A fortified wine starts life as a normal wine. It is then fortified with brandy or neutral alcohol. This has the effect of preserving it, improving it and helping to make it commercially acceptable.
Most fortified wines are made in hot countries.
The most famous are port from Portugal, sherry and Malaga from Spain, Marsala from Sicily and Madeira from the island of the same name, not far from Morocco. They come in a full gamut of styles, but tend to be best known for one particular style.
The idea of fortification was a historical accident. For instance, port was a wine shipped to the British who could not drink enough of it, until claret (Bordeaux reds) took over in the second half of the 19th century. The wine was considered unstable and often did not survive the long voyage by sea. However, when they realized a splash of brandy not only improved the wine, but helped its hardiness and longevity, a new style of wine was born.
The Madeira story is different but similar.
Their wines were exported to America. They were baked in the sun as the wine crossed the Atlantic and became oxidized. It was noticed that this process improved the wine.
When excess stock built up they distilled the surplus, using it to strengthen the wine, and it went through a controlled heating and cooling during the maturation process.
Another style of fortified wine was born.
The new versions of port and Madeira were of course better than the original wines, and what was experimental through trial and error, became the norm.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, these fortified wines ruled the world. They were drunk freely and often with meals. Their use continued with traditionalists into the 20th century. I remember my grandparents with cut-glass decanters of port and sherry, alongside the whiskey, permanently on the sideboard. Sherry was for a pre-dinner tipple and port for after dinner.
The alcohol is added at different times for different products. For instance, in the delicious grapey Pineau de Charentes, from the Cognac region of France, or Floc de Gascogne from Armagnac, the grape spirit is added to fresh grape juice, and this prevents it from fermenting. These don’t travel well, but you will find them if you visit the areas in question.
The more common method is to add the spirit during fermentation. This stops fermentation in the middle and leaves the product with the degree of sweetness sought by the winemaker. Port, Madeira, Malaga and Marsala are made this way. The third method is the addition of spirit after fermentation has finished. This is how sherry is made.
Unfortunately many of these wonderful wines have become scarcer and are not available in Israel. If on your travels you get the chance to try them, do take the opportunity.
Sometimes enterprising restaurants in London and New York will have some old Madeiras on their dessert wine list. Well worth the experience.
Fortunately the two most famous fortified wines, sherry and port are available. Sherry really is an acquired taste. A bone-dry fino sherry is a wonderful way to start a meal.
Serve it cold and fresh from the fridge. As an aperitif it will stimulate the taste buds, and in truth it is the best possible partner for meze or tapas, coping better than any regular wine, with olives and anything spicy, salty or garlicky.
If the fino is too dry, you can always try an amontillado, which will be deeper colored, nuttier and fatter, but still reasonably dry.
There is cream sherry for those preferring a basic sweet sherry, and a quality oloroso, dark colored, rich and raisiny, is the perfect after-dinner drink.
It is mystifying to me that sherry is not fashionable today. It is a great wine, unique and relatively inexpensive. If you visit any one of the new wave of quality tapas bars and restaurants in Tel Aviv, you will be able to start with a sherry. Alternatively, if you want to buy a bottle, the better specialist wine stores may stock a bottle or two.
There is a kosher Tio Pepe fino sherry made by Gonzalez Byass, but though available in New York and London, it has not yet reached Israel. However, if you need sherry for a recipe and you can’t find it, I recommend you replace it with a dry white wine or a dry vermouth. (Vermouths are fortified wines but with herbs and spices added. Martini and Cinzano are the famous brands names.) For sherries, the ideal glass is a copita, which is shaped like a classic tasting glass.
Avoid the schooner glass, served to the brim, which you might receive from pubs and bars that don’t value the qualities of this special beverage.
Then there is port, which is the most famous fortified wine. Ruby port has a bright ruby-red color and a sweet, uncomplicated taste. Tawny port is one aged in a cask for up to three years. The name refers to the paler color of the wine, which has leeched into the wooden staves.
A Late Bottle Vintage is a Port from a good harvest aged between five and six years in a cask. Finally, there is a rare Vintage Port, from a special year only (“a vintage year”).
These ports are aged in a cask for two-anda- half years and they then mature slowly in a bottle for many years. These are the most age-worthy wines to lay down on the birth of a child, for a son’s bar mitzva or a daughter’s wedding.
There are two kosher ports available in Israel.
There is the Porto Cordovero ruby port and an LBV. These are from Taylor Fladgate properties. Both are recommended.
Port and sherry are protected names, though they were used in the past. I have in my office a bottle with a beautiful label with Palestine Port written on it, before the State of Israel was founded. Today this is forbidden, so some of the very good Israeli fortified red wines have to be described as “port-style” wines. The best are Carmel Vintage, Yarden T2, Tishbi Barbera Zinfandel and Psagot has a good one too.
It is a constant lament of cooks, that they can’t find any Marsala for a particular recipe.
If one of the specialist wine shops can’t help you, I recommend using a port instead.
Port is perhaps the most classic after-dinner drink. Serve it with walnuts, grapes and an over ripe, pungent Stilton (a famous blue veined cheese from England). It is a match made in heaven.
The best glasses for port are Bordeaux shaped glasses. Perhaps those used for white wines are the best. Too small a glass is not recommended.
Vins Doux Naturels are also fortified wines. These are grapey muscats from the south of France, to which alcohol has been added. Muscat de Beaumes de Venise and Muscat de Rivesaltes are two examples.
These are lower in alcohol than some of the other fortified wines and the perfect accompaniment to a New York cheesecake.
The Yarden Muscat and Private Collection Muscat are the best Israeli examples. Serve them ice cold though.
Israel is part of the Eastern Mediterranean and the most famous fortified wine of the region is Commandaria from Cyprus.
This is a wine brand that dates back to the Crusades. It is made from sun-dried grapes that are fermented, then fortified and aged in a solera system (as is sherry). At its best it is wonderful, amber colored and almost treacly, but sometimes cheaper commercial brands spoil the image.
However, the saddest story surrounding a fortified wine comes from Greece, where Mavrodaphne is made in Patras. The first producer of this wine was newly widowed and fell in love with a woman called Daphne. Tragically, she too died soon after, and the twice-widowed winemaker immortalized her memory by producing this wine.
The grapes are sun dried, fortified after fermentation and then aged in large barrels.
There are many fortified wines around the world. We have not even mentioned the wonderful Liqueur Muscats from Australia.
All these wines are improved by being fortified, then blended and aged in wood.
Though not the current trend, they are unique wines that have their place in the wine lover’s cellar.Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery in Israel. He regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications. [email protected]