What Is the Primary Difference Between Fortified Wine & Dessert Wine?

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It’s easy to assume that fortified and dessert wines are one and the same, especially since some fortified wines, like ruby port, are sweet and pair nicely with many desserts. And, in some cases, a fortified wine, like a decadent Pedro Ximenez sherry, might make a tastier dessert option than a piece of chocolate cake. However, fortified and dessert wines are two completely different varieties of wine and each involves distinctive wine-making techniques.

Fortified Wines

Unlike dessert wine, fortified wine is made using added alcohol -- usually brandy or another neutral spirit -- hence the name "fortified." A fortified wine can be either dry or sweet, depending on when the winemaker adds the extra spirit. Adding it before the fermentation process is complete results in a sweet wine, and adding it after results in a dry wine. A fortified wine tends to be very high in alcohol -- often containing between 17 and 22 percent; whereas a dessert wine usually contains a lot less.

Types of Fortified Wine

Port, sherry, Madeira and Marsala are the four main types of fortified wine. Port is a sweet wine that hails from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Sherry is made exclusively in Spain and can be either sweet or dry, depending on the variety. A dry sherry makes a great aperitif, and a sweet sherry typically follows dinner. Madeira and Marsala, two fortified wines named after their respective birthplaces, can be either sweet or dry as well.

Dessert Wines

Unlike fortified wine, dessert wine is always sweet and doesn't have added alcohol. Dessert wine-makers use various processes to achieve sweetness levels. For instance, a late-harvest wine is full of natural sugar because the grapes have been left on the vine well into the harvest period. Some dessert wine is purposely subjected to the mold, botrytis cinerea, which shrivels up the grapes creating honey and dried fruit flavors. Icewine is made from frozen grapes, which when pressed, concentrate the sugar content resulting in a sweet dessert wine.

Types of Dessert Wines

Hungarian tokaji, French Sauternes and Vouvray and German beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese are all made with grapes affected by botrytis cinerea. Icewine is typically made in colder climate regions, like Canada, New York’s Niagara Falls and Germany. Sweet champagne -- labeled demi-sec or doux depending on sugar levels -- hails from France. Moscato d’Asti is a sweet dessert wine made in Italy. Winemakers create its sweet, luscious flavors by stopping the fermentation process early via chill filtration.