They are historical and world famous, they are sweet, strong and they are Portuguese! I’m talking the 4 fortified wines of Portugal

Portugal is arguably the country with the most types of fortified wine recognized worldwide: Porto and Madeira! But in fact we produce in total four types of fortified wine, in addition to Porto and  Madeira there is Moscatel  (from Setúbal and Douro), and Carcavelos.

Each one with its history, geography, varieties and somehow, specificities in the way of production.

In this article, I will have a brief approach to each one recommending, of course, that you go visit the different wineries and get to know more deeply these unique wines of Portugal.

But what exactly are fortified wines?

By definition, fortified wines are those whose fermentation (transformation of grape sugar into alcohol) is interrupted by the addition of a wine brandy with an alcohol grade much higher than wine.

Thus, the “base” wine keeps the aromas of its varieties and some sweetness while increasing its alcohol, which usually is around 20%.

These are wines that can be taken at any time, but that given their alcoholic degree and their sweetness are associated with dessert wines. Cheeses (Azeitão or Stilton cheese, for example), chocolate, dried fruit, foie gras or egg desserts are some of the excellent accompaniments to our fortified wines.

However, more and more of these wines are being used creatively, such as cocktails. I would say that our most famous fortified wine cocktail is undoubtedly the Port Tonic where white Port wine is used, with tonic water, ice, lemon and mint leaves. A delight!

vinho do porto
Rabelo Boat in Douro ©Entre Vinhas


First curiosity about Port wine: this is not produced in the city of Porto! The origin of this iconic wine is in the Douro region – the oldest demarcated and regulated wine region in the world – in the interior of Portugal.

The wine owes its name to the city where, in the 19th century (and to this day) was stored in barrels and casks before being sold or exported to other Ports, other countries.

But beyond the origin of the wine, there is yet another incoherence in the name… It is that none of the famous Port Wine Cellars is located in the city of Porto, but in the nearby Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River. So, if you think about it, this wine should really be called “Douro fortified wine stored in Gaia”, but that would not sound so good, would it?

Due to the close commercial and political relationship between Portugal and England, for many centuries, many of the existing Port wine brands were founded by English families and this country is undoubtedly still a major consumer of Port (along with France, Holland and Portugal)

But moving on to the practical part: how do we make Port wine (and most fortified wines)?

First, it is important to note that the most produced and consumed Port wine – because it is also the oldest – is red wine although more recently we have begun to produce excellent white Port wines as well.

The best-known red varieties include Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Amarela and Tinto Cão, but in total there are about thirty varieties for Port wine.

The harvest takes place at the same time as the table wines, therefore, around September, when the grapes arrive at the winery.

Traditionally whole grapes are placed in large granite mills and trodden by the human foot. Of course, nowadays there is already technology that replaces the human workforce that can do almost the same work. Both methods are valid for producing a quality Port.

The tread – whether human or mechanical – consists of crushing the grapes, which, because they are placed whole in the mill, are quite solid, and need to start releasing the juice and pulp from the skin.

After a few hours the fermentation begins. The heat and alcohol produced begins to release the color, tannins and aromas of the skin.

It is when about half of the natural sugar of grape juice has been transformed into alcohol by fermentation, that the winemaker decides to add a very clean and young wine brandy – to “fortify” the wine.

Port wine can be aged in different ways, and for different periods, the best known being Ruby and Tawny.

Briefly (because Port wine is a whole world and there are still 3 more fortified to tell you about) I explain both types:

Ruby – age for a relatively short time in large wood casks. These are wines of deep red color and young with intense fruity flavors such as wild fruit jam. Here is the famous Vintage Port wine that represents the best production of a single exceptional year. This wine stays in barrel for only about two years and then ages in bottle.

Tawny – rich and complex, age for longer periods in oak casks. That’s the case of the incomparable Tawny Port wines  with  10,  20,  30 and 40  years – average ages of the wines that make up each lot – whose aromas of dried fruits, spices and oak wood intensify the longer they age.


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vinho do porto
Port Wine Cellars ©Entre Vinhas
vinho do porto
Vasques de Carvalho ©Entre Vinhas


The history of Madeira wine begins soon with the discovery of the island in 1419. By that time began the plantation of wheat, sugar cane and of course, vines, in this land. Historical records indicate that from that moment until starting to export Madeira wine to other stops, it was incredibly fast.

The fame and prestige of this wine can still be attested by numerous episodes, among which, the celebration of the independence of the United States of America in 1776, which was celebrated with a toast of Madeira Wine!

Currently the most used varieties are: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal, Malvasia (Malmsey), Terrantez and Tinta Negra. However, there are other recommended and authorized varieties.

Although the varieties used are mostly white and planted in a very distinct terroir, the wine making and fortification process of Madeira is similar to Port. The biggest difference is that, in Madeira, the choice of the moment of interruption of fermentation depends on the degree of sweetness intended for the wine: Dry, medium-dry, medium-rich and rich.

After fortification of the wine according to the degree of sweetness, the wines move on to the aging phase. And here there are two possible processes: Estufagem (“greenhouse”) or Canteiro (“flower bed”)

The Estufagem happens when the wine is placed in stainless steel VAT, heated by a serpentine system where hot water circulates for about 3 months. After this period, it rests for another 3 more months at room temperature. Only then will be placed in wooden casks until it is bottled.

The process of Estufagem or heating the wine began in fact, following the long boat trade trips to and from the tropics. It was found that by going to Americas and back to Portugal, passing through hot and humid environments, the wines substantially improved their quality. But as it was impractical to purposely take the wines to travel long months and distances to make it better, the Estufagem system was created to simulate the same aging process, more quickly and cheaply. In fact, three-month-old Estufagem wine appears to be 4 and 5 years old.

The name Canteiro comes from the fact that the large casks – made from Satin wood from Brazil in many cases – are placed on top of wooden beams, called “flower beds”. In this case, the wine is generally aged on the higher floors of warehouses where temperatures are higher, for a minimum period of 2 years and can only be commercialized after 3 years, at least. Of course, by the method and the waiting time, these wines are more expensive than the Estufagem ones.

Madeira wine usually has an elegant amber or dark golden color. In the mouth it is fruity and somehow acidic depending on the grape varieties it is made of, but always very well balanced with notes of caramel and toasted dried fruits.

The Dry, medium-dry Madeira are great for appetizers. The cheeses marry perfectly with the medium-rich Madeiras and the Rich ones are ideal for desserts, chocolates and to go along with the expresso.


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vinho madeira
Blandy’s ©Entre Vinhas
vinho madeira
Barbeito Wines ©Entre Vinhas


Moscatel alone is another fortified wine by the method I have explained before, but produced from the Moscatel grape variety.

In Portugal, Moscatel is produced in two regions: in Setúbal – Moscatel de Alexandria or Moscatel roxo varieties – and in Douro, namely in Favaios, where the Moscatel Petit Grains variety is used.

However, when it comes to the recognition and fame of this wine, it is notorious that Moscatel de Setúbal stands out from the Douro one, where Port Wine reigns.

It was in 1907 that the Demarcated Region of Moscatel de Setúbal was born, and the production and trade of this generous wine was regulated right after. This happened by the hand of the last Portuguese King D. Manuel II.

This sweet topaz nectar has also been enjoyed by several courts in Europe. Which is the case of King Richard II of England who already in 1381 mentioned the importation of Moscatel de Setúbal or Louis XIV who, in the 17th century, demanded it at his feasts of Versailles. Highly consumed in Brazil as well.

In Setúbal, something like Madeira wines happened. Just like the Estufagem wines, “Moscatel Torna Viagem” was a particular Moscatel wine that about a century ago would be carried by boat to Brazil in search of new buyers. What was left unsold returned to Portugal, crossing the Equator line again, meanwhile the hot climate and wild seas bettered the wine to a much superior quality, than its original condition upon departure. But unlike in Madeira here in Setúbal such wines are no longer produced – not even by artificial methods – and the few that still exist, can only be purchased at auction and at extremely high prices!

Moscatel can be served as an aperitif, and it is recommended to be consumed at a temperature of 10º C. As a dessert wine, it is an excellent accompaniment for black chocolate or any egg-based dessert such as the famous Azeitão cake.

vinho moscatel

Moscatel can be served as an aperitif, and it is recommended to be consumed at a temperature of 10º C. As a dessert wine, it is an excellent accompaniment for black chocolate or any egg-based dessert such as the famous Azeitão cake.

This wine reveals good balance of acidity, floral aromas, citrus and flavor of orange peel, honey, apricot and butter, acquiring dry fruit aroma dependent on the time they age in the wood. Moscatel Roxo is slightly pink in color and its aromas, like fresh roses, are much richer and more complex.

Young Moscatel are mostly sold when they are between two and five years old but a small proportion of Setúbal wines are sold with ten or even twenty years of wood ageing.

As for the Moscatel do Douro (which is also used to intensify the aroma of white Ports) it originates particularly interesting and complex wines.

The minimum time in oak is 18 months, but most stay a little longer, while some Douro Moscatéis are aged for 10 or 20 years, being occasionally bottled as “Colheita”, with the respective year indicated in the bottle.


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vinho moscatel
José Maria da Fonseca ©Entre Vinhas
vinho moscatel
Quinta da Bacalhôa ©Entre Vinhas


And I finally arrived at the fourth fortified wine in Portugal, which is my favorite.

It is not only a matter of taste, although it is really the one I like the most, but also because it is the least known, the most resilient and persistent, the least spoken and the one that is produced in the smallest demarcated wine region of the country – one of the smallest in the world.

In wine terms it is produced in the Carcavelos sub-region, inserted in the Region of Lisbon, but in geographical terms it is made within Oeiras city.

In addition to all this, it is a historical wine with records in the region since the 15th century.

But like Port, Carcavelos wine was also protected and driven by Marquis of Pombal who already in the 19th century produced its own wine on the farmstead in Oeiras.

However, this small region has been disappearing due to rapid urban advances and intense real estate pressure, which is seen as a better investment than planting vineyards in the middle of the city.

Fortunately, in 1997 everything changed when the Municipality of Oeiras, in partnership with the National Agronomic Station – installed in Quinta do Marquês de Pombal – decided to recover and preserve this heritage, continuing the production of this historic wine!

vinho carcavelos

Currently, in this region there are 62 acres planted in total where the Arinto, Galego Dourado and Ratinho are the three most important varieties.

Fortified with Lourinhã’s famous brandy, this honey-colored sweet wine is considered by countless winemakers as one of the best Portuguese appetizers and a great digestive.

After the fermentation and fortification process, the wine ages in Portuguese and French oak barrels for an average period of 10 years, and after bottling, fulfills an additional step of 6 months in bottle before entering the market.

Like other fortified wines, Carcavelos should also be served slightly cold (+/-10º), as an aperitif or as an starter (for younger blends) but is generally used as dessert wine.


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vinho de carcavelos
Villa Oeiras ©Entre Vinhas