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An Exhaustive Guide to Fortified Wines

What’s the difference between vermouth, sherry, and other trendy fortified wines?

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Vermouth and sherry, both which fall into the fortified wine camp, are getting more attention these days, yet there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion as to the definition of each. What is vermouth, and sherry? And what in the world is a fortified wine?

One reason for that lack of awareness could be a lingering association with poor quality products, such as bargain basement, highly sweet cream sherries which came to represent the entire category in the minds of many. "People associate fortified wines with cheap quality and sort of lesser-made products," says Lee Carrell, bar manager the Royal in Washington, D.C., a venue that makes its own vermouth, served on tap and mixed into vermouth-forward cocktails. "So you have to tell them about these fantastic products that are around."

What is a fortified wine?

"I think the average consumer actually doesn't understand what fortified wine is, or that fortified wine actually is a category," laments Carrell. "They're not aware that sherry and vermouth and port are fortified wines, they don't really understand what it means to have distilled spirit added to a wine base."

As Carrell indicates, by definition a fortified wine is a wine which has a distilled spirit added to it, to increase its alcohol content — fortifying it. There’s a huge spectrum of fortified wines, and vermouth and sherry actually both qualify as separate types within this beverage category.

While the definition is easy enough, the trick is that every style of fortified wine has a series of specific regulations which make it distinct.

"If I had a Madeira or a port next to a sherry, each one is so identifiable as not the other," says Chantal Tseng, co-owner of Washington, D.C.'s sherry bar Mockingbird Hill, and appropriately known to some as the sherry ninja or sherry queen. "They all stand out ... and the nature of their production requires time, and a lot of complexity comes out of that."

Fortified wine regulations tend to include the allowable range of ABV (alcohol by volume), aging minimums and styles, type of base wine, sort of spirit which can be added and in what way, amount of sugar on a spectrum of dry to sweet, and so forth. While fortified wines can be made anywhere, specific geographic regions are often regulated for a distinct category. For example, Madeira coming from Portugal’s Madeira Islands.

Hand pulling a tap that allows vermouth to pour out into a crystal glass.
Vermouth on tap at Washington, D.C.’s Royal.
Courtesy of Royal

Types of fortified wine

Sherry: Fortified wine from Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalusia, Spain. More below.

Port: Port wine hails from Portugal, and specifically, the Duoro Valley. Grapes must be grown and processed in the region, and to become port, the wine is fortified with unaged brandy before fermentation is complete to yield a product with around 20 percent ABV. Port is most commonly rich and sweet, but a range of styles exist, including tawny port, ruby port, white port and rose port, amongst others.

Madeira: Madeira hails from Portugal’s Madeira Islands. The wine can range from dry to sweet, and is most notable for its aging process known as estufagem. This now mandated practice stems from Madeira’s taste, which was once the result of Madeira barrels being shipped through tropical climates on lengthy voyages. Today, Madeira is made from a combination of heating and aging, along with oxidization and mild pasteurization. Madeira can be produced in two ways: either over a period of months with hot water tanks or steam, or naturally over a period of decades.

Moscatel de Setúbal: The Portuguese love their fortified wine, and this is another geographically specified rendition. This one hails from the city Setúbal, located in the Setúbal Peninsula along the country’s coast. It’s primarily made from the muscat of Alexandria grape, and is dominated by a single company, José Maria da Fonseca. The style is known for more floral, and sometimes funky aromas, thanks to muscat grape skins that are added after the distilled spirit has been incorporated into the wine.

Marsala: Marsala comes from Marsala, a city on the Italian island of Sicily. The wine is classified by age, color, and sweetness levels, as measured by grams of residual sugar per liter. Alcohol content ranges from 15 to 20 percent ABV, and styles run from dry aperitivos to sweet dessert-style wines.

Commandaria: Commandaria hails from Cyprus and is predominately a sweet dessert wine. It’s made with only two types of grapes, xynisteri and mavro, which are indigenous to the island. It’s said to have a history of production stretching back nearly 3,000 years. Maximum alcohol content is 20 percent ABV, and the wine’s taste is highly rich, sweet, and fruity.

Also of note is mistelle, which can either itself be a fortified wine or, in other cases, can be the ingredient used to fortify wine. Mistelle is grape juice mixed with a spirit, however if that grape juice has been at least partially fermented (turned into a wine), once a spirit is added, it has itself become a fortified wine.

What is aromatized wine?

While the about is a starting overview of fortified wine types, it’s crucial to remember that there’s a huge range of sub-classifications and categories to explore. For example, vermouth itself actually belongs to a subcategory of fortified wine known as aromatized wine, which is defined as a fortified wine that has also been flavored with herbs, spices, or natural flavorings. Vermouth is generally split into dry and sweet categories, although there’s a full spectrum in-between. More below.

Quinquina: Quinquinas are flavored with cinchona bark and its bitter quinine compound. Quinine is said to be the historical reason gin and tonics came about, as bitter anti-malarial treatments including quinine were mixed with gin by savvy patients. A prominent quinquina is Lillet Blanc.

Americano: Technically a further sub-class of quinquina, Americanos are flavored with gentian root and includes brands such as Cocchi Americano. Note that Americano refers to amer, as in the French word for bitter, not American.

Barolo Chinato: An Italian quinquina made with Barolo wine, plus a range of others herbs and spices.

A bright red liquid in a glass filled with crushed ice, with berries, mint, and an orange slice as a garnish on the rim.
The port cobbler from Dante in New York
Nick Solares/Eater

The impact of cocktails

Recently, vermouth and sherry have made a comeback more so than any other fortified wine, and that resurgence is thanks in part to cocktail culture, and each wine's historic connection to mixed drinks. Vermouth is a key component in many classic cocktails, while sherry is a key ingredient in some of the earliest cocktails.

Vermouth flavors several libations: martinis, Manhattans, and negronis, for starters. Today, increasingly, consumers don't just order one of those classics, they order a specific spirit with a specific vermouth. There are Carpano Antica devotees, Dolin Rouge advocates, Cocchi Torino fans, and on down the sweet vermouth line. Then there are those who precisely pick a specific vermouth only for an application in a single cocktail.

As for sherry, "There's a history here with sherry in cocktails," Tseng explains. "The Sherry Cobbler being one of the first cocktails. Cocktails were invented by Americans and you have this drink that was being brought over with the discovery of America, which was sherry. So it was here as an ingredient."

Sherry looms as even more unfamiliar territory to many people than vermouth, so sherry cocktails serve as a tool to help imbibers learn about the category as a whole. "It is definitely a great way to introduce people," says Tseng. "The other way being with food. Sherry is wine at the end of the day, and it's actually extremely versatile not only with cocktails, but with food pairings as well."

Tseng's own introduction to sherry came in the form of mixed drinks. "One night I had a cocktail called an Adonis [essentially a Manhattan with sherry in place of whiskey], and really just loved it and had that moment of 'wow this is so unique and really delicious I want to revisit this,'" she explains.

After that, Tseng branched out to drink amontillado sherry, and then discovered her true sherry passion, fino. "Fino has become my more daily bread slash wine," she says. "It's the one I gravitate toward more."

Tseng found that while sherry works with many types of food, it's particularly at home with Asian cuisines. "It's hard to get a wine that will really pair well with a lot of those flavors, soy and pickled and fermented things, really just kind of funkier, earthier, really rich, umami types of flavors," she says. "With the case of sherry, and a fino or an amontillado especially, they're super, super adaptable. It's kind of amazing how each part of the sherry will sort of highlight a flavor of the food."

Considering vermouth

"Vermouth has been around for a very, very long time and was used in Greek times by Hippocrates, who was known to have several different types of vermouth that he would prescribe for different ailments," says Carrell. "Even the Sumerians, pretty much all of the ancient people who were making wine were in some way adulterating their wine and aromatizing it."

Therefore, while vermouth is enjoying its resurgence right now, it's always been a staple for civilizations across the globe. Where there were grapes, and where there was wine, there was also vermouth. "Vermouth has always been a part of winemaking. It's one way winemakers have always found something to do with wine which wasn't working for them in one way or another," says Jeffery Dillion of New York's Bathtub Gin.

Generally, vermouth is most integrated into the modern drinking cultures of countries such as Italy and Spain. Drink like a local by finding a courtyard and enjoying a spritz or an aperitivo or two before dinner.

At the simplest level, most people consider vermouth to be split into two halves. There's red vermouth, also known as sweet or Italian vermouth, and white vermouth, also known as dry or French vermouth. A typical range of ABV is between 16 and 18 percent, although that's not specified per regulation.

Yet, there's no hard and fast rules there. "I think vermouth is pretty cool because it's pretty wide open stylistically," says Carrell. "There's so much nuance that can go into it."

Further, how dry or sweet a vermouth ends up is in relation to the other flavors a producer is trying to highlight. "Vermouth can also be created to fit into any point of that dry to sweet spectrum," says Carrell. "The sugar content doesn't seem to be the stylistic decision. It's more, what kind of flavors are we doing, and how much sugar do we have to add to support that and make it palatable." Generally, the more bold, bittering agents added, the more sugar is incorporated to round out those flavors.

Meanwhile, vermouth is increasingly coming from places beyond the classic producing countries of France and Italy. The U.S. is getting into the vermouth game, too. "One of the big trends you're going to start to see in the next few years is a lot more people putting out their own vermouths as well," adds Dillion. "I think you're going to get a lot more vermouth producers. I'm from Portland, Oregon and I think there are three different local vermouths which are behind the bar there."

While Tseng touts sherry as her "point of passion and pride," she also has an affinity for vermouth, and sees new Spanish vermouths in particular as an area to watch as well.

Vermouth is taking off right now partly because consumers have access to a massive range of high quality bottles that were never before sold stateside. More traditional vermouths, which had previously been unavailable in the U.S., are being imported and, as mentioned, new producers are also entering the market.

Considering sherry

Sherry comes with its own subset of over half a dozen different styles. The best place to start is its actual geographic home. "To be sherry, you have to come from a specific region in southern Spain, these three main towns, and there's other municipalities and zones where the grapes themselves have to be grown," says Tseng. She's referring to an area in Andalusia known as the "sherry triangle," including most prominently Jerez de la Frontera, or simply Jerez, and also Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María.

"But really sherry doesn't exist until it enters the solera aging system," she explains. Solera aging gradually moves portions of the starting sherry into successive barrels, so that the average age in each cask is older than the last, while the barrels are never totally emptied. Also known as fractional blending, this gradually increases age, while also maintaining liquid from all prior batches ever made in the same set of barrels.

Overall, the most prominent categories of sherry include fino, Manzanilla, amontillado, oloroso, Pedro Ximenez, moscatel, and blended cream sherries, with still many other sub-categorizations as well.

Regulations for different sherries center on aging minimums, alcohol content levels, whether or not flor (yeast), is used in the aging process, or whether the sherry is exposed to oxygen. "The minimum [age] for finos and Manzanillas is two years on average, with most being more three to five years on average," says Tseng. "Then there are minimums after that for olorosos and other categories. The younger ones that aren't considered too old are at least around seven years."

In terms of alcohol content, specifics vary by sherry type, with an overall range of 15 to 22 percent ABV. That either makes sherry a strong drink for wine drinkers, or an enjoyable light ABV, session-style drink for spirits drinkers.

"It's funny though, because obviously sherry has one foot in the wine world, and one in the cocktail world," says a laughing Tseng. "And if you're talking about sherry to wine people, people go 'oh it's too alcoholic' ... Then you have one foot in the cocktail world and people are like 'oh cool that's not a lot of alcohol at all!' That's how versatile it is. It can be considered high alcohol, it can be considered low alcohol, it has many personalities.

How to get into fortified wine

Not sure where to start? Try the suggestions above, pairing sherry with food, or trying sherry and vermouth-forward cocktails. For cocktail drinkers already accustomed to those vermouth classics such as the negroni, Manhattan or martini, start comparing different vermouths in each to see which is the ideal personal fit.

Beyond that, continue to branch out and explore. Per Carrell, "Just try them. Don't be afraid of it, and don't think that it's necessarily just an ingredient, they can be really delicious on their own, too."

Editor: Kat Odell

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