What is fortified wine?
A wine becomes fortified when a spirit, usually brandy, is added to it. This has many different effects on the wine, most notably preserving it, making it sweeter and increasing the alcohol content. Examples of fortified wine include port, sherry, vermouth and madeira, although there are hundreds of variations from around the world. Fortified wines have historically been extremely popular in Australia, comfortably outselling unfortified wines right up until the 1960s. While they might not be as popular now as they once were, Australian fortifieds are still viewed as some of the best in the world.
What is the difference between fortified and unfortified wines?
Just a splash of brandy or neutral spirit is the only material difference between a fortified and an unfortified wine. The term ‘unfortified’ isn’t really used, so this other category, which covers all ‘standard’ whites, reds, roses and sparklings that Australians commonly drink, enjoys the perfectly simple designation of ‘wine.’ While definitions can change from country to country, and sometimes even from town to town, fortified wine could be considered as any wine of >16% ABV (but usually no more than 24%) made by fermentation of grapes, and with the addition of a spirit (often brandy made from the same type of grape). Unfortified wine, or simply wine, could be considered as any wine of <16% ABV made by fermentation of grapes alone.
Why are wines fortified?
Historically a major reason for fortifying wine has been preservation – ethanol is a natural antiseptic, so in an era before electricity, fortification was a way of guaranteeing your wine supply for a longer period of time. But soon people were fortifying wines as much for flavour as safekeeping – fortification increases the sweetness of the wine, while the added alcohol brings a warmth to it and adds a distinct flavour. The breadth of fortified flavours is immense - depending on the base wine, the type of alcohol added and the fortification process used, a fortified wine can be sweet or dry, earthy or fruity, full-bodied or light.
How long do fortified wines last?
While many unfortified wines can be cellared for years, most fortified wines can be cellared for even longer (Exhibit A: Seppeltsfield’s 100 Year Old Tawny Port, the only wine ever given 100 points by James Halliday). They’ll also last longer once they’re opened, although longer doesn’t mean forever. As a general rule, the older the port, the quicker you should drink it once opened. Most fortified wines are okay to be consumed within a month or so of opening, while vintage fortified wine is best consumed within a few days of opening, and certain dessert ports and sherries can be enjoyed up to three months after opening with no discernible change in flavour. If you want to extend the life of an opened fortified wine, put it in the fridge, as this slows down the oxygenation process. If you want an excuse to drink the wine, don’t put it in the fridge.