As the name suggests, fortified wines are regular wines that have had alcohol added to them during the production process. The most popular varietals are Sherry and Port, but here in Australia, you’re more likely to sip on Apera. While fortified wines look relatively similar on the surface of things, there are actually considerable differences between most varietals. Today, we explore those differences, so that you might become master of your dinner domain. Your next date will definitely be impressed with your newfound knowledge and taste.
What are Port and Sherry Made From?
All fortified wines start from the same general source: grapes. However, don’t take that to mean Sherry fortified wine is the same as Port or any other popular varietal. For starters, each varietal hails from a different region. Specifically, Port is made from (usually red) grapes grown in the Douro Valley region of Northern Portugal. Does that mean you won’t find Port-style fortified wines from around the world? It does not. But real Port will say “Porto” on the label and come from Portugal. Sherry, meanwhile, comes from white grapes grown in the “Sherry triangle,” located just outside the town of Jerez, Spain. The word “Sherry” actually derives from the name Jerez.
How are Fortified Wines Made?
To make fortified wine, producers add a distilled spirit—most commonly brandy—to a base wine during the production process. For Port wine, the spirit is added during fermentation, leaving residual sugar and resulting in a sweeter product. In the case of Sherry fortified wine, the spirit is added after fermentation, yielding a much drier taste. If your Sherry is overly sweet, it’s because a sweetener has been added after aging in most cases.
When it comes to flavour, aging is everything. To that end, Sherry is matured using the solera system, in which barrels are arranged in tiers and old wines are mixed with young ones. With Port, the aging process can take two forms: reductive or oxidative. Reductive aging puts the wine into bottles, where it remains exposed to air. Oxidative aging involves placing the wine into oak barrels, where limited amounts of oxygen get in. The aging process for Port wine can last as little as two years and as long as over 40 years.
What is Apera in Australia?
Here in Australia, there used to be such a thing as local Sherry, which even came in styles like Fino, Oloroso, and Amontillado. That was until the year 2010, when it turned out we hadn’t exactly been playing by the rules. Because all Sherry must technically come from Spain, Australian producers were asked to change the name to something else. Apera was thus born, offering a play on the word “aperitif.” Like Sherry, Apera adds a distilled spirit to white grape wine.
Types of Port
Porto comes in a massive variety of styles, a handful of which are more common than the rest. Distinguishing each one from the next are things like aging, source grapes, and label regulations. The majority of styles yield a higher alcohol percentage than Sherry, coming in at about 19.5-22%. Here are the most well-known styles of Port wine:
Ruby Style Ports – Offering a distinct ruby colour, this entry-level style of Port wine is both widely popular and typically affordable, presuming you stick with non-vintage varieties. Expect ripe fruity flavours, the kind of which won’t mature or develop as they sit in the bottle. Most Ruby Ports are aged for three years, though Reserve Ruby Ports and Late Bottled Vintage Ruby Ports will see up to five years of barrel aging, with a much heftier price tag to show for it.
Tawny Port – Tawny Ports blend older vintage wines and spend more time in oak, leading to amber colour and a sweet, nutty flavour. The perfect accompaniment to a range of desserts (think cheese, caramels, and chocolates), this style comes in three varieties. Colheita Port uses grapes that were harvested in the same year. Crusted Port is unfiltered and must be decanted before serving. Indicated Age Tawny Ports feature designations like 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years on the label. These numbers represent the minimum average age of the wines used in the blend.
Vintage Style Ports – This premium style of fortified wine blends the best grapes from a single harvest. After spending about six months in a barrel, the wine heads unfiltered into a bottle, where it continues to mature for up to 20 years or more. Unsurprisingly, Vintage Style Ports can be quite expensive.
White Port – Most Port fortified wines are made using red grapes, but every now and then you’ll find one produced from white grapes. The subsequent White Port tends to be drier than its fruitier and nuttier counterparts, making it a quality aperitif. It’s also commonly used as a gin substitute.
Types of Sherry
If your girlfriend or date asks you, “what is Sherry anyway?”, you can give her the short answer (provided above) or get downright intensive. Should you take the latter route, you’ll want to know about the various styles. Here they are in a nutshell.
Fino – This dry and light-bodied Sherry delivers an almond-like taste and an ABV of 15 to 17% on average.
Manzanilla – Made exclusively in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, this style of Sherry brings a dry taste and powerful aromatics. It’s best served on the rocks.
Amontillado – This cask-aged Fino Sherry contains a darker colour and nuttier flavour than its drier counterparts. Serve it chilled with chicken or fish.
Oloroso – If sweet caramel flavour and luscious, dark colour is up your alley, then Oloroso is your style of Sherry. Enjoy it with meat or cheese.
Palo Cortado – Rich, dry, and bursting with flavour, this style is very hard to come by. It starts its life as a Fino, becomes an Amontillado when the flor (i.e. a whitish film of yeast) dies off, and ends up closer in spirit to an Oloroso.
Pedro Ximénez – Made from sun-dried PX grapes, this style of Sherry touts a low ABV and super-sweet flavour. It’s often used as a sweetener, though that doesn’t mean you can’t sip it neat. Expect a syrupy texture and taste alike. Yum.
Sweet Sherry – Take a dry Sherry and add some Pedro Ximénez grape juice and you get this sweet and delicious style of fortified wine.
Cream Sherry – When sweet Sherry made from Amontillado or Oloroso gets the Pedro Ximénez treatment, it goes by the name of cream Sherry.
Other Types of Fortified Wines
Looking to expand your knowledge of fortified wines beyond the standard Sherries, Ports, and Aperas? Consider the following varietals:
Madeira – This white fortified wine hails from its namesake island in Portugal, and comes in various styles.
Marsala – If you want to drink fortified wine like a Sicilian, pour yourself a glass of Marsala. Classified by colour and age, this varietal delivers a full spectrum of dry and sweet flavours. There’s also an unfortified version.
Vermouth – Your martini or Manhattan isn’t complete without this massively popular fortified wine, which features various botanicals. In addition to being a popular cocktail ingredient, Dry and Sweet Vermouth are a terrific aperitif or digestif, respectively.