No, I’m not referring to muscular red wines nor am I talking about laboratory created wines
with added sugar, acid and oak sawdust aging. I’m talking about fortified wines. Fortification of
wines was initially used to prolong the shelf life of wine by creating a product with higher
alcohol and sugar.
By adding a distilled alcohol – usually brandy which is also made from wine – before the
fermentation was complete, a winemaker could bring his beverage up to 16 to 20% alcohol
(most table wines are 12 to 16% alcohol) thus killing off residual yeast cells and stopping
fermentation. This also allowed a higher sugar content to remain in the beverage since yeast will
literally consume every sugar molecule if fermenting wine is left as is. The higher alcohol and
sugar levels allowed wine to remain drinkable for long voyages abroad the open ocean.
Today we simply enjoy fortified wines on their own merit regardless of its enhanced shelf life.
These include Sherry, Port, Madeira, Marsala and Vermouth. I’ll highlight uses – as beverages and
to enhance foods for the common wines on steroids.
Produced in and around the town of Jerez in Spain, Sherry alone could cover several columns due
to various styles of Sherry available. The primary grape in Sherry is the Palomino which produces
a non-descript simple white wine but makes it great to blend with distilled alcohol. Unlike all
the other fortified wines, Sherry is first created as a totally dry wine; the residual sugar is then
added back to the primary fermentation along with the additional alcohol. Sherry is also aged
uniquely with producers intentionally leaving airspace in the barrel to promote oxidation of the
wine. Sherry also undergoes the solera system of aging with older wine being mixed with
younger wine that’s on going. Therefore the next glass of Sherry you sip may have Sherry as old
as 100 years… well maybe just a few molecules of 100 year old Sherry. The main styles of Sherry
Fino The palest and driest of the Sherrys. Served chilled with any type appetizer whether its
cheese, nuts, seafood or veggies. After opening, can last about 1 week in the refrigerator without
losing taste. After that, I use it for cooking.
Manzanilla Also a dry Sherry that’s a little tangier than Fino. Serve chilled and also good
with all types of tapas and stores like Fino Sherry.
Amontillado Darker and richer than Fino or Manzanilla and made from dry to medium to
sweet. Serve slightly chilled with cheese, nuts or white meats. Can last about 2 weeks after
opening if refrigerated.
Oloroso Aged oxidatively the longest so it’s the darkest and richest of the Sherrys. Produced
in dry and sweet versions and should also be served slightly chilled. Dry Oloroso is usually served
as an aperitif, sweet Oloroso with cheese or dessert after dinner. After opening, can last
refrigerated for at least 1 month.
Pedro Ximenez Made from the grape of the same name after the harvested grapes are sun
dried for 2 days. Strictly a dessert wine that was meant for chocolate, especially dark chocolate
From the Douro Valley of Portugal and produced by a variety of grapes, Port is usually classified
as Ruby, Tawny or Vintage. All Ports are usually served during dessert with the classic pairing
being ripe pears, Stilton cheese and Port. Having sampled the trio on many occasions, I declare
that it is indeed a classic.
Ruby Port is produced to retain the vivid ruby color (like a fine Cabernet). It is usually aged in
stainless steel or concrete tanks (to prevent color loss) for 3 to 5 years. After bottling, it usually
doesn’t appreciate with age so forget stashing bottles for your retirement. I usually use ‘rubies”
as “cooking” wine for sauces and braising liquid.
Tawny Port is wood barrel aged to promote oxidation so “tawnies” have a slightly nutty flavor
and golden brown color. Because “tawnies” are mellowed by aging, this is the style I usually
consume – drinkable upon purchase and cheaper than Vintage Port.
Vintage Port comes from specific vintages – the 90s and beyond produced very good Ports.
However, since the best Ports can age for 50 to 100 years, your 1991 won’t be peaking for at
least another 5 to 10 years (I have a couple of 1994 and 1997 bottles that won’t greet me until
retirement). Instead of waiting this long, I think it’s simply easier to befriend a rich person who
loves old vintage Ports and invite yourself over frequently.
Also from Portugal but from the Madeira Islands, this is the original bomb-proof wine. Madeira
wine is aged in stone buildings at temperatures up to 140 degrees. The wine is also deliberately
oxidized to give it that characteristic flavor. Therefore there’s not much you can expose Madeira
to that it hasn’t already seen. Personally, I prefer Sherry or Port and mainly use Madeira for
cooking (Perigueux sauce) though you may personally find that almost salty, tanginess of
Madeira very attractive.
Made from a variety of white and red grapes in Southern Italy, some stories attribute its creation
to an Englishman who was trying to mimic the Sherrys and Ports being exported to England.
Mainly available as a dry and sweet version, I keep both varieties on hand. Not to drink since
cheaper labels have a medicinal taste, but to cook with since the best fortified wine for Chicken
Marsala is well, Marsala (the dry). The sweet Marsala is used primarily for Zabaglione (Italian
Created by Antonio Carpano in the 1700s mimicking a German wine fortified with wormwood,
he named it wermut which eventually became vermouth. Available as a dry white wine and a
sweet red wine, vermouth is a fortified wine that also has herbs and spices added to the blend
(supposedly to cover up the nasty taste of earlier versions). My favorite vermouth application is
the cocktail; Negroni. Named after the Count Negroni who wanted gin added to his Americano,
it consists of equal parts Campari, Vermouth and Gin. My favorite version calls for 2/3 white,
1/3 red vermouth and Bafferts Gin with a twist of orange zest. Shaken, not stirred of course.
What ever you choose as your fortified libation of choice this holiday season, please do so in
moderation or better yet, find a designated driver. From the Gochiso Gourmet’s ohana to you
and yours, have a wonderful holiday season!
Wines on Steroids