What is Dessert & Fortified Wine?
Dessert and fortified wines have played an integral role in the history of the Australian wine industry. Until as recently as the 1960s, port-style and sherry-style fortified wines accounted for more than three-quarters of the wines made in Australia. The dominance of fortified wines in Australia was challenged by changing wine tastes during the 1970s. Australian wine lovers demanded more red and white table wines. The tables had completely turned by the 1980s with dessert wine production being outstripped by table wines.
The definition of dessert wine is hard to pin down. The sticking point of these ‘stickies’ is the sheer variety of styles and methods of production. Winemakers aim to make dessert wine with high levels of sugar and alcohol. To achieve this, grapes can be left to ripen until high sugar levels are achieved.
Water can be reduced in grapes through the desiccating effects of a fungus called Botrytis or 'Nobel rot', which sucks out the water concentrating the pure, sweet nectar in the grapes. Grapes can also be dehydrated by being left on the vine to dry naturally before a late harvest, sometimes even after the cane is cut from the vine, leaving the bunches of grapes to wither and concentrate before harvest.
To retain the sweetness in dessert wines, winemakers can stop the fermentation process with high natural sugar levels. This process can be enhanced with ‘fortification,’ hence the name fortified wines, typically achieved by adding brandy spirit to the wine.
Common Dessert & Fortified Wine styles
Fortified Muscat, or Liqueur Muscat, is one of Australia’s most celebrated fortified wines. A visit to Victoria's Rutherglen is not complete without tasting Muscat and other fortified styles of wine. Rutherglen Muscats are about the most intense, 'toffee-ish' pudding wines you're ever likely to experience.
Tawny wines, made from red grapes, are gradually exposed to oxygen in oak barrels. This exposure gives Tawny wines its golden-brown or tawny colour. The process imparts a nutty flavour into the wines. Seppelt is one of the biggest names in Australian wine and produces some of the best Tawny with some examples containing ports aged for 100 years. Penfolds and Saltram also make Tawnys of distinction.
Port & Sherry
Port and Sherry are fortified wines made in Portugal and Spain respectively. Port or Vinho do Porto is named for the city of Oporto. Port is made in the Douro Valley region in the north of Portugal.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes. The wine is aged in oak barrels with the best of the classification being aged 30 years or more. Once in the bottle, Sherry does not benefit from aging. And once opened, Sherry doesn’t improve and should be consumed within a week. Traditionally, the sweet styles of Sherry in Australia were sipped at room temperature. However for true Sherry, from Jerez in Spain, it’s best sipped lightly chilled.
Pairing Food with Dessert & Fortified Wine
Richer Muscats pair perfectly with a wide range of foods such as rich pates, particularly foie gras and terrine. The sweetness of a sticky wine can act as a counter-balance to spicy Asian cuisine and richly sauced meats. It also matches beautifully with the tangy richness of blue cheese.
Some dessert wines are substantial enough to be served as the dessert course. They do, naturally, pair well with desserts. Caramel or chocolate-based desserts will go very well as will a sticky toffee pudding. All pair well with complementary flavours in a platter of cheese nuts, and dried fruit.
Notable Dessert & Fortified Wine regions
The Muscats of Rutherglen, Victoria have been described as Australia’s greatest gifts to the wine world. These wines are made from a grape varietal called Muscat à Petits Grains Rouge or as it is know locally Brown Muscat. Brown Muscat naturally develops high levels of sugar in the grape making it an excellent choice for dessert wines. In Rutherglen, Muscat fermentation is stopped by fortifying the wine with grape spirits. Grape spirits are made from distilled grape juice. At the top end, grape spirits can reach 190 proof. These are clean and neutral spirits, unlike brandy, allowing the natural flavours from the grapes to flourish.
Muscat wines from Rutherglen are classified into four categories. Rutherglen Muscat is the entry-level wine and youngest wine, aged for a minimum of 3 years where Rare Muscat is the oldest, aged for a minimum of 20 years. These wines are intense with toffee flavours on the palate.
The Madeira Islands in Portugal are famed for producing Madeira, a classic fortified wine. Madeira wines labelled with the Verdelho varietal must contain at least 85% of the grape. There are several styles of fortified wines made on the island. The ‘Finest’ variety, aged for a minimum of three years with exposure to artificial heat, is used mostly for cooking. While the Frasquiera or ‘vintage’ wines are aged for a minimum of 20 years. These high-quality wines can last for over a century and in the time before refrigeration were prized for their suitability to warm climates.
In Bordeaux, the Sauternes region of France is famed for sweet white wines made from Semillon grapes. Château d’Yquem stands alone as the most famous produces of Sauternes wines. The winery is classified as Premier Cru Supérieur or ‘Superior First Growth.’ This unique classification is testament to the singular quality of the dessert wines produced by Château d’Yquem.
The future of Dessert & Fortified Wine
Australian dessert and fortified wines consistently earn rave reviews from wine critics around the word. While the taste can be powerful and very sweet at first, wine lovers do grow to appreciate rich favours and textures. Fortified wines take time and patience and are not prone to fads and trends. Stickies and fortified wines will continue to be pillars of Australian wine.