Serving Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are a wonderful and warming drink, perfect for sipping during these last cold days before spring really kicks in for good. There are many misconceptions about fortified wines (such as port and sherry, such as the illustrious Amontillado) – including the notion that they’re just for dessert or that they’re actually a type of spirit (they’re not). These are unfortunate notions, as they tend to steer many people away from enjoying the aromatic, delicious, and complex pleasure that these drinks have to offer. Fortified wines, as their name suggests, are strong (thus leading to the incorrect perception that they’re a type of liquor). While they are indeed sweet, they’re not just for dessert; thus, there’s no reason to be shy about encouraging a patron who just wants to spend some time at the bar sipping something special to consider giving fortified wines (which also include tokay, muscat, vermouth, Marsala and Madeira) a try.

Strong but Sweet

Fortified wines derive their name from the fact that they’re wines to which a spirit (such as brandy) has been added – thus increasing their alcohol by volume (and therefore making them stronger). However, they are indeed considered a type of wine; the only reason that spirits were originally added to begin with was for the sake of preservation – to prevent further fermentation, which leads to spoilage. The remaining sugar (not further consumed by the fermentation process) gives fortified wines the sweetness alone for which they have come to be so valued, and this is why people so often have incorrectly come to think of them as dessert wines. (As a side note, the herbal flavor of vermouth – now most well-known for the prized flavor that it adds to a martini – was originally added to mask the flavor of the drink).

Also a Great Apertif

The fact that fortified wines keep so well is also what makes them so full of flavor that they merit sipping and savoring as an apertif – or simply being served with salty or savory foods like salted or spiced nuts. Ports, for example, have a great deal of flavor and character because they are “fractionally blended.” What this means is that port is stored in rows of barrels, arranged by year, with some amount of the newer port added to the older barrels as a fraction of the ports from the older barrels gets sold over time.


Aging in wood is largely what gives the fortified wine its flavor – and this eccentric system (also known, in Spanish, as the solera system), which scoffs at the traditional idea of a strict vintage year, means that the patron consuming this beverage is in for a unique taste experience; that will always include some flavor of an older wine. The unique system is also what gives the “tawny” color a respectability that it wouldn’t have in any other wine.

Fortified wines are best served slightly cool in copitas (the small glasses used in Spain for pouring sherry – or, as the Spanish call it, jerez) or any small wine glass. The strength and aromatic quality means that they’re perfect for taking in slowly – and if you do save the fortified wines for dessert, they’re excellent to use for dipping biscotti, too. Because the fermentation process has been slowed, a re-corked and refrigerated bottle will actually keep for several weeks – so while we may wish that the kind of weather that lends itself to an ice-cold brew would hurry up and get here for good, in the meantime, at least, there’s no need to rush the enjoyment of a fortified wine.

Josh Saunders