[Photo: Wine barrels in the Portuguese cellar of the Douro Port shipper Croft / Credit: Ricardo Martins]

For many, the mention of fortified wines may recall high school or college nights and names such as Mad Dog 20/20, Night Train, Cisco or Thunderbird. While technically fortified wines, which simply refers to the process of adding distilled spirits to wine to increase alcohol content, these are not the whole of this category. There are great wines, ranging from sweet to dry and from the low cost to masterpieces meant to be cellared for decades available for those willing to experiment.

Traditional fortified wine most commonly falls into five types, which are Madeira, Marsala, Port, Sherry and Vermouth. In most cases fortification was introduced in order to ensure stability and shelf life for wines meant to travel. Sometimes spirits or other additives were also added to wine to mask flavor and to make beverages for medicinal use.

Madeira comes from the Portuguese islands of Madeira, where spirits were added to wine to help the wine survive the rough movement and constant heat of an ocean voyage. Wines that came back after long voyages were found to have improved dramatically and those that made the round trip (Vinho da Roda) became the most sought-after until producers developed racking and aging techniques to match a costly sea voyage. Madeira wine was hugely popular in early US history, and the British seizing of John Hancock's ship full of Madeira was the cause of the initial separatist riots in Boston. Madeira was so popular with most of the founding fathers that it was used as the wine to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Marsala, which most of know through the famous American-Italian mushroom-and-wine dish, originates from the city of Marsala in Sicily. An English trader from the 1700s was driven ashore by storms and after a visit to the local tavernas, felt that the locally produced wine from the area around Marsala would sell well in England. He convinced local wine makers to process wine in the same fashion as the Spanish did for Sherry. Success drew other investors and the popularity of Marsala was born.

Traditional Port comes only from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal. Though many wines in the United States are called port or "port style," only those with the words Dao, Porto, Vinho do Porto or Oporto have actually been produced in the Douro region. The Douro region is the third oldest legally protected wine region in the world, after Chianti and Tokaj and is the only wine used by the British Military to formally toast the Queen. Port Wine gained its popularity at the beginning of the 17th century when conflict between France and England denied thirsty Brits access to French wines. English merchants entered the business in a big way, as can be told by many of the names of traditional producers, such as Dow, Cockburn, Croft, Osburne, Sandeman and many others.

[Sir John Falstaff, oil on canvas / Credit: Eduard von Grützner, public domain]

Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in the province of Cadiz, Spain. Sherry is perhaps the most ancient of the modern styles of fortified wines, possibly developing in the mid-7th century AD when the Moors brought distillation to Spain. By the 16th century, when Sir Francis Drake sacked Cadiz and captured almost 3,000 barrels of the wine for England, Sherry was considered the best wine in the world. Sometimes known as "sack" in England, it became even more widely appreciated after Shakespeare's character in Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff said, "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack." Sherry is aged using the Solera method where a percentage of the wine is moved to progressively more aged barrels until a small portion of the eldest is finally bottled. Despite its history and place in culture, Sherry has become sidelined in modern times and many wine writers feel that it is one of the great underappreciated wines of today.

Vermouth is a different style of fortified wine, one that has been aromatized or modified with the addition of spices and herbs, either for medicinal or flavoring purposes. The medicinal uses of vermouth are mostly in the past and relate to the infusion of wormwood, from which the name Vermouth comes. The modern recipes of vermouth are secret but additives may still include wormword as well as more traditional spices such as cinammon, cloves, anise, cardamom, ginger, juniper and many more. Though most often used as a mixer in cocktails or in cooking, some cultures still use vermouth as an digestif to aid in digestion after a meal.

All of these wines can range from the dry to the very sweet and though often drunk alone or with rich desserts, fortified wines can be excellent accompaniments to savory meals.

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