Port houses, Nova Gaia, Oporto, Portugal
From the Latin ‘Fortis‘, we refer to strong wines as ‘Fortified’.
Fortifieds are wines to which high strength spirit (around 95%) or brandy spirit (around 80%) has been added to increase the alcohol level. Most fortifieds come in at around 17 to 20% alcohol by the time they are bottled.
The blending secrets of winemakers who venture into fortifieds have often been passed down through generations. In fact, some of the wines they are using in today’s blend were made by their grandfathers – partcularly in the case of Solera systems.
Many of these wines undergo comprehensive production methods. There are also styles of Fortifieds which are not listed here, such as the extremely luscious tokays and muscats.
For now, though, we’ll just overview three main types.
Best Grapes for Fortified Wines
Fortifieds can be white or red, and made from either grape colour. Not just any grape will do, though … they do need to have some specific characterists:
Sweet fortified wines need grapes that tend to shrivel, and achieve high sugar concentration on ripening – like Grenach, Shiraz, Muscadelle, Frontignac, Verdehlo.
Dry fortifieds like Sherry require neutral flavoured grapes – like Pedro Ximines or Palomino.
Solera System, Jerez, Spain
Several fortified wines – most well-known, Sherry – are made through a Solera system, which consists of layers [criadera] of barrels stacked on top of each other. Each criadera holds a single vintage’s wine. The oldest vintage is naturally at the bottom layer [the solera], and the new vintage is placed on the top row.
A Solera system works like this: Several times a year, wine is removed from the bottom barrels for bottling/drinking. This is replaced by wine drawn out of the next layer of barrels, which are in turn topped up by the next layer.
This way, the wine in the bottom barrels represents a blend of all vintages, and remains refreshed. The Solera ensures consistency in house style.
Imagine the job it must be to replace the bottom barrels as they deteriorate with age … that a whole other page one day …
Spanish vineyards, Jerez, Spain
Normally reserved as a tippling drink for little old ladies, it’s worth getting acquainted with Sherry. It really is a great alternative for summer afternoons.
Sherry originates in Spain – named after the city of Jerez [pronounced Hereth], and is made from Palomino or Pedro Ximenes grapes.
The minimun ripening degree for Palomino and Pedro Ximenes to make Sherry is 10.5 degrees baumé. The grapes also have low acidity, and the juice oxidises easily.
Pedro Ximenes (PX) is actually being replaced by Palomino in Spain, due to Palomino’s better tolerance of disease, and higher yields, although the high-end sherries all seem to continue to be PX.
But it’s not just grape choice that creates the unique aromas and flavours of Sherry. It’s the yeast, and the oxidation of the ethyl alcohol it produces.
Sherry under Flor, Jerez, Spain
Yeast used to ferment Sherry forms a surface-covering growth on the fermenting wine. This growth is called ‘flor’, and is a key production requirement of the finest Fino Sherries.
Flor isn’t like other yeasts. When it first meets the wine, it sinks to the bottom … then rises up to create a film around 3 to 6 mm thick on the surface. If this film is broken during fermentation period, the wine cannot be Fino anymore. It can go on to become Amontillado or Oloroso.
Fino is pale coloured, has a pungent almondy bouquet, smooth on the palate and dry on finish. As Fino ages in casks, it hopefully retains its delicate aromas and flavours. However, it can morph into Fino-amontillado or Amontillado if it gains body and develops a new bouquet.
If it grows coarser, it becomes reclassified as Oloroso. Oloroso is a style of Sherry that doesn’t require flor, so it’s not just a category left for failed Finos. Oloroso is darker in colour and is made from more fragrant grapes.
Cream Sherry is made in a number of ways, not necessarily having anything to do with the Solera. Sometimes it is made by sweetening and adding colouring wine to base wine.
Colouring wine is another interesting process. Termed ‘arrope-vino de color’ this is wine which has been reduced by boiling to one fifth of its original volume. It becomes caramelly and reaches around 37 degrees baumé. A seperate amount of grape juice is fermented and the reduced wine is slowly added. The end wine is around 12 degrees baumé, and is aged in casks in a Solera.
Douro vineyards, Oporto, Portugal
Although authentic Port comes from Portugal, other countries, particularly Australia, make some sensational ports.
In Portugal, the grapes all come from the Douro Valley. In Australia, they can come from a variety of regions, however undoubtedly the Rutherglen region in North East Victoria produces exceptional fortifieds over all.
The minimum ripeness for Port is 12-13 degrees baumé. The main grape varieties used include Touriga, Bastardo, Grenache (tawny port in Australia), Shiraz, Mataro.
Authentic Portugese Port production is controlled in a similar way to the appellation laws in France and Germany. In Portugal, vineyards are graded [A to F] every four years by Government inspectors. The grading gives the vigneron a level of yield that he is allowed to turn into Port. A grade vineyards can use 100% yield, whereas F might only make 40%.
Port stacked in Port houses, Nova Gaia, Porto
The big brother activity doesn’t stop there. During maturation, the wine is sujected to quality controls by the Camara de Provadores do Instituto do Vinho do Porto [Chamber of the Port Wine Institute Tasters].
In Portugal there are 80 different [yes, 80] grapes authorised for port production – but not all are identified. Most vineyards carry 20-30 different varieties. The five majors, though, are Touriga Nacional, Tina Barocca, Touriga Francesca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Ritz [Tempranillo].
Port comes in a variety of styles, within two main categories:
Undated Ports are blended from up to 15 different wines from many vintages. They are aged in oak and experience controlled oxidation, but are ultimately designed to be drunk soon after bottling:
Samples of different Ports
Ruby – young [1-3 years], fruity, blackcurrant
Vintage – matured in large oak barrels 3 or 4 years, complex, fruity, full-bodied
Tawny – small barrel aged, light structure, soft dry finished.
White Port – a light-bodied, amber gold colour, with rancio and toffee fruit flavours.
Dated Ports are matured in wood and continue maturation in the bottle.
Vintage – aged up to 30 years in the bottle, rich, chocolate, fruity and strong rancio aromas, dry finish. These wines throw deposits in the bottle so older ones should be decanted.
Late Bottled Vintage [LBV] – made from a single year, bottled at 4-6 years aged, unfiltered, need decanting.
Harvest – matured in oak and come from a single harvest in a single vintage. Are not bottled until 7 years old.
Grapes used to make brandy include neutral varieties like Folle Blanche, Doradillo, Colombard, Trebbiano. Trebbianno [Ugni Blanc] is the most important of these grapes.
The most famous brandies are Cognac and Armagnac from France. These are relatively cool regions of France, and in Cognac the grapes don’t quite mature – resulting in high acidity, low sugar and lack of flavour. But this is a good thing! Too much sugar makes ‘flabby’ brandy.
Armagnac on the other hand is a little warmer, and higher sugar levels are reached – actually enough to make table wine out of them.
The base wines for Cognac and Armagnac production are fermented using innoculated yeast as with normal wine. However, Cognac will then go through a pot still distillation with yeast lees still intact. Armagnac on the other hand is produced more often using continuous still.
The distilled wines in both cases are then matured in oak before blending.
Blending is particularly important for Cognac to maintain consistency. In doing so, the age of the youngest wine in the blend determines its commercial denomination:
3 years (min) -3 star
5 years (min) – VSOP
7 years (min) – Napoleon or XO