What exactly makes a wine fortified, and can I substitute ordinary red or white wine if I don’t have any on hand?
Fortified wines such as port and sherry start off like any other wine, but are then boosted with additional spirits (usually brandy) to achieve an 18 to 20 percent alcohol level. Traditionally, these wines were fortified to avoid spoilage during long ship voyages. Stylewise, they run the gamut; some are very sweet while others are more dry and savory. Moreover, due to the different manufacturing styles, their flavor profiles can vary dramatically. Sherry, which tasters described as “nutty” and “musky,” is traditionally made with white wine, while port, with heavy notes of dried fruit, is developed with red.
We tried adapting recipes for sherry-cream sauce with leftover Chardonnay and a port-cherry reduction with leftover Merlot. In each application, the regular wine’s sharper alcohol flavor stood out immediately; adding a sweetener seemed like the next step. We experimented with granulated sugar, light brown sugar, and honey, adding each to different batches of the recipes in ¼-teaspoon increments. Tasters picked up on honey’s distinctive taste immediately, but deemed both granulated and brown sugars acceptable, noting that the latter’s caramel/molasses flavors best resembled that of the aged fortified wines. Because every bottle of wine is different (even within a certain varietal), a universal substitution formula is nearly impossible. In a pinch, however, the test kitchen’s suggestion is to substitute port with red wine and sherry with white, adding light brown sugar in increments of ¼ teaspoon until the boozy wine aftertaste is masked by the sweetness of the added sugar.