A Comprehensive Guide To Fortified Wine Types & Food Pairings

A Comprehensive Guide To Fortified Wine Types & Food Pairings

Multiple clear glasses of wine on the table

Do you know the difference between regular wine and fortified wine? How about the different types, proper storage, and food pairings of fortified wine?

Fortified wine is a mixture of ordinary wine and a distilled spirit, such as brandy. The addition of strong alcohol prevented the wine from spoilage before modern refrigeration was invented.

Read this article if you want to know all about fortified wines and how this popular type of wine came about.

What is Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine, also known as a dessert wine, is a regular wine fortified through the addition of distilled spirits like brandy.

Because of this, dessert wines have a higher alcohol content of about 17-20%. The added distilled spirits also enhance the natural flavors and aroma of the drink. 

Some fortified wines can be used for cooking, while sweet and dry varieties are served as aperitifs or digestifs to increase appetite and improve digestion.

Here is a detailed video explaining what is fortified wine:

History of Fortified Wine

Fortified wines were created to solve the problem of winemakers. In the past, wine casks were not very airtight, so the wine oxidizes into vinegar during sea voyages.

To prevent the loss of product, winemakers added distilled spirits to prolong the life of their wine. Initially, some people disagreed with this method. But the campaign against it proved unsuccessful because dessert wines are still enjoyed by many up to this day.

How is Fortified Wine Made? Grapes harvesting season. Freshly harvested grapes from a vineyard

There are variations in the process of making fortified wines. But in general, the wine is first fermented. The length of time for its fermentation determines if the wine will be dry or sweet. 

During fermentation, the yeast takes the sugar in the grapes. That’s why if the fortified wine is planned to be dry, the distilled spirit will be added after the fermentation process is completed. In this way, there will be no remaining sugar.

However, if the dessert wine is designed to be sweet, the distilled spirit will be added within the first day and a half of the fermentation. This way, the yeast will not consume all of the grapes’ sugars.

The majority of dessert wines have no extra flavoring agents. Still, botanicals are added to Vermouth to provide its herbal flavor profile.

The fortified wine will then be aged in vats, casks, barrels, or other containers, depending on the type of wine. Cheaper wines tend to be aged for a shorter amount of time.

Here is a video showing how fortified wine is made:

Different Fortified Wine Types

There are various types of dessert wines, such as Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, Muscat, Vermouth, and Moscatel de Setúbal. There are also different styles under each type.

Port WineSweet Port dessert wine

This is the most well-known type of fortified wine. It originally came from the Douro part of  Portugal, but it is now made around the world. 

Port wine is produced by adding aguardiente, which is a flavorless brandy that has 77% alcohol. 

Aguardiente is then mixed when the grapes reach about 7% ABV (alcohol by volume) during fermentation.

Since the sugar fermentation is stopped at this stage, Port wine has a sweet flavor.

Although there are over 80 grape varieties that can make Port, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, and Tinta Barroca, they are among the most popular, high-quality grapes that produce tasty fruity flavors.

While rosé and white Ports are also made, red Port is the most common. Red Port can be divided into several styles:

  • Late Bottled Vintage Port

This is created from a vintage wine that was aged for about 7 years in a cask. Rather than being bottled earlier like the Vintage Port, this Port is bottled later. This produces a wine that is both fruity and tannic.

  • Ruby Port

Ruby Port and Reserve Port are wines that should be drunk when it’s young. They are only aged for a short time inside a tank or a vat.

  • Tawny Port

This style of Port wine is aged in vats for a maximum of 40 years. The older the drink, the more complex the flavors are, as compared to standard fruity tastes.

Aged Tawny Ports are available in decade format: 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. When it's ready to be drunk, it is bottled to consume right away instead of waiting for it to age that long.

  • Vintage Port

Vintage Port is bottled earlier than other ports and requires bottle aging to enhance its flavors. It is not available every year because only the best harvests are turned into wine.

Sherry WineSherry wine in wine glasses

Sherry originated from Andalucía in the south of Spain. Due to the chalky soils from this area, sherry wines have a slightly salty taste.

Viticulture or wine-growing has been practiced in this area for more than 3,000 years, making Andalucía one of the oldest wine producers in Europe. 

The main grape used for Sherry wines is Palomino Fino, a white grape with the right level of acidity. For sweeter styles of Sherry, Pedro Ximenez is used instead.

Sherry production is complex and very different from other processes of fortified winemaking. White wine is fermented and stored in a “Solera System,” which consists of barrels stacked in a pyramid-like shape on their sides. 

The wine uses yeast (known as flor), which prevents it from turning to vinegar. It also adds extra spice and flavor to the wine.

Over time, the wine is transferred from above the Solera system and passes down through each layer. It mixes with older wine each time, resulting in a complex aging process.

Sherry can also be aged oxidatively, which means it is exposed to air. Sherry can be made in a variety of styles:

  • Cream Sherry

Cream and Dulce Sherry have a dessert-like sip because it is made from a sweeter grape varietal. The quality and price of these Sherries seem to vary the most.

  • Fino

This style of sherry is the least alcoholic because it only contains up to 15% ABV. It is aged under the layer of yeast, thus creating a lighter drink in terms of color and style. 

  • Oloroso

Oloroso is created by exposing the wine to air, and no yeast is used in its production. That’s why it has more intense colors and flavors with higher alcohol content (minimum of 18%) than Fino.

  • Palo Cortado

Palo Cortado and Amontillado are initially aged under yeast. Then, they are exposed to air for additional aging. Their alcohol content is about 17%.

Madeira Madeira Wine and Coffee

This type of dessert wine originated from Madeira Islands in Portugal. It is available in various styles starting from dry to sweet. 

While shipping wine across oceans in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was discovered that the sun's heat had improved the wine's flavors.

As a result, wine heating has become an essential part of the Madeira winemaking process. The Estufagem and the Cantiero method are two ways to achieve this effect.  

For the Estufagem method, the Madeira wine is poured in stainless steel barrels and heated with hot water for about 50°C for three months. The wines are then matured in oak barrels for at least 2 years after harvest before being sold.

The Canteiro process is more conventional, and it is used to make pricey and higher-quality wines. Instead of deliberately heating the wine, it is stored in casks either on top of a building or outside in direct sunlight. The wine will then be heated naturally for at least 2 years.

Around 85% of Madeira wines are made from the Tinta Negra Mole grape, a cross between Pinot Noir and Grenache. Non-vintage wines are typically made with this variety as well.

  • Bual or Boal

Bual is a richer style of Madeira wine that is medium-sweet in taste. It was slightly oxidized, causing the color to be darker and the flavors to be bolder. 

  • Malmsey

This is considered the sweetest among the Madeira Vintage wines. Available in dried fruit flavors, it is also the darkest and has the most complex sip.

  • Sercial

This is a dry wine with a high amount of acidity. This acidity was the reason for Sercial’s fresh taste with subtle flavors.

  • Verdelho

Verdelho is a medium-dry wine that has high acidity levels and a slightly fuller feel to it.

Marsala Marsala wine

This fortified wine type originated from Sicily. It is created through the “In Perpetuum” process like the solera system we mentioned earlier.

Like other fortified wines, it ranges from dry to sweet. Marsala is made from white Italian grapes and contains between 15-20% alcohol.

Marsalas are divided into different styles based on their age, color, and sweetness. Younger Marsala wines are great for cooking, while older wines are excellent for drinking. Marsala's classification according to age is:

  • Fine: 1 year 
  • Superiore: 2-3 years 
  • Superiore Riserva: 4-6 years 
  • Soleras or Vergine: 5-7 years
  • Stravecchio: +10 years with no sugar added

The classification of Marsala according to colors are:

  • Amber (Ambra)

This amber-colored fortified wine is created from white grapes and tastes like dried fruit and nuts. 

  • Ruby (Rubino)

Red grapes like Perricone, Pignatello, and Nerello Mascalese give this Marsala its lovely ruby hue. It has a fruity aroma and taste that contrasts nicely with the red grapes' higher tannin content.

  • Gold (Oro)

This Marsala is made with white grapes and has a rich golden hue. Hazelnuts, vanilla, and licorice are among the flavor notes you can expect.

Meanwhile, the classification of Marsala according to sweetness are:

  • Secco

With fewer than 40 g/L of sugar, it is considered the driest form of Marsala.

  • Semi-Secco

This fortified wine has a residual sugar content of 50-100 g/L, making it a semi-sweet style.

  • Dolce

It has more than 100 g/L of sugar, making it a sweet wine. It is not suitable to drink if you’re on a keto diet.

Muscat  Glasses and Bottles with Red and White Wine

This type of fortified wine is known for being sweetly flavored with a floral and fruity fragrance. 

Its fortification happens early during its fermentation, causing the muscat grapes to keep their aromatic qualities. Since fermentation is stopped prematurely, it has a lot of sugar which makes it sweet.

During aging, you can add flavor to it. An example is the addition of dried fruit notes through oak barrel aging.

While there are more than 200 different grape varieties in the Muscat family, the Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Ottonel, and Muscat Blancs are the most widely used for making wine. The main styles of Muscat wine are:

  • French Vin Doux Naturels (VDNs)

In France, most fortified wines are called VDNs because they are sweetened by the grapes’ sugars rather than additives. 

Most French Muscat wines are produced in the Rhone Valley area and South Coast. The hot climate there is optimal for planting and harvesting grapes with high sugar content.

  • Rutherglen Muscat

The warm climate of Australia is ideal for the planting of these sugary grapes, resulting in excellent sweet and fruity fortified wines. That’s why Muscat from the hot Rutherglen region of Victoria is especially famous.

These Muscat wines are aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years, giving them a distinct flavor profile. The amount of sugar in the wine also increases as it is aged in barrels. Some of these wines are even astonishingly aged for up to 105 years in these containers.

  • Moscatel de Setúbal

This fortified wine originally came from the municipality of Setúbal in Portugal. It is produced using at least 85% of Muscat white grapes and typically contains between 16-22% alcohol. It is a sweet wine with flavors of orange zest and apricot.

Vermouth Red vermouth

This is an aromatized wine, a fortified wine flavored with herbs, spices, fruits, and florals. It is available from dry to sweet and is enjoyable to drink on its own. 

However, it is also mixed with martinis as an “other” ingredient for it. It is created worldwide with various qualities and tastes with three dominant styles:

  • Dry Vermouth

This is also called French Vermouth and is considered a dry white wine. It has a unique floral and crisp character.

It is created by combining white wine with spices and herbs before adding brandy for fortification. Dry Vermouth is commonly mixed with martinis.

  • Sweet Vermouth

This is also called Italian Vermouth and is considered a sweet red wine. It is more caramelized and has a heavier mouthfeel. It is also more fruity as compared to Dry Vermouth. 

Sweet Vermouth can be used in countless classic cocktails such as Negroni and Manhattan. This fortified wine is also excellent to drink on its own with the addition of soda or ice. 

  • Blanc Vermouth

This is classified as sweet white wine. It has similar characteristics to Dry Vermouth, but it is sweeter. Compared to Sweet Vermouth, it is less peppery and slightly more floral.

Fortified Wine Serving Recommendations Wine being poured in a clear glass

The serving size of fortified wine differs depending on the type and the amount of alcohol in it. Still, a typical serving is about 3 ounces or 88 ml.

You can enjoy most dessert wines on their own, but you can also mix them with cocktails, such as in the case of Vermouth and Martini. You can also use fortified wine in cooking delicious recipes since it helps enhance the food’s flavor.

The ideal serving temperature of fortified wine is between 60-65°F or 16-18°C. However, you may serve other types at room temperature, depending on your preference.

Fortified Wine Food Pairings  Different fruits and cheese in a wooden platter

Sweet Fortified Wines and Desserts

Sweet wines are fantastic companions for desserts, such as dried fruits, nuts, fruit jams, and cakes. Examples of these are:

  • Sherry paired with Vanilla Ice Cream
  • Sweet Marsala and Tiramisu
  • Fino Sherry paired with Salted Almonds
  • Tawny Port and Pecan Pie
  • Sweet Madeira paired with Sticky Toffee Pudding
  • Maury and Christmas Pudding

Dessert Wines and Cheese

Besides desserts, fortified wines are also excellent to pair with cheese. Examples of these are: 

  • Port paired with Stilton cheese
  • Marsala Superiore Riserva and Gorgonzola 
  • Oloroso Sherry paired with Aged Manchego

Fortified Wine and Oysters

Dessert wines are also great companions for oysters. An example of this is Manzanilla Sherry with Oysters.

Advantages of Drinking Fortified Wine Couple drinking wine

  • Helps Improve Mental Health

PREDIMED conducted a 7-year study wherein they analyzed 5,500 people ranging from light drinkers to moderate drinkers. 

They discovered that people who drank 2-7 glasses of wine per week had reduced instances of being depressed compared to non-drinkers.

However, drinking wine should be in moderation because PREDIMED found that heavy drinkers were more prone to depression.

Light to moderate wine drinking also decreases the risk of having dementia. It was also associated with lowering the risk of ischaemic stroke, a type of stroke caused by artery blockage that interrupts the blood supply to the brain.

  • Anti-inflammatory and Antioxidant Properties

Antioxidants are molecules that reduce the free radicals that cause diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. 

Dessert wines have many antioxidants that help prevent those diseases. Moderate wine drinking decreases the risk of having certain types of cancers, such as ovarian, colon, and prostate.

An example of an antioxidant is resveratrol, which is found in Port and other red wines. Resveratrol also has anti-inflammatory properties that help prevent certain autoimmune diseases.

But it is not guaranteed that your body will accept those antioxidants from wines. That’s why it is better to eat vegetables and fruits instead since the antioxidants from red wines come from the skin of grapes.

  • Good for the Heart

A 4-week study conducted on 69 people showed that red wine increased their good cholesterol (HDL) level by 11-16%. Good cholesterol removes the fat build-up in the arteries, decreasing the risk of having cardiovascular disease.

However, you should not drink wine heavily because it causes cardiomyopathy, which decreases the ability of the heart to pump blood efficiently.

  • Protects Against Chronic Diseases

A study showed that lifelong moderate wine consumption decreased the risk of having Type 2 diabetes in overweight women. 

Another study found that drinking fortified wine also lowered the risk of having diabetic retinopathy, which causes vision loss and blindness.

Disadvantages of Fortified Wine

  • Higher Alcohol Content

Some people may become dependent on the high alcohol concentration in this type of wine, causing withdrawal symptoms.

High alcohol consumption is also attributed to weight gain, liver disease, heart failure, and brain damage. Plus, it can cause alcohol poisoning that may lead to death.

  • High Sugar Level

Some fortified wine types have higher sugar content because they were fortified before the fermentation process was completed, leaving residual sugars. 

Some are also sweetened after the fermentation, thus further increasing the sugar content. An example of a high sugar fortified wine is Dolce which has 100 g/L of sugar. 

High sugar intake is not allowed for people with diabetes and those on a keto diet. It can also cause obesity, heart disease, and liver problems.

  • High-Calorie Content

Besides being high in sugar, dessert wines, such as Sherry and Port, are also high in calories. A glass of fortified wine may have up to 168 calories.

Too much calories can cause you to gain weight. That’s why it’s necessary to have only 1-2 glasses of fortified wine a day.

How to Store Fortified WinesMultiple wooden barrels of wine in a wine cellar

The storage of fortified wines may vary according to style, but we have some general recommendations for you. 

You should store unopened wine bottles in dark storage and at a stable temperature of about 55°F or 13°C. We suggest the use of a wine cellar cooling system for optimum results.

Manzanilla Sherry and Fino should not be stored for a long time in a wine rack or wine cabinet after bottling.

You can keep most of the other types of dessert wines for months, but the length of time depends on their sugar level. The sweeter the wine, the longer its shelf life. On average, the shelf life of fortified wines is between those of regular wine and liquor. 

After opening a bottle of dessert wine, you should consume it in about 2-7 days. An exception to this is Vermouth, which still has the same taste for a maximum of three months. Other exceptions include Marsala and Port that can last for 4-5 weeks if sealed properly.

Properly return the cork or stopper of opened fortified wine bottles. Then, store the bottle upright inside the wine fridge. You may also use a wine preservation system to prolong the shelf life of your opened wine.


Fortified wine is regular wine with prolonged shelf life due to the addition of a distilled spirit. Thus, it has a higher alcohol concentration than everyday wines with an enhanced taste and aroma. There are many fortified wine types, and you can pair them with different kinds of food.

We hope you have a deeper understanding and appreciation of fortified wines after reading this article. So, what is your preferred type of fortified wine? Share your thoughts with fellow wine lovers in the comment section below.


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