Posted by: oysterculture | June 8, 2009

Fortified Wines

photo from

photo from

Like much of life, fortified wines were born from necessity.  In this case, to preserve European wines on long trade voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Brandy was added either before or during the fermentation process to stabilize the wines, and improve their shelf life.  As might be imagined, traditional wines did not store well in the wildly fluctuating temperature and motion they were subjected to on the voyages.  Once fortified, they are more stable than traditional wines and have a much longer shelf life once open.

While the reasons no longer apply, the methods used today are nearly identical to those of old, so the fortified wines of today bear a close resemblance to their brethren of old.  The final product typically contains between 14% to 21% alcohol, and are more stable than ordinary table wines.  If brandy, or the alcohol of choice is added after the fermentation process, the result is a dry wine.  If the alcohol is added before fermentation, the result is a sweet wine with a high sugar content, with port being a classic example and consequently categorized as a dessert wine.  Wines are found to be drier when the brandy is added after the fermentation process such as dry Vermouth.  Depending on how the wine makers approach the process the results can vary greatly from the mellowness of a cream sherry to the pucker producing tartness of an extra-dry vermouth.

Why the difference in sweetness?  

When the alcohol is added before the fermentation process is complete, it kills off the yeast and the sugar that would have been consumed in the process remains.  Typically the yeast survives in a mixture where the alcohol is less than 16.4%.    As these wines have more sugar than usual, they are sweeter than their non-fortified cousins.  So a general rule of thumb, is that the earlier the alcohol is added to the fermentation process the sweeter the fortified wine.

What’s the difference between fortified wine and spirits?  

Fortified wine is distinguished from spirits made from wine in that spirits are produced by means of distillation (brandy being a good example), while fortified wine is simply wine to which the spirits have been added.

Why are certain spirits or alcohol used and when?

The choice of spirits plays an important part in the final product of the fortified wine, as it has influence on the organoleptic qualities of wine. The alcohol used for fortification is produced with a variety of methods and substances – and it can be obtained by the distillation of grape’s pomace, wine, sugar beet, sugar cane, or agricultural byproducts. In some cases are also used wine brandies aged in cask, such as Cognac.  The selection is important, because the wine maker does not want the characteristics of the spirits to overshadow those of the wine.  So frequently neutral alcohol, lacking organoleptic properties are selected.  They would not be desirable on their own for consumption, but serve to showcase the wine’s attributes through the fortification process.    Also, depending on the desired final product, certain attributes need to be played up.  Higher quality alcohol is generally used in fortified wines destined for a long period of aging in bottle; so for fortified wines intended for early consumption, the quality of alcohol is generally lower.  


photo from

photo from


Continuous versus discontinuous distillation of spirits

The alcohol mainly used in fortified wines is produced with the continuous distillation method, the same system used, for example, for the production of many brandies. The most neutral alcohols, poor in aromatic substances, are commonly used for the fortification of wines destined for early consumption, or in wines which must keep their primary aromatic characteristic, such as fortified wines produced with Muscat Blanc grapes. The alcohol produced with the method of discontinuous distillation – the same system used for the production of grappa – is rarely used in fortification because of its high quantity of aromatic substances which would greatly influence the aromas of wine.  The alcohol or the fortifying agent, have their own aromas and enrich the aromatic qualities of the base wine.  

What are some examples of fortified wines?

  • Madeira (Spain)
  • Marsala (Italy)
  • Moscato (Italy)
  • Port (Portugal)
  • Sherry (Spain)
  • Vermouth (Italy)

Italian Fortified Wines

Moscato and Marsala are examples of liquoroso, the Italian name for fortified wine: typically sweet, and with a high alcohol content, by the addition of brandy, or other grape alcohol (brandy being the most common).  The sweetness indicating that the grape alcohol is added before the fermentation.

Madeira wine

Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands. The wine is produced in a variety of styles ranging from dry (consumed as an aperitif)  to sweet (commonly consumed with dessert).

Marsala wine

Marsala hails from Sicily, and is available as both a fortified and unfortified wine.  First produced in 1772, it served as a cheap substitute for sherry and port, and gets its name from the island’s port, Marsala.

Port wine

Port is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal.  It is typically a sweet red wine, but also comes in dry, semi-dry and white varieties.   


photo from

photo from



Sherry is a fortified wine made from the white grapes grown near the town of Jerez, Spain. The word “sherry” is an anglicization of Jerez. In earlier times, sherry was known as sack (from the Spanish saca, meaning “a removal from the solera”).  After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later.  Most people do not understand the difference between sherry and port – this is it, the timing of when the alcohol is added to the fermentation process:  before for port, after for sherry.


Vermouth is a fortified wine flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices – the exact ingredients are a closely guarded secret, but some herbs may include cardamom, cinnamon, marjoram and chamomile.  Vermouth may be sweetened; however, unsweetened, or dry vermouth tends to be bitter.  Vermouth is credited to Antonio Benedetto Carpano who named his concoction “vermouth” because he was inspired by a German wine flavoured with wormwood, famously used in distilling absinthe.  The modern German word “Wermut” means both wormwood and vermouth.  

Vins doux naturels

Vins doux naturels are lightly fortified wines typically made from white Muscat grapes or red Grenache grapes in the south of France. The production of vins doux naturels was perfected in the 13th century and they are now common in the Languedoc-Rousillon of southwest France.  As the name suggests, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Muscat de Rivesaltes, and Muscat de Frontignan are all made from the white Muscat grape, whilst Banyuls and Maury are made from the red Grenache. Regardless of the grape, fermentation is stopped by adding up to 10% of a 190 proof grape spirits.

Fortified wines make great apperitifs and port in particular is famous for how well it pairs with blue cheese.  Of course, cooking with fortified wines offers a lot of variety and creativity, and about everyone has heard of chicken marsala.

Chicken Marsala

 Serves 4, recipe adopted from Tyler Florance


  • 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (~ 1 ½ pounds)
  • Flour, for dredging
  • salt and black pepper
  • ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 oz prosciutto, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz crimini or porcini mushrooms, stemmed and halved
  • ½ c sweet Marsala wine
  • ½ c chicken stock
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • ¼ c chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley


Put the chicken breasts on a cutting board and lay a piece of plastic wrap over them; pound with a flat meat mallet, until they are about ¼” thick. Put some flour in a shallow platter and season with a fair amount of salt and pepper; mix well.

Heat the oil over medium-high flame in a large skillet. When the oil is hot, dredge both sides of the chicken in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess. Slip the cutlets into the pan and fry for 5 minutes on each side until golden, turning once – do this in batches if the pieces don’t fit comfortably in the pan, and to control the temperature of the oil (adding too much chicken lowers the temperature of the oil). Remove the chicken to a large platter in a single layer to keep warm.

Lower the heat to medium and add the prosciutto to the drippings in the pan, saute for 1 minute.  Add the mushrooms and saute until they are nicely browned and their moisture has evaporated, about 5 minutes; season with salt and pepper.  Add the Marsala in the pan and boil down for a few seconds to cook out some of the alcohol. Add the chicken stock and simmer for a minute to reduce the sauce slightly.  Stir in the butter and return the chicken to the pan; simmer gently for 1 minute to heat the chicken through.  Season with salt and pepper and garnish with chopped parsley before serving.



  1. This is some good stuff to know. I’m pretty much a novice when it comes to distinguishing wines and spirits. Thanks!

  2. You are so cool over here! I love what I find over here, and someone gave me a bottle of 1997 Fladgate Port for my 40th, and we just opened it…I had afterthoughts and was wishing we had waited until my fifty in a few years; then it would have really been a sweet occasion…

    I also receieved a bottle of Maderia 1889, and cooked with it, we still have the bottle…

    Love it for drinking and cooking…

  3. Moscato D’Asti and Beaumes de Venise are my favorites – I could drink them anytime, not just with my dessert. You know I had no idea they were fortified … I just thought it was another version of a botrytis infected grape. As always, I learn something by stopping by.

    I noticed you used a Tyler Florence recipe…sounds pretty tasty – he seems to be taking San Francisco by storm!

  4. Very informative wine guide. I never know this before, I drink only Australia-Shiraz. Great to learn to know more about wine for cooking also. But I know well chicken masala. Thank you for visiting mine too.

  5. Great to learn about the timing in adding the alcohol. This makes me want to find that bottle of Madeira that’s been pushed to the back of a cabinet for too long!

  6. Great stuff…I love learning more about wines. Didn’t know that some of what I use is fortified. It’s always fantastic to come to your blog and learn a thing or two!

    I love the sounds of the chicken marsala recipe you posted too!

  7. Excellent info on wines! The chicken marsala recipe sounds great!

  8. Dandy – I can vouch for the recipe, its quick and easy not to mention pretty darn tasty

    Lisa – It is interesting how the timing makes such a difference

    Tan – I always have a lot of fun visiting your site, but there is not enough time to try all the tasty recipes you offer up, so sometimes I have to content myself to stare

    Gastro – Two of my favorites as well, and no noble rot involved. I love that name – there was a great wine bar in London by that name, but I think it closed down a few years back.

    Chef E – Wow the port sounds spectacular I look forward to hearing what you get on your 50th! Might have to break out that bottle of Maderia for some sipping.

  9. Gastro – forgot to add, that there are frequent Tyler sightings and he does seem to be popular. Although the last chef that came through and kicked up a storm was the Australian Take Home Chef – my girlfriend were all oohing and ahing. One even dressed up her son to get pictures. Seriously, there was no shame.

    This recipe works, and its easy and simple.

  10. I love learning about wine !

    Thanks for sharing your wines!


  11. I love a good port, especially with fresh strawberries macerated in a little bit of it. Then, you put the berries over ice cream. It’s such a simple dessert and such a fine way to end a great dinner.

  12. Oh! Great post! I love wine – but I don’t know as much about wine as let’s say – pasta! I use fortified wines all the time in cooking – and never knew about the herbs and vermouth. Kind of makes you want to try and make your own. The Marsala recipe looks delicious – a favorite of mine and it is chilly enough to cook it.

  13. Claudia – With a blog name like yours will defer to you on all things pasta =)

    Carolyn – I agree with you on the port, I love strawberries macerated = but I usually macerate mine in a bit of balsamic vinegar and honey. I confess I like it just fine like that, but the addition of ice cream or yogurt can only improve perfection.

    Foodcreate – my pleasure

    Natasha – The recipe is a winner. But I am sure you have something equally fantastic up your sleeve.

  14. I haven’t yet commented on your mead post and this comes along! We just enjoyed a lovely bottle of ruby port – on to the next fortified wine!

  15. This is such an informative post! I enjoyed reading through the different kind of fortified wines.


  16. I wish I would have the ability to differentiate the tastes of wines. I love to learn more about wines.Thank you for this informative post!
    In Turkey, we have seeral kinds of wine according to their region and sweetness. There are also wine festivals in some regions in the time of grape harvest.

  17. Hello LouAnn, I followed you from the foodieblogroll and I was completely blown away by your site! The info you have on food, wine and cultures around the world has got me hooked! I’d love to guide our readers to your site if you won’t mind. Just add this foodista widget to this post and it’s all set to go, Thanks! -Alisa@Foodista

  18. I almost missed this post cuz I thought you were changing urls. But I see you are back at it with a vegence. Again I feel I need to take notes for fear of a pop quiz next time I visit. So much great info! GREG (Sup!)

  19. Great info as always. I lump all these wines into the same category unofficially named “cookie wines” as they are what I dunk cookies in.

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