Fortified wines are often a little tricky to understand. Labels are complicated and often bear unfamiliar, foreign-language terms that mean little to the average consumer: Just what is “medium dry Sherry”, for example? There are complex methods of production including highly specialised ageing and maturation. Store shelves have historically been dominated by large brands, such as Harveys Sherry. More premium wines can be difficult to find, or seem too expensive. It is difficult to know when and how to drink fortified wines because of their higher alcohol content. All of these reasons and more come together to prevent a lot of people from really diving into the category of fortified wines.
We think this is a terrible shame, and we’re determined to do something about it. There’s no way to cover everything in one post, so we’re going to tackle the issue of fortified wine terms. Here, we have compiled some of the most confusing or difficult terms that you are likely to see on a bottle of Sherry, Port, Madeira, or other fortified wine.
Medium dry Sherry and other terms you should know
Next time you are buying fortified wine (or just browsing the wine section), look out for the following terms on the label.
“Medium dry Sherry”
Taking the example from above, medium dry Sherry can seem like a bizarre term: Is it sweet or dry? To understand this term, we should first understand the term medium Sherry. A medium Sherry is a blended Sherry, usually comprised of an Amontillado sherry and a naturally sweet Sherry. The resulting wine will be somewhere between 15% and 22% alcohol by volume, and may have a sugar level of between 5 and 115 grams of sugar per litre. This is quite a wide range, so it is broken down further – and that’s where our medium dry Sherry comes in. Medium dry Sherry must have a sugar level below 45 grams per litre. Higher sugar amounts result in what is called a medium sweet Sherry.
The world of Port can appear quite complex too, as there are many classifications and styles available. Perhaps the most popular style is Ruby Port, and you are likely to see this term on most inexpensive bottles. A Ruby Port is always released ready to drink, has a deep ruby colour and is full of expressive fruit flavour. These wines are relatively “everyday” when it comes to fortified wines: They are usually sweet, quite easy to drink and relatively simple in structure. Basic Ruby Port wines do not come from a specific vintage, and have usually been aged for less than three years before release. Stepping up in quality is Reserve Ruby Port, whose key difference is that it has been aged for longer, with five years being normal. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a Ruby Port that comes from a specific vintage, and spends between four and six years ageing prior to bottling and release.
Wines labelled as “Rutherglen” come from the Australian region of the same name, and are always intense, sweet and full-bodied. Their production involves grapes that have started to raisin but have not yet been affected by botrytis. The juice is fortified by adding alcohol before fermentation has finished, and the wines are aged oxidatively in a solera-style system. Rutherglen wines are not easy to find, but are a must-try for lovers of fortified wines.
Hopefully the above has helped you a little, though the world of fortified wine is vast and there is always more to know and to discover. Have you ever tried a medium dry Sherry or a Rutherglen from Australia? What other fortified wine terms do you find confusing?