Of the world’s fortified wines Port and Sherry are its principal ambassadors

A fortified wine is one to which Brandy or grape spirit has been added. After fermentation in the case of Sherry, during fermentation in the case of Port.

Only forty or so years ago Australia, New Zealand America and South America were major fortified wine makers. Until the recent global boom in still table wines these countries made and consumed little else. Almost all, until recent E.U. legislation, were mischievously called Port, Sherry or even Madeira.

History – Sherry

The principal city in Spain associated with Sherry is Jerez (pronounced Hereth)  originally founded around six hundred years before Christ. The history of the city is inextricably linked to the wine we now consume. From the Greek name of Zera (‘the dry land of Spain’) to the Goth occupation calling it Ceret and to the Moorish occupation when it became Scheris. Later during the Kingdom of Castile, Xeres was used, finally changing an X for a J during the 19th Century and becoming the City we know today. The varieties of grapes here changed too, from Malvasia and Muscat associated with Greek viniculture to its principal variety today – Palomino. Due to the position of Jerez, near Cadiz on the Southern most tip of Spain’s coastline, the wine became transported all around the Mediterranean and its fortification allowed such exportation by sea, whereas still wines were mainly used for localised consumption.

Shakespeare refers often to the drinking of sack (the Elizabethan term for Sherry ) with overtones that presumably referred to an over fortified and less than sophisticated beverage. But it was the Victorian middle classes that led the way to the drink we know today, with their abhorrence of Gin and the search for social respectability. To some extent it was the cultural boom that both enhanced and later denigrated the persona of Sherry right up to the present-day perception of the drink.

History – Port

The home of Port is Oporto sitting alongside the River Duoro in the Duoro Valley of northeast Portugal. Its history is far more recent than that of Sherry, originating as a result of trade wars between the English and the French in the latter part of the 17th century. With draconian taxation imposed by Willaim III wine importers returned to their friendly counterparts in Portugal and after a brief flirtation with acidic whites and unprepossessing reds developed their trade in the Duoro with a wine known colloquially in London as ‘Blackstrap’ or Port.

Dense, rich and sweet, due to the interruption of fermentation with large measures of Brandy, the wine became an instant hit in England. So expansive was this trading that many English shippers set up both warehouses and residences along the valley of the Douro, with very un-Portugese names establishing a near monopoly on the wine such as Croft, Dow, Graham, Taylor and Cockburn.


One problem we tend to have with the appreciation of Sherry is that vast lakes of the wine which are exported to Britain are simply not true to type. In general terms there are two basic types of Sherry to remember. The first are Fino and Manzanilla. Both are crisp, bone dry, palate challenging styles with a ABV of about 15.5 per cent. These are not Sherries to be left in a decanter for season after season but should be served chilled and drunk almost as quickly as a still table wine.

In distinct contrast are the darker styles, reminiscent of cob-nuts, almonds and light treacle, which are Amontillado and Oloroso. Both are best as dry wines and not to be confused with so many sweetened brands that swamp the supermarket shelves at this time of the year.

Sweeter types of Sherry can be delightful but they need to be authentically made and indicate some age. Do seek out the better examples for more refreshing drinking and avoid the branded Cream varieties. Do not fall into the trap that Pale Cream is any more authentic as some are just Cream with the colour removed.

The leviathan of the Sherry world and one which I recommend for the festive season is the dark, rich, “mince pie in a glass” Pedro Ximenes (PX) one of he unsung heroes of the dessert wine world.

The lighter styles of Sherry owe their very being to a yeasty, bread-like film, not dissimilar to the surface of beer in a brewery, known as flor. It is this yeasty covering surface which allows the wine to develop and protects it during fermentation. One other fascinating aspect of Sherry is that it does not get presented as a particular vintage year. Unique in the wine world, this is due to a process known as fractional blending or the Solera System, whereby older wine is removed from its storage barrel and replaced by younger wine. This procedure which continues year after year in order to equalise the style and taste, results in many Sherries that contain traces of wines often over 100 years old.


If Sherry has been known as the classic aperitif then Port has long been associated with the close of a meal. There are scores of different grape varieties traditionally used in the making of Port but in today’s modern world of wine-making four principal varieties are  favoured; Touriga Naçional, Tinta, Barroca, Tinta Francesca and Tinta Roritz, a close relative of Spain’s Riojan grape, Tempranillo. There are no-where near as many styles as a Sherry, Port divides principally into bottle aged (often labelled as Vintage Port) and the barrel- aged Tawny. Vintage Port differs again to Sherry as it is only made in the best years (‘declared’ by the Port authorities) and is best drunk after its harsh, tannic stage be it 10,20 or 30 years thereafter. At its optimum age the wine will taste of plums, figs, stewed fruit and even dark chocolate, and has obvious associations with Autumnal seasons. The Tawny style however offers a delicate fruit and nutty flavour, as a result of storage in porous casks, and should be drunk when lightly chilled.


Long since associated with black and white Agatha Christie films, this wine is beginning to gain some ground once more.

Madeira comes from the volcanic island of the same name in the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira is a wine that can be kept in the obligatory decanter. It is virtually indestructible hence its former popularity in the sea-bound export markets.

Two styles again, the sweeter of the two is made like Port and fortified half-way through fermentation thus retaining the effect of the sugar starches. The drier style, more akin to Sherry, is fully fermented with grape spirit added towards the end.

The wine is exposed to the searing heat in large glass demi-johns which caramelise (maderise) the Madeira hence the toasted brown caramel-like colour. The very best examples of near dry types are uncommon here probably due to Bordeaux-like prices.

The rest

Mainly overlooked within our shores are a few surviving local wines that rarely meet export demand. In the South of France some of you will have come across either Banylus or Rivesaltes, both made from the Grenache grape and although normally lower in alcohol than Port they offer a lighter, more spicy alternative at the end of a meal.

Italy’s answer is the Marsala from Sicily. White grapes are combined with heated grape spirit, sweeter than many fortified wines, yet increasingly overlooked and more often used in the famous dessert – Zabaglione, rather than consumption by glass.

Spain provides us with Malaga a town on the infamous Costa del Sol, the drink of the same name is treacly and dark with hints of saturated raisins.