Fortified wines - Port, Madeira & Marsala

L to R: Marsala, Port, Madeira

My last blog was about sherry, perhaps the most obvious drink (for the English, at least) to fall into the category of “fortified wines.” It’s a term that conjures up memories of the old duty-free allowances and even older relatives. However, just as sherry is enjoying its own little renaissance, I thought we might have a look at the other versatile wines that are its cousins.

The popularity of these drinks in the UK owes much to their keeping qualities. They were originally fortified with brandy as a way of preserving them for the long sea journey to foreign markets. It helps retain a certain freshness and grapey flavour without the need for transporting in heavy, glass bottles. Delicate table wines were harder to transport, so our islands off the north-west of Europe came to love the stronger, often sweeter wines of Porto, Jerez, Sicily and Madeira.

I think I mentioned port in my post about France. Whereas English-speaking countries reserve port for post-prandial drinking, it’s principally served as an aperitif in France. The purpose, though, is identical: to aid digestion. France has a love of fresh, ruby port, but I have found tawny port makes for a lovely, lighter aperitif. Try serving it with dates wrapped in slices of smoked venison, with a sliver of fresh red chilli secreted inside. It’ll rise admirably to the challenge and makes for a very classy overture for your winter dinner party.

White port. Image: S Fogarty

White port is becoming more popular in the UK, and deservedly so. Its generally drier than red ports, without being truly dry. Serve it chilled, with something salty to set it off. It’s deliciously fresh, a drink for any season. In Portugal, you’ll spot it being served with tonic as a lighter alternative to gin. Imagine that in the heat of a Lisbon summer evening!
Tawny port will last longer once opened than other ports, but you should still drink it within a couple of months. Ruby, vintage and white ports will start to deteriorate noticeably after a few days and should be finished off within a week of opening.

My favourite fortified wine! Madeiran sailors used to use wine barrels as ballast on long journeys round the tropics. They found that the constant movement and exposure to heat gave the wine a mellow spiciness and super-charged its keeping qualities. Nowadays, the wine is subject to more controlled heating over a period of about 2 years. It has a lovely, balsamic quality to it and will keep almost indefinitely once opened, so long as you cover it to reduce evaporation and protect it from dust and flies. This longevity makes it a perfect stand-by for the aperitif host – always ready to entertain unannounced guests! Serve it slightly chilled (just put it outside the back door for a couple of hours) with simple accompaniments like roasted nuts or sliced, cured meats.
Madeira comes in a number of styles, and I’ll leave it for you to try them all and decide on your own favourite. I love the drier Sercial and Verdelho ones, but the medium-sweet Boal is lovely. Personally, I’d keep Malmsey/Malvasia for a mid-morning treat with cake. You and your guests may disagree.

Marsala’s perhaps a little less well-known than the other wines I’ve discussed, slipping unnoticed and unloved into your tiramisù and sauce Rossini. This is so unfair; it’s a delicious, understated wine, perfect for sipping over the chat and nibbles of an aperitif event. Marsala is made in Sicily, where you’ll find unfortified versions, served fresh with dinner or as an aperitif. Brandy was added by an enterprising Englishman in the 18th century, spotting a way of preserving the wine for the long sea journey to his target market. Nowadays, this is the only version you’ll find outside Italy. Marsala is subtle and fresh in the mouth and, whether you choose sweet or dry versions, drinks well with salted almonds, pistacchios, olives and hard cheeses. Make it the star of an Italian antipasto course. For a real treat, serve it chilled with Fontina cheese, culatello pork and baby peaches preserved in truffle oil. Aaaah!

Allow me to put in a final word for Banyuls, a little-known fortified wine from the far south-west of France. It’s not easy to source outside of France but worth the effort. Ask your wine merchant about it, search online or persuade a friend to go out looking while they’re on holiday in Perpignan. It’s similar to port, but often a little lighter. The barrel-aged varieties go well with nuts, while the bottle-aged taste strongly of cherries and blackberries and would suit smoked duck, liver pâté or blue cheese (but not all three at once!)

Next time: your Christmas list – what to keep in your cupboards for the busy season


  1. Peaches in truffle oil? OMG! Sounds amazing!

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, they are amazing indeed. They were a gift from the Beloved, returning from a trip to Italy.

  2. I didn't know Port was supposed to be drunk in a few days once opened. Mind you, ours never lasts a night! I like red and tawny so good to know tawny lasts longer! Alison (Dipitus)

    1. Thanks for your comment. I was once advised that you can keep port for one week for every year it has spent in wood. Thus ruby and vintage ports (which have not been aged in wood at all) need drinking up within a few days. LBV can be kept a few weeks, and tawny up to 6 months, depending how old it was when it was bottled. However, finishing the bottle in one night is still the safest option. Happy drinking & bon appétit!


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