Unfortified vs Fortified Wine: How Are They Created & What Are the Benefits You Can Get

fortified vs unfortified wine

Last Updated: May 19, 2022

Picture this: You're at home, reading the latest issue of Wine Spectator while drinking your favorite table wine when you suddenly come across the term "fortified wine."

And you wonder, because…

If you're a beginner who doesn't know much of the technical terms, you might ask, "What is fortified and unfortified wine? Aren't they wine just the same?"

Although that's partially right, knowing the differences between fortified and unfortified wines is crucial, especially if you're trying to control your alcohol consumption.

Well then, let's put those questions to rest, shall we?

Main Differences Between Fortified Vs Unfortified Wine

wine bottles in a row

The main differences between Fortified Vs Unfortified Wine are:

  • Unfortified Wine has an ABV below 16%, whereas Fortified wine has an ABV above 16% 
  • Unfortified wine is made by fermenting grape juice, whereas Fortified wine includes adding a spirit to make the alcohol stronger
  • Unfortified wine allows the yeast to consume the sugar, whereas Fortified wine may kill the yeast to produce a sweet hint

Unfortified Wine

First off, what is unfortified wine? To put it simply, it's what you would imagine as a "normal wine."

It's an alcoholic beverage produced from the standard winemaking process - yeast consumes the sugar in the grapes and undergoes alcohol fermentation, releasing ethanol and carbon dioxide.

The end result is nothing short of a fermented grape juice, which is essentially unfortified wine.

However, there's more to it - this type of wine is classified primarily by its alcohol content, also known as alcohol by volume (ABV). You can identify unfortified wines if their ABV is below 16%.

This means your favorite red wine like Pinot Noir, white wine like Sauvignon Blanc, and sparkling wine like Moscato d’Asti are all unfortified wines.

Fortified Wine

Moving on, what does fortified wine mean?

Suppose we can determine unfortified wine from its alcoholic content. How do we compare unfortified vs fortified wine using the same basis?

The definition of "fortify" is "to strengthen," so there must be something strengthening the wine.

That "thing" is called a distilled spirit, another type of alcohol (usually pure brandy). By adding more alcohol to the wine, it naturally becomes stronger.

The fortification process was discovered by wine merchants in the 17th century. During this time, the wine storage conditions weren't as ideal as the present. So, they came up with a solution and found that increasing the alcohol content improves the shelf life of their products.

Centuries later, adding spirits isn't just used for storage, but also for making strong liquor.

According to the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission, "fortified wine" means any wine with 16% ABV minimum and 24% ABV maximum.

How Fortified Wine Is Made

As mentioned, wine is fortified simply by adding distilled spirits into it.

The spirit is usually of the same component as the base wine. For example, if your wine is made of Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape spirit is also Cabernet Sauvignon; if you've got fortified mead, the spirit is also made of honey.

During the fortification, the time at which the spirit is added changes the taste of the fortified wine.

Suppose the spirit is added before the fermentation process of the wine ends. In that case, the yeast dies due to the sudden increase of alcohol content above 15%, which leaves a strong sugar residue. This results in a sweet fortified wine.

Meanwhile, if the spirit is added after the fermentation process ends, the yeast has already consumed most of the sugar content from the grapes. After at least six months of aging, the result is a dry fortified wine.

Don't worry, though. The wine will not have a spirit aftertaste. After the fortification, it will lose its characteristics and only enhance the base wine.

Types of Fortified Wine

wine bottles in a shelf

Among the different kinds of fortified wines, here are some of the more well-known varieties:

  • Port wine - Originating from the Duoro Valley in Portugal, this sweet dessert wine comes in different forms: ruby, white, rosé, and tawny port.
  • Madeira wine - From the country of Portugal again is the Madeira wine, which is known for its unique process of wine heating. Different types of Madeira range from dry to sweet.
  • Sherry - Sherry is a fortified white wine produced in Spain made from the Palomino, Muscat, or Pedro Ximenez grape. It's traditionally dry but can be sweetened as a dessert.
  • Vermouth - This aromatized wine originated from Turin, Italy. It's predominantly divided into white (dry) and red (sweet), used in classics such as the Martini and Manhattan, respectively.
  • Marsala wine - Another fortified wine from Italy is the Marsala, made from Sicilian indigenous grapes. Both sweet and dry varieties are commonly used for cooking.
  • Vin Santo - Also known as "Holy Wine," Vin Santo is a dessert wine known for its intense hazelnut and caramel flavors. In Italy, it is traditionally paired with biscotti.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What foods are fortified wine paired with?

In the US, all fortified wines are considered dessert wines, so naturally, they are fantastic companions to desserts. Common examples include vanilla ice cream, tiramisu, nuts, pie, and pudding.

However, they are also paired with cheeses like Stilton, Gorgonzola, and Parmeggiano Reggiano. Wines like Sherry even go well with oysters!

2. What are the benefits of drinking fortified wine?

Like other wines, fortified wine is rich in antioxidants that can protect your body from chronic diseases.

This is particularly evident in red wine since it's made using the skin of grapes, which are high in resveratrol. This antioxidant can help with stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Additionally, drinking fortified wine in moderation reduces the risks of certain cancers, such as prostate, ovarian, and colon cancer. It may also improve brain and mental health, helping prevent dementia and depression.

3. Are there risks in drinking fortified wine?

There aren't many differences between fortified and unfortified wines when it comes to risks.

Like any alcoholic beverage, fortified wine must be drunk in moderation to prevent short-term effects like violence and injuries and long-term effects like alcoholism.

The high amounts of sugar in fortified wines may also cause obesity and diabetes when consumed excessively.

Additionally, you need to be careful with the high ABV of fortified wines. If you're cooking or baking with wine, it's essential to note that anywhere between 4-85% of the alcohol level may be retained.

Final Remarks

Learning how to differentiate unfortified vs fortified wine can make a big difference to your wine drinking experience.

If you're looking for a drink that packs a punch and pairs well with your favorite desserts and cheeses, then fortified wines are the way to go.

Meanwhile, if you want wines that don't have too much alcohol, you should look for unfortunate wines.

Nevertheless, we hope this article helped make your wine experience a little sweeter.

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