What is fortified wine, and should you try it?

If you’re a wine lover, you may stick to tried and tested favourites, or you might be willing to try pretty much anything. But have you tried fortified wine? And what exactly is it?

Fortified wine is differentiated from regular wine as it contains a distilled spirit. This can be brandy, whisky or others, and gives the wine a unique flavour. It’s also higher in alcohol and has more sugar than normal wine.

Why was fortified wine first made?

The idea behind fortified wine was originally to prevent it spoiling by upping its alcohol. Before modern refrigeration it was much more difficult to stop all kinds of produce from getting spoiled, including wine. It is fermented, which is a process that converts the grapes’ sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol.

During this process, the distilled spirit is added at different times. This boosts the amount of alcohol in the wine and alters the flavour. If the spirit is added to the wine before fermentation is complete, the end result is much sweeter. If the spirit is added after the process is finished, it will be a drier end product.

Both dry and sweet fortified wines are traditionally served before or after meals as aperitifs or digestifs. They’re thought to stimulate the appetite and help digestion, which is why they assumed these roles over the years. Other types are commonly used in cooking to add extra flavour to dishes.

Types of fortified wine

The most common types of fortified wine include Port, Sherry, Vermouth, Marsala and Madeira. You’ve probably heard of all of these, but do you know the difference between them?

  • Port wine originally came from Portugal, although it’s now made everywhere. Before the wine finishes the fermentation process, brandy is added, which gives a rich, sweet flavour.
  • Sherry comes in lots of different kinds, depending on the grapes used. Traditionally dry, it can also be sweetened and serves as a dessert wine.
  • Madeira originally hailed from the Madeira Islands in Portugal. It is oxidised and heated, with brandy added at different times during the fermentation process.
  • Marsala is fortified with spirits after fermentation, leading to its unique, dry flavour.
  • Vermouth is available in both sweet and dry versions and is a fortified white, flavoured with different herbs and spices. These include cinnamon and cloves but differ according to the brand. It’s the main ingredients of famous cocktails, including Martinis and Manhattans.
Fortified wine is higher in sugar and alcohol

Fortified wine has high levels of antioxidants, which are thought to protect against cell damage, and help fight some diseases. It is, however, higher in calories than normal wine. For example, Sherry contains almost twice as many calories as red wine, but as it’s served in smaller quantities than wine, this doesn’t necessarily cause a problem.

It also has higher levels of alcohol than normal wine, due to the addition of the distilled spirits. Fortified wines generally contain around 20% alcohol, while regular wine hovers between 10% and 15%.

Which reds, whites and rosé are the ideal wines for summer?

With the long, hot summer days rolling by, it’s always nice to find new wines to enjoy while dining al fresco. Summer favourites tend to be whites and rosés, but don’t omit red wines entirely, as there are plenty to choose from.

If you’re throwing a summer party, get plenty of rosé in, as that is what people generally expect. Think of it as the crowd-pleasing choice, particularly now there are lots of lighter, drier, classier versions to enjoy. Rosé is not longer synonymous with overly sweet wine, and the perfect bottle is delicious served chilled with dinner party food. Try something like Estandon Lumière Rosé, which is a very classic, pale rosé from Provence, which provides a crisp, refreshing bottle for long summer evening.

White wines for summer

It’s always a good idea to include a couple of different white wines for a summer dinner party. The best choices for hot weather are those that are young, fresh and fruity with a crisper edge. If you are sticking to tried and tested, then you’ll be looking for a sauvignon blanc, perhaps from New Zealand.


But if you’d rather choose something that is guaranteed to please your guests, but is also a little different, then choose a vinho verde from Portugal, or a picpoul. Both of these are sure to hit the spot. For example, Portal do Minho Vinho Verde is the ideal easy drinker, packed with crisp, fresh notes with a fruity edge. If you’re serving up a feast packed full of Italian cuisine, then you could go for a safe match, such as the Nosiolo Trentino from Mastri Vernacoli Cavit.

Red wines for summer

Many people avoid red wines altogether when it comes to summer drinking, but it’s always worth including them for balance. It can be more difficult to choose something that will suit your guests, particularly as some people always want to stick with a heavy, oaky red, even in the heat. However, even the most ardent rich red wine drinkers will find it hard going throughout an afternoon or evening party in the hotter months, particularly if they’re served at outside temperatures.

Try ditching oak-aged red wines completely and switch to a juicier, lighter, more exciting red. There are lots of pinots from Spain, Portugal and France to try, and although they’re a bit more expensive, they’re worth it. Try a high-quality Beaujolais for a real taste of summer in a glass.

How do tannins affect the flavour of wine?

Some types of red wine make your mouth feel ‘dry’ when you drink them. New research into why this happens finds out why tannins affect the flavour of different wine types.

The character and quantity of red wine tannins are often affected by different factors. These include how thick the grape skin is, the climate of the growing season and how the wine is cellar stored.


Different wine types affected by tannins

Researchers have published their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry regarding the effect of tannins. They show that the tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, are more numerous, contain more pigment and are physically larger than the tannins in Pinot Noir.

They experimented by extracting tannins from a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon and discovered that tannins from Cabernet form more protein in saliva. This backs up previous research that shows wine can cause a dry mouth sensation when proteins in tannins and saliva interact.


What are wine tannins?

Tannin is a polyphenol that appears naturally in plants, wood, leaves, seeds, bark and, of course, fruit skins. In wine, tannins add astringency, bitterness and complexity of flavours.

Wine tannins are usually present in red wines however it is possible for tannins to be present in white wines if they are oak aged. Tannin is dry and tasted in the front part of the mouth as well as the middle of the tongue. An easy example to try of pure tannin is in unsweetened black tea.

Tannins in wine come from either the grapes or the wood of the barrels it’s aged or stored in. Grape tannins are in the stems, skins and seeds of the grape, and as red wines have more contact with the skin there is more time for tannins to dissolve in the liquid. On the other hand, wood tannins dissolve in wine if they are in contact with the liquid.

Examples of red wines that are high in tannins include Petite Sirah, Monastrell, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Lower tannin wines include Zinfandel, Grenache and Pinot Noir, which is why the researchers used Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir to discover more about tannins.


Different factors affect wine taste

The researchers also found that tannins don’t make these changes happen on their own. Other factors within wine affect the tannins and how they affect the flavour and taste of the wine.

In the article, the team of researchers say: “When the opposite type of tannin was put into Cabernet or Pinot wines, the sensory panellists could not detect differences in dryness. For example, when Cabernet tannins were added to a Pinot wine, the drink appeared to have the same dryness as the original Pinot.”

They also point out that aromas from the wines would also have influenced the test panellists’ perception of the flavour of the wine.


Figures show 2018 was a very good year for wine harvests

Figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) show that 2018 was a record-breaking year for global wine production. While 2017 was disappointing, with a small production due to adverse weather conditions, last year recovered to produce 293 million hectolitres globally.

Europe remains the biggest producer by a long way. The continent was responsible for the production of almost 70% of the total amount produced in 2018.

Why was 2018 a good year for wine harvests?

The world’s wine production increased to almost 293 million hectolitres last year. This is the biggest wine harvest since 2004, showing a large increase of almost 43 million hectolitres from 2017.

However, it should be remembered that the extreme weather in 2017 led to the smallest wine harvest for two decades. The bounce-back for 2018 was helped by the global vineyard surface area remaining the same size at 7.4 million hectares. More favourable weather conditions for growing also contributed to the increase in global wine production.

The biggest wine producers are still France, Italy and Spain who all increased their wine harvest production by around 24%. Most other European countries produced significantly more than in 2017 as well.

Wine production remains stable

The European Union (EU) produced 62% of the total in 2018, which is equal to 181.9 million hectolitres. However, the EU’s share is declining due to its more restrictive regulations making it trickier to plant new vineyards.

Outside of Europe, key wine producing countries include Australia, Chile, Argentina and America. Around 22% of the world’s wine production comes from these New World countries.

Other significant countries for wine production growth include China, Mexico and New Zealand. China is now the second largest grower of grapes in the world but doesn’t produce much wine in relative terms. Mexico increased its vineyards space to 34000 hectares, which is approximately the same size as Champagne in France.

How much wine is drunk every year?

The global consumption of wine is estimated at about 246 million hectolitres. This has been relatively stable since 2009 after a period of intense year-on-year growth. The US is the largest market for wine and has been since 2011 at 33 million hectolitres consumed.

China is the fifth largest wine market in the world at 18 million hectolitres, which marks a decrease of more than 6.5%. While consumption of wine in China has been rapidly increasing since 2000, last year represents a decline. Whether this is a temporary decline, or the beginning of a dramatic slide in wine consumption remains to be seen.

Is it all over for traditional food and wine pairing?

Everyone knows that red wine goes with steak, and white with fish. These are the traditional food and wine matching rules that have been around for decades. However, Master of Wine Tim Hanni says that pairing of food and wine in this way is “pseudo-science”.

The American wine expert says: “A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist. We’re doing a lot of damage in the way we’re matching wine and categorising it. We need to stop wine and food pairing.”

History of food and wine pairing

Historical records show that wine has long been served as a food accompaniment. Its early history also shows that wine was served in place of water, due to the latter’s unsanitary condition. At this time, there isn’t much evidence to show that there were strict wine and food pairing rules.

As culinary traditions developed throughout the world, so did wine-making. The kinds of wine pairings we consider ‘classic’, came from the relationship between a region’s food and the wine they make. For example, many leading wine regions in Europe had lamb as a staple meat. This leads to red wines from regions such as Rioja, Greece, Bordeaux, the Rhone and Provence being considered a classic pairing with lamb.

Old ideas have survived, including the adage “White wine with fish; Red wine with meat”. Its exact origins are unclear, but it’s been given as advice for centuries. The root of this is the idea of matching the body (or weight) of the wine with the weight of the food. The heavier the food (for example, meat), the heavier and therefore ‘red’ the wine should be.

Modern food and wine pairing

In more recent years, there has been much focus on food and wine pairings. The rules have expanded and interest in pairing wine increased. Sommeliers in restaurants exist to instruct on the perfect pairings with the establishment’s food.

This kind of interest started in the 1980s in the US, when the wine industry began advertising its products as a key part of the dining experience. Previously, they have been marketed simply as an alcoholic drink for consumption. Winemakers started to emphasise the foods their wines would go with and the media ran with the idea.

These days, you can find advice all over the place for the perfect food and wine pairing. And it looks as though the strictness of the traditional rules is relaxing. Many wine buyers and drinkers go with their instinct or choose what they like the taste of.

Speaking at a wine conference in New Zealand, Mr Hanni adds: “We need to celebrate the diversity of consumers, not make them feel stupid. You can serve sauvignon blanc with steak – why not? We need to get over the notion that food and wine grew up together. Food and wine matching is pseudo-science full of metaphors and misunderstandings.”