In Vino Veritas: Fortified Wines

Wine is a inherently unstable product and before we could move it quickly from port to port by large temperature controlled container ships it was difficult to guarantee it’s quality during export. That was until Spanish winemaking know how, centred in the city of Jerez, and Moorish chemistry* came together and Sherry was created.

Fortified wines by definition are wine that have been blended with brandy or another neutral spirit. Usually a fortified wine comes in at no less than 17.5% alcohol but can rise into the low to mid twenties in some cases.  The most well known types of fortified wines are Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala, and Commandaria. These wines have been given protected status by their respective governments which protect their names from being used by producers in other countries.  Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of fortified wines and if you go to the LCBO you will find a number of Canadian produced “ports” and “sherries”.

In the next thousand years, after the invention of Sherry, other areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean started to copy the Spanish trend.  In the early 1700’s Portugal became a major player in the fortified wine world by trading with the British who were at war with the French. That vacuum in the wine market left by the conflict was quickly filled by Port and Sherry. The long, hot sea voyage between Iberia and Britain was only fit for a product that was stabilized in a way that wine could not be at this point in history. Now most of the Port houses in Portugal are British owned. Quickly after port became popular mine makers in Sicily and the Spanish island of Madeira, these wines drove exports from both of these islands. Sicily’s wine exporting industry still thanks it’s biggest major wine export (Marsala) for helping support the rest of the now strong wine industry.

Commandaria is a Cypriot drink made from late harvest wine and grain alcohol kind of evolved independently from the rest of the fortified wines. It was claimed that it was the chosen drink of Selim II of the Ottoman empire, and that he annexed the Greek island in 1571 so that he could control the production and supply of his favourite drink.

Fortified wines today are a bit of a waning trend. People under the age of 50 do not really drink sherry or port. Marsala has found new life as cooking wine and a cocktail mixer and Madeira also has been relegated to more of a cocktail drink. Somehow Commadaria production and consumption has actually grown, but who exactly is drinking it isn’t really something I care to research any more than to say Greeks put pine resin in their wine for the flavour so why should I apply logic to what they consume?

So next time you are planning a night of drinking, get a bottle of Tawny Port, some almonds, blue cheese, dried fruits and dark chocolate, snack on those while you drink the wine and thank me later.


*Moorish Chemistry sounds like a long lost Oasis album.