From Port to Port: What to Know About Fortified Wines

What they are, how they’re made, and how to pair them
A collection of wines from St. Julian Winery, including the Catherman’s Port and Solera Cream Sherry. Photo courtesy of St. Julian Winery

Fortified wines were first made to survive long overseas voyages. Today, they’re a popular after-dinner treat found at wineries across Michigan.

A fortified wine is one to which high-proof spirits have been added. As a result, fortified wines are higher in alcohol and residual sugar.

“They’re generally in the 17% to 19% alcohol range,” says Doug Matthies, owner of French Road Cellars, which makes wine for Lake Leelanau’s Chateau Fontaine — owned by his parents, Dan and Lucie Matthies — as well as several other Michigan wineries.

The most common types of fortified wine on the market today are port and sherry, although several other types exist, including Madeira, Marsala, and vermouth.

Bowers Harbor Vineyards’ fortified wines, Appletage and Cherritage. Photo by Todd Hubbell for Bowers Harbor Vineyards

Winemakers in Europe began to fortify wine a few hundred years ago so they could ship it overseas.

“It originally was invented, so to speak, to preserve the wine when they didn’t have any refrigeration or cellaring,” Matthies says. “It was so they could get wine over here on ships without it going bad.”

Before pasteurization and sterile filtration were invented, fortifying wines was the best way to protect the wine from microorganisms that could harm it, says Nancie Oxley, vice president of winemaking at St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw.

“St. Julian has been making fortified wines probably for the last 100 years that we’ve been in operation,” she says. “And that was the best way to actually protect the wine from any microorganisms that were in there, … things that won’t hurt a person but most definitely could be potentially detrimental to the wine.

“As you increase the alcohol level, it is less of a cozy situation for those microorganisms, so in the ‘olden days,’ that’s why several of the wines were actually fortified.”

Making the Wine
To make a fortified wine, winemakers add a distilled spirit such as brandy to a regular wine during or after fermentation.

“We make the base wine exactly the same as we would a still wine,” Matthies says. “And then we put the addition of the spirits back into it, and then depending on what the client wants, it will either go right to bottle or be barrel aged.”

French Road Cellars uses spirits made from the same wine to which the spirits will be added.

“We have the unique ability to take wine from that specific batch, run it through the still, take those spirits, add it back to that wine, so it’s all from the same source,” Matthies says.

French Road Cellars’ cherry fortified wine produced for Boathouse Vineyards. Photo courtesy of French Road Cellars

Matthies and his team make red- and white-grape, apple, and barrel-aged cherry fortified wines.

At St. Julian, the winemakers focus on following traditional methods.

“For port, here at St. Julian, we make it in the traditional method of what they do in Portugal,” Oxley says. “So we bring in grapes — we have specific varietals that we work with — and once the fermentation starts, we add high-proof spirits from grapes, so we add essentially grape brandy, to kill the yeast off.

“Then the alcohol comes from the addition of the brandy that we add, and the sugar comes from what Mother Nature grew out in the vineyard.”

The winery offers Catherman’s Port, which is a ruby port, and Solera Cream Sherry, which won a Double Gold award at the 2021 Judgement of Michigan. In the past, the winery has made a variety of fruit infusions, including peach, pear, cherry, and raspberry.

Bowers Harbor Vineyards in Traverse City also makes fortified wines, its signature Cherritage and Appletage. The names are portmanteaus of heritage and cherry or apple, respectively, and are also a play on “Meritage,” a name used by many American wineries for their Bordeaux-style blends.

The Cherritage is a cherry wine fortified with cherry spirits similar to kirsch. The wine is aged in both brand-new and used French oak barrels. The Appletage is fortified with distilled apple wine similar to applejack. Bowers Harbor uses up to seven varieties of apple in the wine.

Fortified wines were a natural choice for the winery because of the fruit available in the region.

“We’ve always had a diverse portfolio here, and living in the area with such great cherry [and] apple harvest[s], it just made sense,” says Todd Hubbell, warehouse manager at Bowers Harbor Vineyards. “It’s just another way to showcase the awesome fruit in this area.”

How to Pair the Wine
Fortified wines are typically drunk after dinner, often with dessert.

“These are considered dessert wines, so definitely [they pair well with] any kind of chocolate dessert, soufflé, crème brûlée,” Hubbell says. “We actually have some customers who like to use this in mixology, like adding the Cherritage to an old-fashioned.”

St. Julian’s Solera Cream Sherry pairs well with a fruit tartlet, apple pie, or anything caramel-based, Oxley says, while the Catherman’s Port pairs well with blue cheese or a flourless chocolate torte.

“You can go from the charcuterie aspect of doing something before dinner, but most people enjoy fortified wine after dinner with dessert or just as a sipping wine,” she says.

Storing the Wine
While the higher alcohol content in fortified wine helps it withstand more extreme temperatures, fortified wines should be stored in the same conditions as other wines.

Extreme temperatures are “not recommended for any wine,” Oxley says. “You would want to treat your fortified wines like you would any other wine in your wine cellar.”

A cherry fortified wine made by French Road Cellars. Photo courtesy of French Road Cellars

However, fortified wines will often last longer — both before and after opening.

“The neat thing about fortified wines, something like sherry — once it’s open, it can potentially last a little bit longer than a traditional red or white wine,” Oxley says. “Sherry is already an oxidized wine product, so once it’s open, you can have it in your liquor cabinet for a few months and it can still taste delicious — same with port.”

And in storage, some fortified wines can last for many years.

“You can lay one of these bottles down for years and years and years and it will only get better,” Hubbell says. “To a point,” he adds.

Matthies names longevity as a key benefit of fortifying wines. Plus, he says, “They’re tasty!”

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