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The Dry & The Sweet: Fortified Wines

As all good cooks know, wine is an essential cooking ingredient. We almost always have a half-full bottle of red on the counter or a white knocking around in the refrigerator that we grab to add a splash to a sauce or use to deglaze a roasting pan. But when we want to cook with a more complex flavor, we reach for the fortified wines. Madeira, port, sherry, Marsala, and vermouth are each delicious when sipped as an aperitif or after dinner, but each also adds a distinct flavor when used in cooking. We think of them as pantry and liquor cabinet staples.

Wine is perishable and before the days of modern technology some wines were fortified—strengthened with brandy or other neutral spirits—to preserve freshness. The added alcohol halted the fermentation process (changing sugar into alcohol through the introduction of yeast) and created interesting wines with longer shelf lives. This practice was mainly done for the British, who wanted to import wine from wine-producing countries without it spoiling or turning to vinegar during the sea voyage. Further alterations to the wines were usually accidental, like exposure to heat, air, or by aging, but now winemakers manipulate these conditions to make their wines unique. Because the fermentation process can be interrupted at any point, fortified wines are bottled at different degrees of sweetness. While a little confusing, the word "dry" is used to indicate a wine's sweetness. Dry or very dry wines are the least sweet.

MADEIRA: The workhorse of kitchen wines, Madeira is traditionally made from grapes grown on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Ships en route to the Indies would pick up casks, which would sit "cooking" in the bottom of the ship for several months as they sailed through hot climates. People came to favor the taste of the altered wine, and today it is fortified and then heated to achieve the same effect. Because it is already cooked, Madeira is sturdy and can withstand high heat and long cooking times without compromising its character. Madeira is categorized as: Sercial (dry); Bual and Verdelho (semisweet); and Malmsey (sweet).

PORT: All wines from Portugal were once referred to as port, but the term now refers only to the fortified wine made from grapes grown in the north in the Duoro Valley. Ports are sweet; the fermentation process is stopped while the wine still contains half of its sugar content. Be careful when cooking at high temperatures with port as the sugar may cause it to burn. Ports are categorized as: Ruby (young, red, and quite sweet); Tawny (made from a mix of grapes, aged in wood, and more complex); Vintage (most expensive, made only from grapes from a single excellent year, and often aged for many years); and White (made from white grapes).

SHERRY: Characterized by its intense oxidized flavor, sherry is Spain's prominent fortified wine. Its name is a bastardization of the city where it was first made, Jerez de la Frontera. Made from white grapes, sherry gets its distinct flavor from a process (called solera) wherein several casks of fortified wine are only partially filled, exposing a large surface area to air. The wine is aged, then blended with younger batches of wine to reach a desired flavor. Therefore, they never are marked a specific vintage. Oxidation gives wine a somewhat savory, intense flavor, often described as sherrylike, that makes them taste older than their age. In some wines, it is an unpleasant quality, but it gives sherry a unique deliciousness. Sherry should always be kept chilled once it's opened. Some of the more delicate sherries will last only a few weeks, while others as long as a few months. Taste an open bottle to see if it has lost its liveliness. Sherry is labeled as follows: Fino (light and very dry); Manzanilla (very dry and sometimes a hint salty); Amontillado (aged longer, and darker with a nutty flavor); and Oloroso (aged longest, sweet, and sometimes called "cream" sherry).

MARSALA: Named after the Sicilian city and made from local grapes, this Italian wine is fortified and allowed to oxidize during aging. The amber-colored wine has a slightly smoky flavor that complements many dishes, including zabaione, the creamy Italian dessert made with egg yolks and sugar. Marsala is categorized as follows: Secco (dry); Semisecco (slightly sweet); and Dolce (sweet).

DRY VERMOUTH: Typically French or Italian, dry vermouth is fortified white wine infused with herbs, spices, flowers, seeds, and fruits (the blend varies by producer). Vermouth is a delicious and well-known cocktail ingredient. We like a drop or two in our ice-cold dry martinis, but it is very handy as a substitute in almost any recipe that calls for white wine. It gets its name from the German word vermut (wormwood), as vermouth was originally made for medicinal purposes. It will maintain its freshness for up to three months if stored in the fridge. Incidentally, sweet vermouth—a variation on dry vermouth—is colored and sweetened with caramel. It is used as an aperitif and in cocktails, like the classic Negroni or Manhattan, but not used in cooking.

To see all the ways we use fortified wines, look up the following Canal House Cooking recipes.

Volume N° 1
Chicken Livers with Scallions, page 19
Tomato and Crab Aspic, page 25
Consommé "Madrilène", page 35

Volume N° 2
Negroni, page 9
Jack Manhattan, page 9
Mushroom Ragù on Polenta, page 19
Duck with Apples and Onions, page 52
Chestnut Stuffing, page 80
Glazed Carrots, page 84
Cranberry Port Gelée, page 85

Volume N° 3
Martini, page 8
Half and Half, page 8
Martini-Soaked Stuffed Olives, page 16
Chicken Thighs with Sherry and Mushrooms, page 67
Chicken Poached with Ham and Oxtails, page 76

Volume N° 4
Jamón Serrano on Toast with Red Tomato Preserves, page 18
Roasted Chicken with Tomato Butter, page 88
Zabaione, page 115

Volume N° 5
Goose Liver and Pork Terrine, page 30
Fresh Ham with Madeira Sauce, page 102

Volume N° 6
Daube, page 90
Stuffed Cabbage, page 93
Drunken Sauerkraut with Smoked Pork Chops, page 94