This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Taylor Dessert Wines. Founded in 1880, Taylor Desserts offers a line of superior ports, sherrys, and other traditional dessert wines from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. With a special selection of high-quality, sweet, and smooth dessert wines, Taylor is great for cooking or simply enjoying as an after-dinner treat. Available in a variety of sizes and flavors, Taylor dessert wines are a delicious addition to any home or restaurant. Bring home a bottle of Taylor Dessert Wine, and let our traditions become part of yours.
In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses fortified wines. Fortified wines are the result of adding a spirit to a wine, which adds alcoholic strength to the final product and limits the amount of sugar produced by yeast cells during distillation. Listeners will learn about the complex history of fortified wines, specifically that of three major categories: port, sherry, and Madeira.
Then, Beavers lists styles within each of those major categories. The port category is made up of a dozen styles, including ruby port, tawny port, and vintage port. Some sherry styles include fino, amontillado, and cream sherry. Finally, popular Madeira styles include Malmsey and Boal.
Tune in to become an expert on all things fortified wines.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and raise your hand if you’ve read the first novel of “The High Republic,” the new “Star Wars” saga. Me, too!
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 17 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2. My name is Keith Beavers and do you know who I am? I’m the tastings director of VinePair.
We’ve talked about red wine, we’ve talked about white wine, rosé, bubbly, and all kinds of cool stuff, but we have not talked about fortified wine. And here we are. We’ve got to talk about it. It’s unique. There are misconceptions. Let’s get into it.
Wine can be so overwhelming. You might think “OK, Keith, that’s why we’re listening to ‘Wine 101.’ Thanks, dude.” But it is. It’s been around for so long, and so many humans have been experimenting with the practice of winemaking for so long. And so when you just dive into it, you’re diving into something that’s been around since antiquity and is as complex as humans can make something. It’s insane. It’s really just the history of humans tinkering and finding out the best way to make wine in their part of the world.
The grapes that are there, the climate they have, the challenges in the vineyard and in the wineries that are unique to them in that place. Then, when we as humans figure out how to make something work and the resulting product just hits right, it catches and becomes a standard. That only leads to more experimentation because we as humans and winemakers can never get enough. Winemakers always want to try something new. And all this is how different wine styles are born. When we started adding spirits to wine, a whole new world of experimentation opened up for us. This is the world of fortified wine.
Fundamentally, the idea of fortified wine is the practice of adding a spirit to wine. The whole principle behind the idea of fortified wine is you’re fortifying and strengthening wine. You’re adding alcoholic strength to wine, but what you’re also doing is you’re limiting the amount of sugar a yeast cell can produce. The result is often a boozy, somewhat sweet, sometimes very sweet, wine. Often, you’ll find that fortified wines come from some of the warmest, driest, or hottest regions in the world for wine.
In the Douro Valley of Portugal, they make a fortified wine called port. It’s a very hot, very unforgiving, dry climate. In the Jerez region, in southern Spain, there is a fortified wine called sherry. Southern Spain is very hot, very dry. In western Sicily, there’s a fortified wine called Marsala. Western Sicily is very hot and very dry. Of course, today, these wines are made all over the place. There are actually port-style wines being made in the United States in places like Missouri, and that’s not very hot and very dry. But traditionally, this is how these wines came to be.
If you think about it, fortified wine, as a style, is a fairly short list of wines compared to the wider world of red, white, and sparkling wine out there. Here’s the capper, and this is what’s tricky and this is why when people look into fortified wine, they dip their toe and go, “Yo, this is too much. I’m going to just back up here for a second. Thank you.” The thing is, even though there’s a short list of fortified wines out there, within each category of each wine is a laundry list of styles. And it’s overwhelming.
I said at the beginning of the episode and it’s where I was getting to is, man, it’s overwhelming. Port itself has at least a dozen different styles. Madeira, an island about 600 miles off the coast of Portugal, it’s an island that makes fortified wine. They have, I think, 13 or more styles within their fortified wine category. Some of those styles are so old that they’re not even made anymore. They are just talked about. It’s insane. This is what I’m talking about, with figuring out, having a challenge in your region, figuring it out, and then running with it and continuing to experiment with it to the point where you actually lose some of the things you’ve been doing throughout history.
What’s really wild about this is that the idea of fortified wine, I’m sure, it’s been around for a long time. Distillation is ancient, winemaking is ancient, but the idea of putting the two together — when I talk about prominence — this all started happening in the late 17th, early 18th century. The reason we know fortified wine today is mostly because of the relationship between England and Portugal. In 1703, there was a treaty between Portugal and England called the Methuen Treaty.
At the time, France and England were fighting. They had a history of trading together, but this was basically a trade war. It was also a time when Spain didn’t have a leader, and there was a lot of fighting to figure out who was going to take the throne. It was called the Spanish War of Succession. This was all happening right before the 1700s. In 1703, the Portuguese and England had a great relationship. They did in a previous war where they helped each other. England didn’t like France, so the Methuen Treaty said, “We are going to give preferential treatment to all imports from Portugal over any other country in Europe, especially France. We are taxing everybody else. We’re not going to tax you guys or we’ll tax you less. Therefore, we will now be doing business with Portugal. All trade stops with France.”
English wine merchants thought, “Well, I guess we’re going to Portugal.” English wine merchants start working their way into Portugal, specifically northern Portugal, into the Minho region. That’s in the northwestern part of the country. This is where the Vinho Verde wine region is. Vinho Verde these days is mostly white wine, but there was a lot of red wine being made back in the day there. It was fizzy and it was a little bit astringent — a little bit lean for the British palate — so they started moving further down the Douro River and they found the Douro Valley.
There they found red wine being made, but this was the complete opposite of the astringent, thin wine of Vinho Verde. This was austere, heavy, tannic, slap-you-in-the-face red wine. It came to be known by the English as black strap wine. Merchants in this area would actually shock it or dose it with a grape spirit to fortify or strengthen the wine and stabilize it — killing all the bad bacteria and all the yeast cells so they don’t start reproducing or fermenting in the bottle. They did this so that it survives the river all the way across the ocean to England. But it was still rough to drink.
The story goes that there was an English wine merchant who sent his two sons into Portugal to look for new wine. Apparently, the black strap was intense and they were looking for new wine as a business person. The sons go north of the Douro Valley into a place called Trás-os-Montes and they find, wait for it… a prominent monastery! Oh, my God, the monks are here, people. The monks are here, and leave it to the monks to figure it out.
To them, they were adding grape spirits as well to their wine, but they weren’t doing it after it’s all fermented and before bottling. They added grape spirit right in the middle of the fermentation process. What that did was just stop the fermentation in its tracks, killed off the yeast, all the volatile bacteria, and retained the amount of sugar that had not been converted by the yeast. The result was this red, boozy, soft, fruit-forward wine. And these guys thought, “Wow, this is absolutely delicious. This is amazing. Do you know how much money we can make on this?” But in British accents.
Then, they took that idea back to the Douro Valley, back to that wine region, and the idea of port wine was born. The word “port” is named after the second-largest city in Portugal on the Douro River called Oporto. That started it all pretty much because, at this time in history, the seafaring nations were out there looking for other places to live. The colonies over on the East Coast of the United States started happening from England. There was this island about 600 miles off the coast of Portugal called Madeira, and it was a major port of call between the Iberian Peninsula, Asia, and Africa. The seas were filled with ships either on trade routes or exploration campaigns, and it was the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, and the English just all out there.
They were traveling hundreds of miles away from their homes, possibly months or years at a time. This style of wine had a few advantages for what was going on around this time. When you dose wine with a spirit, a few things happen. Number one, I’ve mentioned this before, it kills off or renders impotent any yeast cells doing any activity in the wine. It also takes care of any volatile bacteria. So with the fermentation process stopped in the middle of the process, there’s a lot of sugar that hasn’t been converted, so the resulting wine is going to be sweet and a little boozy because you’ve brought this wine up to about between 15 and 20 percent alcohol by dosing it with a grape spirit.
The third thing — and the one thing that really brought this style of wine to the rest of the world — is the fact that all those things I mentioned make this wine very reliable for long traveling distances. In fact, the fortified wine made on the island of Madeira became very popular in the North American colonies that would be the United States. The fortified wine and barrels making the journey to the colonies actually improved by the time it got to the colonies. They actually tried to replicate that on land to have that quality of wine before it ships out. Just as a side note here, the fortified wines of Madeira are some of the most aged wines on the planet. The oldest wine I have ever tasted was a Madeira. Somebody said to me, “Hey, do you want to taste a wine that was made when Abraham Lincoln was president?” I was like, “… yes.” And he poured me a glass of 1865 Madeira. And it was awesome. Deep, dark, caramel, and almond. Oh, it was great. These wines are nuts, guys.
Another important port of call was Andalusia in the southern part of Spain. This is where the town of Jerez is. This is the holy triangle of sherry, meaning there are these three towns that form a triangle, and within that triangle is the growing region for sherry wine. This wine is unique because of the winemaking process. The yeast that is used is a different strain of yeast than we’re all used to for just regular wine. It’s a strain of yeast called flor. It’s a blossoming yeast, and it covers the wine in the barrel and protects it from oxygen while the yeast feeds on the sugar in the wine. It is a very unique style.
They then dose the resulting wine at the end of the fermentation and end up putting the wine in something called a solera system, where you have up to 12 barrels stacked on top of each other and connected. The wine stays in these barrels, and it filters down to the bottom layer, which is the oldest wine, and you draw off the oldest wine, and then everything filters down. This is called the solera system. Again, this is very unique to this area. This is something they came up with with the challenges they had. This is what’s so crazy about wine, especially this style. It’s really port, Madeira, and sherry. These are the big three that we see on our market to this day because they were very popular wines in the American colonies.
We were trying to make wine in the American colonies on our own, but while we were doing it, we were drinking fortified wine mainly from Spain and Portugal. As I said in the beginning, when you add a grape spirit to wine, whether it’s before the fermentation when you put it in the must and then let it ferment from there as you do in Australia for a wine called topaque muskat, which is extremely sweet — they have to get it started just before the fermentation process; or, whether you put it in the middle of the fermentation process or towards the end, it just opens up a whole new possibility of stuff.
So what’s happening here is the wines of port and Madeira and maybe sherry, but mostly port, became so popular in England, it was called the Englishman’s wine, and that’s a pretty big endorsement. With that popularity, all these different types of port came about throughout the years. And Madeira. Oh, my gosh, because Madeira was very popular in England, but it was very popular in the American colonies. So they had this new style of wine that was very popular, sweet, and it could travel. People were just creating all different kinds of ports to sell. They wanted to keep it interesting. I mean, they were experimenting with this stuff and they were creating these new styles within their category, but they were also hoping to sell the stuff and get it popular in England and all the other colonies.
I’m going over port because it’s just insane. You’ll see more port than any other fortified wine, really, on the American market. I mean, we’re actually making port stuff here in the United States but you’re going to see ruby port, which is the entry-level, easy-drinking, inexpensive style of port. Then, you’re going to see a reserve port, which is a premium ruby port with a little more depth and concentration. Then, you’re going to see tawny port, which is an amber-colored caramel, easy-drinking port. You’re going to see the aged tawny port, which is a higher quality of wine for tawny and it ages at least six years in wood. Then, there’s tawny age reserved, which has to see at least seven years in wood. Wood meaning barrels.
Then, there’s colheita port, which is a port from a single year, blended and not multiple vintages. Then, there’s the vintage port, which is different from the colheita port in that it has to be declared by a governing body to be a vintage. Finally, there’s the top of the top, the single quinta vintage, which is basically one property making the wine in a single vintage, and it’s very expensive. The last two we don’t see a lot of, but that’s just port.
For Madeira, the wines are either named after the variety in which the wine is made from or just the categories of dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, medium-rich, rich, or sweet. And the names of the grapes are Verdelho, Boal, and Malmsey which is basically Malvasia. Malmsey is one of the most long-lived. That’s why when you listen to pirate stories in the Caribbean, they’re either drinking rum or Malmsey, because it could last on the ship forever.
And that’s not counting what is called the historical styles of Madeira. As I said in the beginning, styles are just lost to history. And I think there are like 11 of those. In Andalusia, in southern Spain where sherry is made — near Jerez in the surrounding towns — they do it a little bit differently with the flor and then they dose at the end, and they put it into the solera systems. These styles have the lighter style of sherry, which is very pale in color. They’re called fino or manzanillas. Then you have the darker sherries, which are called amontillados or olorosos. Oloroso means aromatic. They’re dark and caramelly.
Then, there is a very sweet style that the British called cream sherry, which is you take an oloroso and you dose it with a little bit of a sweet wine made from a grape called Pedro Ximénez, also just known as PX.
How’s your head? Are you a little bit dizzy? Was that a lot of information? Well, it is a lot of information, and that’s just scratching the surface. We didn’t even talk about Marsala. Also, in Roussillon in southern France, there’s an awesome style of fortified wine called Vin Doux Naturel. They’re not natural wines. Naturel just means natural flavors, which relates to them putting this wine into glass carboys or just big glass jugs and letting them sit outside in the sun for a very long time. We’re talking 20 or 30 years.
Then, they bottle them. And they are just nutty, almondy and sometimes they are called ranco. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that right, but it means rancid. That’s just a rank. It’s not nasty, but it has a very intense smell, as this wine has been sitting in the sun for so long.
It’s just wild stuff, guys. And at some point on “Wine 101,” we’re going to go into each of these places and talk about them and get details. I’m going to get you guys all set up. This is just a nice, well-rounded discussion about fortified wine. We dipped into history a little bit. This will get you set up and get you to understand what these wines are about. So when you’re out there, you get a sense of what you’re about to buy or what you are looking at.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Daniel Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.