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Published: Tuesday, 5/23/2006

Fortified wines have a long history

The nation's founding fathers had access to most of the luxuries of their time, but one comfort was a rarity even for them: fine wine.

Most of the wine they drank in the colonies was "fortified," which meant it had an alcohol content of around 18 to 20 percent, higher than that of table wines. The reason: Alcohol tends to preserve fortified wines, even through a stormy ocean crossing that would spoil typical table wines.

An optimist like Thomas Jefferson kept trying without success to import the fine European wines he enjoyed during his diplomatic service in Europe, but for the most part he imported fortified wines from his French and Italian contacts.

In winemaking, high alcohol is the consequence of high sugar in the must, or grape juice, at the time of harvest. What this meant to George Washington and his peers was that they rarely, if ever, enjoyed fine table wines - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese, riesling - but they made do with porto, madeira, sherry, muscatel, malaga, and marsala.

Fortified wines are made by the addition of some liquor at some point between crushing and fermentation - at times, for instance, with a brandy distilled from the same grape as the wine to be fortified.

Not everyone would agree that domestic ports (without the "o") and sherries are very much like the originals: porto from Portugal and sherries from the south of Spain. The American imitations are rather sweet and heavy-textured, and resemble the original in being highly alcoholic.

Even more telling is the difference in the types or styles embraced by the European producers. For example, many American wine customers know that a very popular sherry is Harveys Bristol Cream from a British market. The wine does not contain cream, nor has it any particular relationship with Bristol, an English port. Harveys is a wine importer and proprietor.

Madeira is an island - or, to be exact, a group of islands - in the Atlantic Ocean 475 miles west of the coast of Morocco, discovered by Portuguese seamen. Today Madeira remains an important Portuguese state that produces attractive vacations and a variety of leading fortified wines.

A medium dry called Rainwater ($13), is produced by Leacock's, a major island winery, and is proposed as a dinner wine, as are two varietals from Blandy's ($21). A medium rich style with a structured management of the sugar, Cossart Gordon Colheita bual is the only vintage-dated ($32) madeira I'm aware of.

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