There is an enormous range of drinks that are made by ‘fortifying’ wine with alcohol, added either after fermentation to the dry wine or during fermentation to the must while it is still sweet. Some of these are so strongly flavoured and artfully concocted that they are only very distant relations of wine.
These are the principal fortified wines (about 18% alcohol by volume):
Spain’s most famous wine comes from white Palomino grapes grown at the southernmost tip of the country, around Jerez. Grape spirit is added to the wine only after fermentation is complete and the strong, dry liquid is left to mature in traditional wooden casks in the bodegas of the sherry towns. The lighter, more delicate wines are encouraged to form flor, a protective growth that covers the wine’s surface like a thin layer of soggy bread, while the richer wines are allowed to oxidize, gaining colour and the characteristic ‘flat’ taste of sherry. Most commercial sherries are carefully blended and then sweetened, by adding a very strong, sweet, raisiny wine, before bottling. Fino and Manzanilla are the palest, lightest and driest, of which Manzanilla is supposed to have an ultra-appetizing suggestion of brine. Amontillado is medium in body, medium dark and medium dry (though it is possible to rind dry Amontillados to which no sweetening wine has been added, and they are ting ling ly delicious). Oloroso is darker and richer still, while Cream sherries are the sweetest of all.
Pale Creams have the sweetness of a dark Cream and the colour of a Fino. Montilla near Jerez produces wines that are very similar to sherry, without quite the weight. Sherry-style wines are made all over the world, with notable success in Cyprus and South Africa and great ingenuity in Australia and California. PORT, epitomizing the other major style of fortified wine, is always strong and relatively sweet because the alcohol is added during fermentation. Port is made from red and white grapes grown high up in the valley of the river Douro in Portugal and usually matured in port ‘lodges’, low ware-houses near the mouth of the river at Oporto. Ruby port is young fiery crimson wine that has spent up to five years in cask. As it ages, it becomes browner and paler in colour and softer in flavour.
An Old Tawny, the port most commonly drunk by the port wine trade, may be anything from eight to 40 years old, with the optimum for flavour being between 15 and 20 years. Most cheaper ports labelled Tawny are given a tawny hue simply by adding some White port to young Ruby. White port varies in sweetness from off-dry to very sweet, but is difficult to find outside Portugal. Much of the port that is exported today is about five to eight years old, styled as either a superior Ruby or a moderately old Tawny.
Most venerated of all, however, is Vintage port, a wine made from the best wines of a single exceptionally good year bottled early and left for decades to develop to concentrated magnificence. Such bottles are usually very simply labelled and have been matured so long that they call for a decanter to separate the wine from the sediment. However, more than 95 per cent of all port sold today has no sediment and can be poured straight from the bottle. Some port shippers bottle wines from less good vintages a little later in their development so that they can be drunk just five years or so after the vintage. These wines, usually labelled much more flashily than Vintage port, often giving great prominence to the year, are called Late Bottled Vintage or Vintage Character port.
MADEIRA is a rich wine made on the Portuguese island of the same name. It is traditionally heated up to more than 37°C (100°F) during the production process. This gives it a ‘burnt’ flavour, and an exceptionally long life. Sercial and Verdelho are the driest, Bual is very plummy and Malmsey is the sweetest and darkest.
VERMOUTH is the generic term for all those fortified wines, dry and white or sweet and red, that sell in such huge quantities under a brand name such as Martini, Cinzano and Riccadonna. The basic principle of production is to strip base wines of flavour and colour, add alcohol and flavourings, often herb-based, and possibly sweetening wines.