It can be jarring the first time you sit down for a glass of fortified wine and find the drink to be extremely sweet, almost like liquid dessert.
Fortified wines are often sweet because the processes used to create fortified wine tend to leave excess natural sugar in the wine, creating an extremely sweet flavor.
This is not to say that fortified wines are sweet by definition, as some vintages can be extremely dry on the palate. But due to the processes used to create fortified wine, some bottles end up with more natural sugar than others, which creates a sweeter flavor. This article will discuss this process and where some common fortified wines fall on the sweet to dry spectrum.
What is Fortified Wine?
Fortified wines are any wine that has been reinforced with additional alcohol, usually in the form of distilled spirits. This alcohol does not come from the fermentation process of the wine, instead it is manually added to the fermentation vessel at some point during the wine making process to fortify the wine.
The most common spirit used in fortifying wine is brandy, which makes sense considering brandy itself is just a distilled form of wine. Other times the spirit used is just pure, distilled alcohol, designed to fortify the wine without effecting the primary flavor of the drink.
Beyond the addition of distilled spirits and a generally much higher alcohol content, fortified wines can be any color, flavor, or body. They can be a dry, light bodied white or a sweet, full bodied red, the only restriction on this category is whether or not additional spirits were added to the wine.
There is a subcategory of fortified wine known as aromatized wine, where the wine has herbs and spices added to it in addition to the distilled spirits. This helps to cover any changes in flavor from the spirits and enhances the natural flavors of the wine if mixed correctly.
What is Dryness in Wine?
The concept of dryness when it comes to wine refers to how much natural sugar is left in the wine after fermentation. If the wine maintain a high amount of sugar, it develops a sweeter flavor, whereas if the wine has little or no sugar left it will develop a less sweet flavor. Wines with less sugar and a less sweet taste are considered dry.
The sugar in wine comes from the natural sugars found in wine grapes, which naturally come with the wine when it is converted to juice. Fermentation is the process of using yeast to turn sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which in turn converts grape juice into wine.
There are many reasons why a particularly wine might be more or less dry. For sweetness the grapes used may be harvested later resulting in naturally higher sugars or the wine may be affected by botrytis, reducing the water in the grape and concentrating the sugar. Dry wines, by contrast, may use bitter grapes or more yeast to convert more sugar. Sugar can also be manually added or removed from fermenting wine to alter the flavor.
Understanding both what fortified wine is and what makes wine sweet or dry is essential to understanding why some fortified wines are sweet.
What makes Fortified Wine Sweet?
Vintners control the sweetness and dryness of fortified wine the same way they create fortified wine, by adding distilled spirits at a key point in the fermentation process. Depending on when the spirits are added to the juice, the resulting fortified wine can either be extremely sweet or extremely dry.
Fermenting is the process of yeast breaking down sugar into alcohol, with the alcohol eventually killing the yeast once it runs out of sugar to digest. Adding distilled spirits to fermenting wine effectively stops the process by killing off any remaining yeast and thus ending the wine’s fermentation.
The key to controlling the sweetness of fortified wine is knowing when in the fermenting process to add the spirits. If the spirits are added after the yeast has consumed the natural sugar, the wine will be dry. If the spirits are added before the yeast has finished, however, it will kill the remaining yeast before it consumes all the sugar.
If the spirits are added during fermentation and kill the yeast, the remaining sugar will create a naturally sweeter flavor in the wine. This process can be enhanced if the wine is aromatized with sweetening agents like vanilla, although this is only done in addition to stopping fermentation with spirits.
As an interesting side note, some sweet fortified wines are referred to as dessert wines or pudding wines. This is because their sweet flavor compliments sugary desserts like pudding wonderfully, and they are used as a drink with the dessert course of a meal.
Preventing the yeast in fermentation from consuming all the sugar in wine, as well as adding some extra sweetening agents, create the sweet flavor of many fortified wines.
What are some Sweet Fortified Wines?
If you are interested in sampling a sweet fortified wine it is important to know what some of the common types are and where they come from.
The two most common varieties of sweet fortified wine both come from Portugal, developed during the heights of their Imperial power. The first is Port, made from a wide selection of red grapes and aged for decades to reach their finished state. It comes in a variety of flavors depending on how long it is aged and if any additional spices are added to the brew.
The second Portuguese wine is, Madeira, which comes from several islands in the Atlantic Ocean that used to be part of the Portuguese Empire. Madeira is unique among wines for undergoing a heating and oxidation process, something that would ruin most wines but instead gives Madeira its unique, nutty flavor.
Mistelle, a common drink across many European countries, is unique among fortified wines in that spirits are sometimes added to the juice before any fermentation has occurred. This cocktail-esque approach to fortifying the wine creates a drink that is naturally sweeter and fruiter than most other wines, simply by virtue of retaining all its natural sugar.
Other famous sweet, fortified wines include Spanish Sherry, which comes in a variety of flavors across the sweet to dry spectrum. This makes Sherry one of, if not the most diverse forms of fortified wine on this list.
Vermouth, originally a German form of fortified wine, shares the same versatility and diversity of flavors as Sherry. What separates Vermouth from its Spanish cousin is the fact that Vermouth is aromatized with a range of spices that can enhance or mute the flavors of the wine, meaning that Vermouth can be much sweeter than regular, unaromatized wines.
There are other varieties of sweet, fortified wine in the world, and many vintages are sold in both dry and sweet forms. This gives a fortified wine enthusiast plenty of flavors to explore to find their favorite.
It can be strange, sitting down for dessert at restaurant only to be offered a glass of fortified wine sweeter than the course you ordered.
Fortified wines are made sweeter when spirits are added to grape juice before it finishes fermenting, stopping the yeast from consuming all the natural sugar in the juice. This can be enhanced with aromatizing spices and herbs for an ever sweeter flavor, or spirits and spices can be added directly to unfermented grape juice.