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What is a fortified wine?........

Port, Sherry, Madeira, Malaga, Tokay, Frontignan and Frontignac are all fortified wines. They also happen to be place names in Europe or names for wines from specific locations there so many of these names can't be used to describe an Australian made product. Muscat is the one exception and refers to the name of the grape it's made from. The muscat family of grapes includes Orange Muscat, Muscat Canelli and Muscat de Frontignan.

Muscat can make a lovely white wine but different Muscat grapes make the lovely sweet syrupy red fortified wine we know in Australia. Most of the wine produced in Australia during the 1800's and up to the mid 1900's was fortified. Only the last thirty years have seen table wines overtake fortified wines in quantity produced.

Saying a wine is fortified means the alcohol content is greater than what natural yeast fermentation could give. Wines are 'fortified' to higher alcohol content by adding brandy or neutral spirit hence the name fortified wines.

To make a fortified wine you start with very ripe grapes, generally 25 brix (sugar content) or higher. Low vigour yeast is used to extract maximum colour and tannin from the fermenting grapes. After a few days the sugar content of the fermenting grapes is checked every few hours. When the sugar content drops to around 8 brix a brandy or neutral spirit of around 80% alcohol by volume is used to bring the average alcohol content up to around 18%. The higher alcohol content will kill the yeast and after a day or two the fermentation will stop with a residual sugar level around 6 brix. In Australia (and California.... ed) we are not allowed to add sugar to wines while the rest of the world can. On the other hand we can adjust the acid levels in our wines while the rest of the world has to be happy with what they end up with. And, the official line from the Australia Wine and Brandy Corporation is:

1. Grape spirit used to make fortified wine must contain not less than 740 mL/L of ethanol at 20°C.
2. Brandy used to make fortified wine must contain not less than 571 mL/L of ethanol at 20°C.
3. In addition to the substances permitted by clauses 2 and 3 of this Standard, fortified wine may also contain caramel.
4. "Except where the word "port" is used as a registered geographical indication, it may only be used to describe and present a fortified wine."

Think of port wine and you think of a roaring fire, sweet chocolate and late nights. The original port comes from the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, the Douro valley in the northeast corner of Portugal. 48 authorized grape varieties can go into a port. The most common are 8 red and 8 white with tinta rariz, tinta francisca, touriga nacional and touriga francesca topping the list. The traditional production method of crushing grapes by foot accounts for around 5% of production. The grapes are walked over for 2 hours in 1 metre deep stone tanks around 10-15 square metres in size. 'Liberdade' is declared and then people dance on the grapes for anther two hours. The wines are fermented and fortified and stored away in oak barrels for anywhere from 2 to 50 years. There are 5 general 'types' of port available:
· White port is a simple multi-vintage blend, either sweet or dry
· Ruby and tawny ports are usually sweet multivintage blends
· Dated ports are quality wines, usually of a "tawny" type, and are marked as to their age
· Harvest ports are single vintage and aged at least 7 years
· Vintage port is a single vintage and of the highest quality

The classic Madeira wine comes from the sub-tropical island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal. Prince Henry the Navigator probably introduced the first vines to Madeira during initial colonisation of the island. Jesuit priests managed the first wine trading and owned large properties and vineyards. The 4 varieties of grape used to make Madeiras are Malmsey, Bual, Verdelho and Sercial and they in turn determine the style of Madeira. All Madeiras are fortified with pure grape brandy at the appropriate stage during fermentation, determined by the grape variety and/or style being produced. Malmsey and Bual are fortified early for a sweet drink. Verdelho and Sercial are fermented later to produce a drier wine. The classic Madeira flavours are created during the winemaking process when it undergoes an 'estufagem' or heating process. After primary fermentation and fortification, the wine in oak barrels is slowly heated to approx 45°C for around 3 months and then slowly cooled and blended. The Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation states that we can't use the name Madeira any more "except where the word "madeira" is used as a registered geographical indication, it may only be used to describe and present a fortified wine made before 1 January, 1998."

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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