“You know the old caution: Champagne after sherry makes tummy grow wary.”
I’ve always wondered what Niles and Frasier Crane were talking about. They walked around espousing obscure French literary references, in Italian suits, while holding those tiny wine glasses. And from those glasses they sipped this caramel-colored, somewhat translucent beverage that provoked the haughtiest of behavioral patterns. I knew it had to be something special.
Turns out it is. Sherry special enough for Shakespeare to say he’d teach a thousand sons about it, and port special enough for Kerouac to sit in the morning fog of North Beach, taking in hours of this liquid poetry. But why? Why have mere “dessert wines” been praised as a treasured secret in wine culture? And furthermore, if they evoke such romanced sentiments, why have they been left off the radar of popular wine interest today?
I’ll admit, as a self-educated enthusiast, the whole winemaking process seems fairly complex and nuanced to me. When I take a vineyard tour, I nod politely and hope nobody asks me an unexpected question. But if you are someone who has a general grasp on winemaking, then the first step to understand dessert wines is not difficult to take. And if you don’t have a grasp, that’s alright too. Because what makes dessert wines special and unique is a simple idea: add alcohol to “fortify” the wine.
During, and in some cases after, fermentation of fortified wines, a form of brandy is added. Historically, adding more alcohol to wine was a preservation technique for sailors across oceans, allowing them to enjoy wine over the course of their journey without subjecting regular wine to varied temperatures and conditions. And because of this addition of brandy, the usual fermentation process of turning sugar into alcohol is immediately stopped. The remaining sugar then stays, giving dessert wines their well renowned sweetness. Very generally, that’s it.
And what results is a tribute to the senses. The powerful aroma of brandy filling your nose; the taste of something like candy and liqueur coordinating together in your mouth; the sight of the wine moving slowly around the glass in a syrupy fashion. That’s how I’ve realized that these wines are different. These wines aren’t the subject of your intro session. Not Chardonnay, no way. These wines are sailor fuel for legendary trans-oceanic voyages and inspiration for the last stanza of an epic poem by a literary great. And if not, they still taste good to me.
My mission in writing for this site is to further explore, as someone who is also learning with each sip, this topic that serves as the “dessert menu” of wine culture. And the more often I imbibe this sweetness, I ask myself, “wouldn’t we all rather skip to dessert anyway?”
I began with a quote about sherry so I’ll end with fairness to port.
“Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.”
Now if that doesn’t make you want to delve into fortified wines, I don’t know what will.