Fortified wine | Wine buzzwords

Charley May
By Charley May
over 2 years ago
4 min read

Welcome to the next leg of our journey to make sense of wine words. In this edition, we’ll be travelling back to a time when fortified wines ruled the world, and finding out what they are and why they’re still worthy of celebration today. 

Fortified wine (n)

Examples: Port, Sherry, Muscat, Madeira and Marsala

Definition: A wine that has had brandy or grape spirit added in order to stop fermentation or to increase the alcoholic content.


In the context of our modern winescape, it’s crazy to think that only 50 years ago fortified wines represented around 85% of all wine produced in Australia. Today, you’re likely to find just a handful (of good ones) in quality bottle shops. The reasons behind the current state of play are complex, but I’ll summarise the main ones below.

Back in the old days, like 200 years ago, fortifying wine with additional alcohol was a great way of protecting it from spoilage. And in the absence of modern winemaking and storage technologies, this meant wine was more likely to be drinkable when it reached its final destination. This was critical because it had a long way to travel to its main market - the UK.

While Aussies enjoyed a good fortified, preferential duty for ‘Empire’ wines by the British government saw exports rocket. So much so that between 1927-1940 Australia exported more wine to the UK than France, with the lion’s share being fortifieds. 

But all good things come to an end. Changing consumer tastes (for lighter, less intoxicating juice) and new winemaking technologies meant fortified wine waned in favour of table wines. Today, they make up just a tiny fraction of what we now produce and drink in Australia. 


Why fortified are still worth checking out now

There’s a reason why fortified wines have not vanished altogether and continue to occupy a place in the hearts of true wine fans. It’s because they’re a diverse bunch with incredible histories and an amazing array of flavours. And while I’d love to deep dive into each one, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on just three and why they awesome. 


Port: called ruby, vintage or tawny in Australia

Port is a magical drink that’s traditionally made in the Douro Valley in Portugal using five main grapes, with Touriga Nacional being the most prized. There are a number of different styles but my favourite experiences are with ‘Vintage’ and ‘Tawny’ Port. 

Vintage Port is wine of an outstanding single year that’s usually blended from several of the producer’s vineyards. It’s made to age for decades and is renowned for ‘throwing a crust’ (aka sediment), something that my dad used to love making a ceremony of every Christmas. To be fair, his decanting efforts and the wine was always worthy of a standing ovation. 

Tawny Port is typically a blend of wines from different vintages, that has spent ages maturing in wooden barrels (some up to 100 years) before release. For me, good Tawny’s toffee, dried fruit, nutty flavours, and its rich texture and balanced acidity, make it the nectar of the gods. Drink it by the fire or chill it down and sip on a warm day (seriously, it works), either way, it’ll be heavenly. And in Australia, Seppeltsfield 100 Year Old Vintage Para Tawny, is what the angels drink.


Sherry: called apera in Australia

Made using just three grape varieties - Palomino, Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximénez - Sherry comes from the Jerez winemaking region in Spain. It can be made in a number of styles from dry to sweet, with ‘flor’ (a special thin layer of yeast on the surface of the wine) and solera (a special aging system), playing a major role in their character. But my real interest lies in the sweet elixir made with Pedro Ximénez. The good stuff is like drinking liquid Christmas cake; throw it over homemade vanilla ice-cream for an insanely delicious dessert. Check out Lustau Sherry Pedro Ximenez San Emilio for a smashing value taste of this type of Sherry.


Muscat:

While similar to Maderia wine (a type of fortified made in Maderia), Muscat is very much an Aussie vino success story with its own rich history. Muscat’s beating heart is in Rutherglen, Victoria, where its deep, layered and powerful nutty and raisined flavours come from extended time in wood and exposure to high summer temperatures (which would normally ruin other wines). There are many styles, each of them worthy of serious attention. My advice would be to go to Rutherglen or grab a bottle of Campbells Grand Rutherglen Muscat and travel there in spirit.