Many people love Port, Sherry, Madeira, Banyuls, and Marsala, but so few really understand what fortified wines are (the hint is that all of the wines listed in this sentence are fortified). These wines are often used to cook and deglaze, and are also enjoyable sipped - but what is fortified wine?
Simply put, fortified wines have had a distilled spirit added to the mix. It’s usually brandy because brandy is made of grapes, like wine, instead of grains like most other spirits. This trend originally started when people sought to preserve wine for long stretches of time and alcohol is a natural preservative.
In addition to preserving the wine, adding brandy enhances the wine’s flavor. To make sure that this is done right and the best taste produced, fortified wines are subject to strict rules governed by their countries of origin - typically Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. The rules dictate what kind of brandy (or other neutral spirit) can be added to the wine, and the type of grape the base wine must be made from.
Fortified wine is made similarly to regular wine. Fermentation happens from the combination of sugar and yeast to create alcohol, but before the fermentation process is complete, brandy is added to the mix. The alcohol in the brandy kills the remaining yeast, stopping fermentation mid-process. This leaves residual sugar behind, which makes the wine sweeter while the additional alcohol makes it stronger.
Sweeter fortified wines like Port, Banyuls, and some Sherries are paired well with chocolate desserts or pungent and aged cheeses. Drier fortified wines like dry Vermouth and dry Sherries go well with nuts, olives, and cheeses. Both styles taste better chilled in the fridge or at least colder than room temperature.