What are Dessert and Fortified wines?
Dessert wines (also called Pudding Wines) are sweet wines typically served following a meal with dessert. Many dessert wines are fortified wines. Fortified wines are wines to which a spirit, usually brandy, has been added during fermentation. This boosts alcohol content to around 16-20% and also enhances longevity.
White fortified wines include Fino and Amontillado Sherry, and these are usually drunk before a meal. Red fortified wines, such as Port and Madeira are enjoyed after dinner. Fortified wines can be dry or sweet.
The definition of dessert wine is hard to pin down, because ‘stickies’ are made in a variety of styles and methods. The Winemaker’s goal is to make dessert wine with high levels of sugar and alcohol. To achieve this, grapes are often left to ripen until high sugar levels are reached.
Water can be reduced in grapes through the desiccating effects of a fungus called Botrytis (otherwise called Nobel Rot). This sucks the water out of the grape, concentrating sugars into pure, sweet nectar. Grapes can also be dehydrated by being left on the vine to dry naturally, then harvested late in the season. Dessert and fortified wines have a syrupy high viscosity, with bold, punchy flavours.
Popular Dessert & Fortified Wine styles
Port & Sherry
A favourite late afternoon or pre or post-dinner tipple, Port and Sherry are fortified wines made in Portugal and Spain respectively. Port or Vinho do Porto is named for the city of Oporto. Port is typically made in the Douro Valley region in the north of Portugal, which is an extremely picturesque region and well worth a road trip.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes. The wine is aged in oak barrels, with the best being aged for 30 years or even more. Like Whiskey or Brandy, Sherry doesn’t benefit from aging once it is in the bottle.
Top tip: once opened, Sherry doesn’t improve and should be consumed within a week. Traditionally, in New Zealand sweet styles of Sherry are sipped at room temperature, but true Sherry from Spain is best enjoyed lightly chilled.
Tawny wines are made from red grapes and are gradually exposed to oxygen in oak barrels. This exposure gives Tawny wines its distinctive tawny, golden-brown colour. The process imparts a nutty flavour into the wines. Ruby and Tawny are both Port wines. The difference results from the amount of time each spends aging in casks prior to blending and bottling. Tawny Port is aged longer in the cask, sometimes as much as 20 years, and as it matures more of its colour fades to a brownish, tawny colour. Flavours become less sweet, deeper and more complex with age.
The four major white grape varieties used for Madeira production are (from sweetest to driest) Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial. Typical Madeira displays notes of roasted nut, stewed fruit, peach, orange peel, hazelnut and caramel.
Because of production methods, Madeira wines are very long lived. Properly sealed in bottles, it is one of the longest-lasting wines. Madeiras have been known to survive for more than 200 years in excellent condition. It is not uncommon to see 150-year-old Madeiras for sale in stores that specialise in rare wine. Vintages dating back to 1780 are known to exist.
Muscat wines are some of the oldest known, spreading over time from the ancient Middle East to the Western Mediterranean. The best examples come from Italy, France, Spain and Rutherglen in Australia. They are noted for peach, citrus and, interestingly, ‘grapey’ characters.
Pairing with food
Some dessert wines are substantial enough to be served as the dessert course. Try Sherry and vanilla ice-cream. Match sweet Madeira with caramelly, chocolaty desserts or a sticky toffee pudding.
Dessert and fortified wines pair well with complementary flavours in a platter of cheese, nuts and dried fruit (vintage port and Stilton is a world-famous match). When pairing dessert and fortified wines with cheese, the wines may be bolder in flavour than many cheeses. You should choose cheeses that are just as bold.
Interestingly, the sweetness of a sticky wine can act as a counter-balance to spicy Asian cuisine and richly sauced meats. And don’t forget a Sherry or Port with Christmas pudding.
The Madeira Islands are a small group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean southwest of Portugal off the coast of north Africa (400kms from the Canary Islands). The islands are famous for producing classic fortified wines that wear the region’s name: Madeira.
These fortified wines date back to the ‘Age of Exploration’ (early 1400s onwards), when Europeans were discovering the world. To prevent the wine from spoiling on sea voyages, neutral grape spirits were added. Accidentally, wine producers of Madeira discovered that when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a trip through the Tropics, the wine’s flavour had been transformed by exposure to heat and movement. Today, Madeira is famous for its unique winemaking process that involves heating the wine and deliberately exposing it to some levels of oxidation.
In Bordeaux, the Sauternes region of France is famed for sweet white wines made from Semillon grapes. Château d’Yquem stands alone as the most famous producers of Sauternes wines. The winery is classified as Premier Cru Supérieur or ‘Superior First Growth.’ This unique classification is testament to the singular quality of the dessert wines produced by Château d’Yquem.
Many styles of wine in colonial New Zealand were fortified wines like sherry and port, in part because they were high in alcohol and kept well. In the early 20th Century, Dalmatian (Croatian) settlers established vineyards in West Auckland. For many of these long-established family businesses, fortified wines are still the main source of income.
Up until the 1960s port and sherry-style wines accounted for the majority of wines made in New Zealand. However, by the 1980s, with a development of new wine varietals and more sophisticated palates, demand for red and white table wines overtook fortified wines.
Today, most wineries will produce some form of fortified or dessert wine, though this accounts for around only 2% of New Zealand’s wine production.
Like New Zealand, dessert and fortified wines played an important role in the development of the Australian wine industry, following a similar pattern of being overtaken in popularity by the rise of table wines in the 1980s.
Most notable are the Muscats of Rutherglen, Victoria, which have established their own special position in the wine world. These wines are made from a grape varietal called Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge, locally known Brown Muscat. Brown Muscat naturally develops high levels of sugar in the grape making it an excellent choice for dessert wines. In Rutherglen, Muscat fermentation is stopped by fortifying the wine with grape spirits. Grape spirits are made from distilled grape juice. At the top end, grape spirits can reach 190 proof. These are clean and neutral spirits, unlike brandy, allowing the natural flavours from the grapes to flourish. These wines are intense with toffee flavours on the palate.
The future of Dessert and Fortified Wine
Dessert and Fortified wines take time and patience to craft and are not subject to fads, whimsies or trends. Given that some fortified wines can last more than a century, you could buy the right one now for your great, great, great grandchildren to raise a toast to you on your 125th birthday long after you are gone. Why not buy that bottle now and put it aside.