Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: Comprehensive Knowledge

When it comes to wines, the difference between fortified and unfortified varieties takes the spotlight. Fortified wines, which have distilled spirits added during production, stand out from their unfortified counterparts in terms of alcohol content and flavor profiles.

In this comparison, we uncover the secrets of these wines, shedding light on the winemaking processes, alcohol levels, and the delightful array of flavors that define both categories. From iconic styles like Sherry, Port, and Madeira to the unique qualities of Pinot Noir and Moscato, we aim to unravel the essence of these beverages.

What’s Fortified Wine?

Fortified wine is a category of wine that has its alcohol content increased by adding grape spirits, typically brandy, during or after the fermentation process. This fortification process stops the fermentation and leaves residual sugar in the wine, resulting in a higher alcohol level compared to unfortified wines.

The origins of fortified wines can be traced back to ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans, who added alcohol to wine for medicinal purposes. This practice evolved over the centuries, with different methods and techniques used in winemaking regions around the world.

The alcohol percentage of fortified wine can range from 15% to 20%, with some styles, like Port and Madeira, having even higher levels. This higher alcohol content not only adds to the richness and body of the wine but also allows for longer aging periods, resulting in complex and nuanced flavors.

If you prefer grape essence without alcohol, choose between non-alcoholic wine vs. grape juice. Each offers unique qualities, showcasing grape varieties for all preferences.

What are the 4 types of Fortified Wine?

There are four main types of fortified wine: Sherry, Port, Madeira, and Marsala. These wines differ in their production methods, grape varieties used, and flavor profiles.

  • Sherry is a fortified wine from the Jerez region of Spain. It is made using white grapes such as Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximénez, and is fortified after fermentation. Sherry can be dry (Fino), medium-dry (Amontillado), or sweet (Olroso) in style.
  • Port is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley region of Portugal. It is produced by adding grape spirits during fermentation, resulting in a higher alcohol content and sweeter taste. Port can be divided into two main styles: Ruby and Tawny.
  • Madeira is a fortified wine from the Madeira Islands in Portugal. It is produced by adding grape spirits after fermentation, followed by a heating process that gives it a unique caramelized flavor. Madeira can be dry (Sercial), medium-dry (Verdelho), or sweet (Malmsey) in style.
  • Marsala is a fortified wine from the Italian island of Sicily. It is produced by adding grape spirits to white or red grapes, followed by an aging process that gives it a nutty and rich flavor. Marsala can be dry (Fine), semi-dry (Superiore), or sweet (Dolce) in style.

Unfortified Red Wine List

On the other hand, unfortified wines do not have any additional alcohol added during production. These wines rely solely on the natural fermentation process and are usually lower in alcohol content compared to fortified wines. Here are some of the popular red varietals that fall under this category:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Pinot Noir
  • Syrah/Shiraz
  • Zinfandel
  • Malbec
  • Sangiovese
  • Tempranillo
  • Grenache
  • Nebbiolo
  • Barbera
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Gamay (Beaujolais)
  • Petite Sirah
  • Carmenere
  • Mourvèdre/Mataro
  • Dolcetto
  • Aglianico
  • Montepulciano
  • Cinsault

Is Brandy a fortified wine?

Brandy itself is not a fortified wine, but it is used as the spirit in fortified wines. Brandy is a distilled spirit made by distilling wine and has a higher alcohol content than regular wine. It is commonly used in the production of fortified wines to increase their alcohol levels and add unique flavors.

Pinot Noir in Fortified Wines

Pinot Noir, a grape native to Burgundy, France, makes some seriously amazing wines. They’re known for their complex flavors that really capture the essence of the region. You’ll taste red fruit, floral notes, and a touch of earthiness, making each sip a truly captivating experience. And get this, sometimes they even use Pinot Noir in fortified wines! It’s a bit of an experiment, combining the vibrant fruitiness with a rich fortified twist. The result? A totally unique wine that’ll blow your taste buds away and challenge everything you thought you knew about winemaking.

Moscato in Fortified Wines

Moscato, known for its sweet, effervescent wines, is not usually associated with fortified wines. This grape from Italy’s Piedmont region produces light-bodied wines with vibrant floral and fruit notes like peach, nectarine, and orange blossom. Moscato is popular for dessert wines, sparkling wines, and Moscato d’Asti. Fortified Moscato is rare but worth seeking. The increased alcohol content amplifies its aromatic and fruity character, resulting in a rich, luscious wine with flavors of honey, dried apricots, almonds, and spices. These wines showcase the adaptability of the Moscato grape and offer a unique tasting experience.

What’s Unfortified Wine?

Unfortified wine is a category of wine that does not have distilled spirits added during production. It is made using fermented grape juice, resulting in an alcohol content of around 12-14%. This type of wine can be further divided into two categories: Still and Sparkling.

Still, wines are those that do not have any carbonation, while sparkling wines are those that undergo a second fermentation process to produce bubbles. Examples of unfortified wines include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Unfortified wines typically have an alcohol content of around 12-14%, with some varieties ranging from 5% to 20%. This lower alcohol content makes them a popular choice for everyday consumption and pairing with meals.

Unfortified White Wine List

Unfortified white wines also follow the same production process as unfortified red wines. These are some of the popular white varietals:

  • Chardonnay
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Riesling
  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Viognier
  • Semillon
  • Albariño
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Muscat/Moscato
  • Vermentino
  • Verdicchio
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Torrontés
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Garganega (used in Soave)
  • Trebbiano
  • Assyrtiko
  • Macabeo/Viura
  • Marsanne

Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: How It Made?

How Unfortified Wine is Made?

Unfortified wine production begins with the process of turning grapes into must. This involves crushing the grapes to extract the juice, which is then referred to as ‘must’. The must contains not only the grape juice but also the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes, which contribute to the flavor and color of the wine.

The next step is fermentation, which is initiated by adding yeast to the must. The yeast consumes the sugar in the grape juice and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process continues until all the sugar is consumed, or the alcohol level reaches a point where the yeast cannot survive, typically around 14% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Unlike fortified wines, unfortified wines do not have any additional alcohol added during the production process. The goal is to maintain the integrity of the grape and to let the natural flavors from the fermentation process shine through. The alcohol content in unfortified wine comes solely from the fermentation of the grape sugars.

How Fortified Wine is Made?

Fortified wine starts its life much like unfortified wine. The process begins with the harvesting of grapes, which are then crushed to produce a mixture known as ‘must’. This mixture contains grape juice along with the skins, seeds, and stems, which provide essential characteristics to the wine, such as color and tannin.

Unlike unfortified wine, fortified wine undergoes a unique step where a distilled spirit – typically brandy – is introduced at a particular stage. This addition usually occurs either during or after the fermentation process. If the spirit is added during fermentation, it kills the yeast and stops the fermentation process, resulting in a sweeter wine with a higher residual sugar content. If the spirit is added after fermentation, the wine will be drier, as most of the sugar has been converted into alcohol.

Some fortified wines also go through a cooking process, where the must is heated to concentrate flavors and increase sweetness. This process, known as ‘maceration,’ is common in the making of Madeira wine and lends it a distinctive caramelized or ‘cooked’ flavor profile. This unique production method, coupled with the addition of distilled spirits, sets fortified wines apart from their unfortified counterparts, providing a depth and complexity of flavors enjoyed by wine enthusiasts across the globe.

Fortified vs Unfortified Wine: Alcohol Content

Alcohol Content in Unfortified Wine

The alcohol content in unfortified wine is generally lower compared to fortified wines. It is largely dependent on the ripeness of the grapes used in production, as riper grapes contain more sugar for the yeast to convert into alcohol. Typically, the alcohol content of unfortified wine ranges from 12% to 14%, although some varieties can have alcohol content as low as 5% or as high as 20%.

Alcohol Content in Fortified Wine

On the other hand, fortified wines have a higher alcohol content, usually ranging from 15% to 22% ABV. This increased alcohol content is a result of the addition of spirits such as brandy during the wine-making process. The added spirits not only increase the alcohol content but also contribute to the unique flavor profiles of fortified wines.

Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: Flavors

Flavors in Fortified Wines

Fortified wines are renowned for their diverse and intriguing flavor profiles, a direct result of their unique production methods. The addition of spirits during the winemaking process not only increases the alcohol content but also introduces a depth and complexity of flavors that are not typically found in unfortified wines. The spectrum of flavors in fortified wines can span from sweet, fruity and floral notes to savory, nutty and spice-infused undertones.

One characteristic feature of many fortified wines is their richness of flavors that hint at wood and complex notes. This is often achieved through the process of aging the wines in wooden barrels, which imparts distinct flavors into the wine, such as vanilla, caramel, oak, and sometimes smoky nuances. The complexity is further increased by the interplay of the natural flavors of the grape, the added spirits, and the influence of the barrel during maturation. This fascinating interweaving of flavors makes fortified wines a delight for the palate, offering a sensory experience that goes beyond the ordinary.

Flavors in Unfortified Wines

Unfortified wines are particularly known for their ability to express a wide range of natural flavors derived from the grapes and the terroir. The flavors can range from fruit, herbs, and flowers, to minerals.

Fruit flavors are the most prominent and can vary dramatically depending on the grape variety and the region where it’s grown. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon may express dark fruit flavors like blackcurrant and cherry, while Sauvignon Blanc might exhibit flavors of green apple, pear, and tropical fruits.

Herb and floral notes are common as well, particularly in white wines. For example, Gewürztraminer is known for its floral characters like rose petals and honeysuckle, while Sauvignon Blanc may exhibit herbaceous flavors like grass and green bell pepper.

Mineral flavors in wine are more abstract and are often linked to the characteristics of the soil where the grapes are grown. Wines can sometimes exhibit flavors of flint, slate, or wet stone, particularly in some white wines like Riesling or Chablis.

Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: Body and Sugar

Body of Unfortified Wines

Unfortified wines can range from light to full-bodied, with the body of the wine often influenced by the alcohol content. The body refers to how the wine feels in the mouth, and it can be light, medium, or full. Generally, the higher the alcohol content, the fuller the body of the wine. For instance, a Sauvignon Blanc, which typically has a lower alcohol content, will likely be light-bodied, while a Chardonnay with a higher alcohol content may be full-bodied. The body of the wine is a significant factor in its overall character, influencing how it pairs with food and the overall tasting experience.

Body of Fortified Wines

Fortified wines typically possess a heavier body due to their elevated levels of both alcohol and sugar. The body of the wine refers to its texture and weight on the palate, and fortified wines, with their higher alcohol content, tend to feel richer and more substantial. The residual sugar, which remains after fermentation, also contributes to this sensation, lending a viscosity that gives fortified wines a lush, velvety mouthfeel. From medium to full-bodied, these wines deliver a sensory experience that lingers, the residual sugar amplifying both the sweetness and the overall complexity of the wine’s flavor profile.

Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: Sweetness

Sweetness in Unfortified Wines

The sweetness level of unfortified wines can vary significantly, from dry to off-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet. This variation is mainly influenced by the amount of sugar present in the grapes at the time of harvest. Grapes with high levels of sugar can produce a sweet wine, while grapes with lower sugar levels will result in a drier wine.

Sweetness in Fortified Wines

Fortified wines tend to be sweeter compared to unfortified wines. This is due to the addition of brandy, which stops the fermentation process and leaves behind residual sugar in the wine. The level of sweetness in fortified wines can vary greatly, with some being dry or semi-dry, while others are intensely sweet. Some fortified wines like Port even have a classification

Fortified vs. Unfortified Wine: Popularity

Popularity of Unfortified Wines

Unfortified wines are the most commonly produced and consumed type of wine globally. Red and white wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are among the most popular unfortified wine varieties. Unfortified wines are also versatile when it comes to food pairings, making them a staple at dinner tables across the world.

Popularity of Fortified Wines

Fortified wines have a loyal following of fans, particularly in countries like Portugal and Spain, where fortified wine production has a long history. However, they are not as globally popular as unfortified wines due to their higher alcohol levels and sweeter taste, which may not appeal to everyone’s palate. Despite this, fortified wines have gained popularity in recent years, with more people exploring and appreciating their unique flavors and characteristics. From classic Port to fortified versions of Sherry, Madeira, Vermouth, and Marsala, there is a wide range of fortified wines to discover and enjoy.

Guide to Buying Quality Fortified Wines

When looking to purchase quality fortified wines, there are a few key factors to consider:

  1. Origin: The origin or the region where the wine is produced plays a significant role in its quality. For instance, true Port wines come from the Douro Valley in Portugal, while authentic Sherry is produced in Spain’s Jerez region. Always check the label for the origin of the wine.
  2. Age: The aging process is crucial for fortified wines as it contributes to their flavor complexity. Older fortified wines are usually of higher quality, but they also carry a heftier price tag.
  3. Producer: The reputation of the producer or winery can often indicate the quality of the wine. Look for producers known for their commitment to quality and consistency.
  4. Sweetness Level: Depending on your preference, you may opt for a dry, semi-dry, or sweet fortified wine. Remember, the sweetness level can significantly impact the wine’s flavor profile.
  5. Reviews and Ratings: Reading reviews and checking ratings can also be helpful when trying to gauge the quality of a fortified wine.

Top 10 Fortified Wines You Must Try

Here is a list of 10 types of fortified wines and how to determine if what you’re drinking is indeed a fortified wine.

Port: Originating from Portugal’s Douro Valley, Port is one of the most famous fortified wines. It is typically sweet and often served with dessert. If your wine has a high alcohol content and a rich, sweet flavor, it might be Port.

Sherry: Sherry hails from Jerez, Spain, and can range from dry to sweet. Dry sherries have a nutty flavor, while sweet sherries are rich and raiseless. Sherries are fortified after fermentation, so if your wine has an ABV of around 15-20% and a distinctive nutty or raisin flavor, it could be Sherry.

Madeira: This is a robust, long-lived wine from the Madeira Islands of Portugal. It is made in a range of styles from dry to sweet. If your wine has a unique caramelized or toffee flavor, it may be Madeira.

Marsala: Marsala wine comes from Sicily and can be dry or sweet. If your wine has a rich, smoky, or caramel-like flavor, it might be Marsala.

Vermouth: Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine, meaning it’s not only fortified with spirits but also flavored with botanicals. If your wine tastes of herbs and spices, it may be Vermouth.

Muscadelle: This sweet wine from Australia is fortified with brandy. If your wine is very sweet, golden in color, and tastes like honey or butterscotch, it might be Muscadelle.

Vin Doux Naturel: From France, these wines can be either red or white and are fortified during fermentation. If your wine is sweet, fruity, and has a lower alcohol content, it could be a Vin Doux Naturel.

Commandaria: This ancient wine from Cyprus is both fortified and aged. If your wine is sweet, dark amber or reddish-brown, and has a high alcohol content, it might be Commandaria.

Rutherglen: This Australian wine is made from Muscat and is known for its rich, sweet flavors. If your wine has a strong flavor of raisins, caramel, or toffee, it may be Rutherglen.

Pineau des Charentes: This is a French aperitif made from grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie. If your wine is sweet, and fruity, and you can taste the spirit, it’s likely Pineau des Charentes.

So why wait? Use the guide above to start sampling a variety of fortified wines. The process of fortification, the variation in sweetness levels, and the distinct flavor profiles all contribute to the contrast between these two types of wine. As a wine lover, delving into the world of fortified vs. unfortified wine opens up a wealth of new tastes and textures to explore.


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Williams T. Edwards
Williams T. Edwards, the visionary founder of Williams Minneapolis, has not only shaped a vibrant and dynamic venue but has also brought his expertise in wine coolers to the forefront of the local scene. This unique establishment, with its blend of history and modernity, invites patrons to experience its welcoming ambiance, diverse beverage selection, and entertainment options. Whether you're a local looking for a reliable favorite or a visitor seeking a memorable night out, Williams Minneapolis is a must-visit destination in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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