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Fortified Wine

Fortified wine is an enchanting and historical category of alcoholic beverages that exhibits a wealth of flavours, traditions, and techniques. To fortify a wine is to enrich it with a distilled spirit, most commonly brandy, a practice that has been applied for centuries with the intent to preserve the wine and often to sweeten it. The result is a beverage that strikes a fine balance between the nuanced complexity of wine and the robust character of distilled spirits.

History and Origin

The story of fortified wine is one steeped in the annals of maritime trade. In the age of exploration and long sea voyages, the need to preserve wine for the duration of these journeys was paramount. Fortification emerged as a solution. By increasing the alcohol content, wine became more resistant to spoilage. British merchants in Portugal and Spanish conquistadors were among the first to capitalise on this process, leading to the birth of renowned fortified wines that are well-known today.

Types of Fortified Wines

While Madeira, Port, and Sherry are some of the most celebrated fortified wines, there are many others that delight connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.

Marsala

Marsala, originating from Sicily, is a robust Italian fortified wine. It ranges from dry to sweet and is traditionally used in cooking. However, higher-quality Marsala, aged for longer periods, presents complexity and depth that are enjoyed when sipped on their own.

Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise

Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is a sweet and aromatic wine from the Rhône region of France. The use of Muscat grapes imbues this wine with a distinctive floral and fruity essence that is both rich and delicate.

Rutherglen Muscat

In Australia, Rutherglen Muscat reflects a unique take on fortified wine. Made from the Muscat grape, these wines are noted for their rich, raisin-like quality, achieved through a solera ageing system similar to that used for Sherry.

Commandaria

Hailing from Cyprus, Commandaria is one of the oldest known wines in the world. Made from sun-dried grapes, it is aged in oak barrels, acquiring flavours of caramel, coffee, and assorted spices, culminating in a product with historical reverence and a sweet profile.

Pineau des Charentes

From the Cognac region of France, Pineau des Charentes is made by blending slightly fermented grape must with Cognac brandy. It carries a sweet, mild flavour profile, often enjoyed chilled as an aperitif.

Banyuls and Maury

Both from the Roussillon region of France, Banyuls and Maury are similar to each other, mainly produced from the Grenache grape. These wines can be found in both vintage and non-vintage varieties and present flavours from sweet and juicy to more complex and nutty.

Vermouth

Vermouth is a fortified wine that is aromatised with a variety of botanicals, roots, and herbs. While it is famously used in cocktails, quality vermouths are also appreciated on their own, particularly in Europe.

Vins Doux Naturels

These are "naturally sweet wines" from the south of France, with sweetness achieved by arresting the fermentation process through fortification. Grenache and Muscat varieties are common, offering a profile of ripe fruits with occasional earthy or spicy notes.

Global Reach and Modern Variations

The concept of fortified wine has transcended its European origins, inspiring winemakers around the world to experiment with local ingredients and climatic conditions. In places like South Africa and the United States, local grape varieties and production techniques have led to the creation of fortified wines that offer a distinctive twist on tradition.

Production Techniques

Fortification typically occurs during or after the fermentation process. When spirits are added during fermentation, it halts the process, leaving residual sugar, which contributes to the sweetness of the wine. In contrast, fortifying wine after fermentation results in a drier profile.

Ageing is another critical aspect of fortified wine production. Depending on the wine, ageing can occur in barrels, stainless steel tanks, or even in the bottle. This process can significantly influence the flavour profile, contributing notes of oak, oxidation, and complexity to the wine.

Gastronomy and Fortified Wines

In the culinary world, fortified wines are both an ingredient and a companion to food. Sweet varieties often accompany desserts or serve as a dessert themselves, while drier types can be an aperitif or pair well with savoury dishes.

Sensory Experience

Enjoying a fortified wine involves a journey through an extensive range of sensory experiences. From the initial aromatic bouquet to the lingering finish, these wines are savoured slowly and contemplatively. They offer a spectrum of flavours, from bright and fruity to deep and nutty, with textures that can be silky, viscous, or somewhere in between

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