Somm Like It Hot

High-alcohol and fortified wines that even purists can get behind.

For all the ballyhoo that is spread about elevated alcohol levels in wine, you’d think  all sommeliers were against the stuff. Not true! Fortified wines—that is, wines that have had additional alcohol added to them—are both delicious and highly versatile. Here are three of the most prevalent styles, and fully somm-approved.


When the War of Spanish Succession broke out in the early 1700s, England was confronted with a terrible problem: They couldn’t get any more French wine to drink. Luckily, Portugal ended up on England’s side and they had just the thing to satisfy the British Empire’s ample thirst: sweet, boozy Port. Alcohol is a natural antiseptic, which comes in handy when you want to prevent spoilage when shipping wine long distances. Additionally, when the neutral grape distillate (known as aguardente) is added to fermenting wine, it stops the fermentation process, thereby preserving the residual sugars and making the resulting wine sweet.

There are multiple styles of Port but two main categories, the first being ruby (where the wine is sealed in glass bottles like traditional wine) and the second being tawny (a reference to the brownish color the wine takes on from being intentionally exposed to oxygen in barrels).

Try it: Fonseca Porto 1983, Chambers Street Wines, $80,


Sherry is truly one of the most underappreciated wine styles in the world and certainly the most affordable wine available for its level of complexity. Similar to Champagne, sherry relies heavily on the method of production in addition to the quality of the grapes that are harvested. But the magic of sherry isn’t bubbles, it’s a fractional blending system called solera. The process consists of a system of barrels where the oldest wine is removed from the last barrel to be bottled and sent to market. Then the wine from the barrels proceeding is transferred forward to fill the oldest barrel that has been emptied. Young wine is added to the first barrel to refill the system. But the barrels are never fully emptied so there’s a remnant of much older wine left behind along each step of the system, resulting in a finished product that is actually a mixture of many different vintages.

While admittedly very labor intensive, this procedure has enormous advantages. First, it ensures consistency of flavor and style since there’s an averaging effect from mixing the barrels. Secondly, as time progresses, the overall average age of the wine in the system will increase, meaning that a solera will incrementally increase in quality and depth of character. And lastly, this system of partially filled barrels allows for the development of flor, a film of yeast that grows on top of the aging wine and contributes to its flavor in addition to protecting the wine from oxidization and creates a sort of sliding scale of sherry styles. Fino and manzanilla sherries are lighter and unoxidized while amontillado and palo cortado start out under flor but are then intentionally oxidized, giving them a nutty aroma. And oloroso is dark, rich and fully oxidized. Cream sherries are blends often times based on oloroso, which are heavily sweetened and served as dessert wine.

Try it: Lustau Palo Cortado Peninsula Sherry, $32, Valley Cheese & Wine,


Vermouth is an aromatized wine, meaning that it is flavored with aromatic herbs and spices in addition to being fortified. As an overgeneralization, vermouth comes in two main categories: dry white (commonly referred to as French vermouth) and sweet red (known as Italian vermouth). Originally, vermouth was developed as a medicine where the plant essences dissolved therein were thought to have beneficial health effects. The addition of aromatic botanicals also has the added benefit of flavoring less-than-exceptional wines.

Luckily, we are currently enjoying an explosion of both understanding and passion for vermouth (and its cousins like quinquina, Barolo Chinato, byrrh and Americano) and along with that, the dramatically increased availability of a diverse assortment of aperitif wines on the market. No longer is vermouth strictly relegated as a misunderstood and mistreated mixer; bars across the country are finally putting them center stage. And whether you’re enjoying them in a craft cocktail or simply over quality rocks with a twist of citrus zest, now is a great time to drink vermouth.

Try it: Dolin Vermouth de Chambery Blanc, $13, Total Wine,