have moved to dryer table wines which accompany food and fortified winesare now only a small share of the wine market.

From the year 2010, the words “Port” and “Sherry” will no longer legally be allowed on the labels of fortified wines. Australian producers have been phasing the word out and replacing it with the word fortified. Why? Australia has signed a trade agreement with the European Union which does not allow the use of geographical names.


Major styles of Port


Tawny are wines made from red grapes that are aged in wooden barrels often using the solera process (the solera is a stack of barrels, the bottom containing the oldest wine while the new wine is added to the top barrels. As wine is drawn out from the bottom barrel it is replenished with wine from the next one up). The barrels also expose them to gradual oxidation and evaporation (see below). As a result, they gradually mellow to a golden-brown colour. The exposure to wood imparts "nutty" flavours to the wine, which is blended to match the house style. Tawny’s are sweet or medium dry and typically consumed as a dessert wine. It can be consumed over a period of time (3-4 months) once opened.

When a wine is described as Tawny, without an indication of age, it is a basic blend of wood aged port that has spent at least seven years in barrels. Above this are Tawny with an indication of age which represent a blend of several vintages, with the average years "in wood" stated on the label. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years. The categories indicate a target age profile for the wines, not their actual ages, though many people mistakenly believe that the categories indicate the minimum average ages of the blends. In Australia these wines are usually made from Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro, Touriga, Cabernet sauvignon grapes or a blend of  some of these varieties.

Australia makes some truly amazing Tawny’s. Witha grand tradition that began in 1878 to commemorate the completion of the stone port store at Seppeltsfield,BennoSeppelt placed a barrel of the finest wine from that vintage in the cellar and decreed that it would remain untouched for 100 years.
Seppelt 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny (see bottle to the right) is recognised as one the world's finest wines. Awesome in power and concentration, the bouquet is heady and penetrating, and the flavour so intense that a tiny sip will ignite every taste bud, then linger for many minutes more. It could be said to be liquid gold at around $300 for 100ml.
Fortunately, there are many excellent Australian Tawny’s at a reasonable price, the best usually come from the Barossa Valley.


Vintage styles differ from Tawny as they are produced exclusively from grapes harvested during a declared ‘vintage’ year and then bottled after one or two years in oak casks. Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV) is also produced from a single vintage year, but is only declared as vintage after the wine has been in cask for 4-6 years.  As the winemaker is unable to blend wine from different years, vintage fortified wines are only produced in years when the grapes ripen with all the right characters (high sugar level, intense varietal aroma, flavour and colour profile).  The fermentation on skins prior to pressing, is generally longer than for Tawny production, then the wine is pressed to obtain maximum extraction of colour, tannin and flavour and finally spirit is added to increase the alcohol level. Some of the truly great aged wines of the world are vintage style fortified wine.