The phrase “fortified wine” might sound a bit intimidating. Perhaps with good reason — there are some terrifying fortified wines out there. But the most popular fortified wines, port and sherry, are underrated, refined products. And while they’re traditionally served as after-dinner drinks, they can help stretch your liquor cabinet as well.
Port and sherry are both sweet, heavy wines hailing from the Iberian peninsula. Port takes its name from its country of origin, Portugal, and is made by starting to ferment wine, then adding a neutral grape spirit halfway called aguardiente (an unaged spirit similar to grappa) halfway through the process. Yeast usually ferments sugar in wine (or any other liquid) until the alcohol level gets between 13-17 percent alcohol by volume. At that point, even the heartiest of yeasts can’t survive. The aguardiente raises the port to that level before the yeast can consume all the sugar in the port, leaving a much sweeter wine than if the yeast had fermented naturally. The port is then aged in wood for a time, which allows for oxidizing and development of deeper flavors; the end result has rich spice and nut flavors.
Sherry is a Spanish product made in Jerez (our name for the spirit is an English attempt at pronouncing the place.) It’s made from white grapes, fermented, and then fortified, with most of the magic that imbues it with its particular character taking place in the solera, the system of barrels used to age sherry. The solera includes wine from several different years, with each row being a year older than the row above it. When bottling sherry, winemakers take about two-thirds from each barrel on the lowest (and oldest) level, replenish the barrels on that level with two-thirds of the sherry from level above, replenish that level from the level above that, and so on, until the freshly fermented and fortified sherry is added to the top level of the solera to age. A particular kind of yeast that grows in Jerez coats the top of the sherry, which prevents oxidization. Sherry develops warm flavors of vanilla and allspice.
While both port and sherry are great after-dinner drinks, we’re mentioning them here because they can also be an unexpected, but welcome, addition to a cocktail. Use either port or sherry in place of vermouth in a Manhattan, or add a splash of either to your favorite whiskey or brandy cocktail. You’ll develop a rich, layered flavor that you can’t get from any other ingredient.