What does it really mean to say that a wine is “fortified”?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I want to know, what does “fortified” really mean? Does it mean that you added alcohol to the wine?

—Denise B., Brockton, Mass.

Dear Denise,

You’re on the right track. A wine that is fortified—like a Sherry, Port or Muscat—has spirits (usually neutral, distilled grape spirits, sort of like a clear brandy) added to it. The spirits may be added at or near the beginning of fermentation (as in France’s vin doux naturel), during fermentation (as in Port) or after fermentation (as in Sherry).

Fortification was developed in the 17th century. Port was initially a dry red, but back then, winemakers discovered that a little brandy improved the wine and strengthened it for shipping. Since Port is fortified during fermentation—while sugar is still being converted into alcohol—it remains on the sweet side, because the spirits halt fermentation by killing the remaining yeasts. And I’m glad they kept the method up, because the wines can be so gosh-darn yummy.

—Dr. Vinny

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