In a cavernous old warehouse, cool despite the midday sun, hulking wine casks stand in low piles, filmed with dust and seeming to hail from another place and time. This building and others nearby hold the longest-running uninterrupted collection of wine vintages still in cask anywhere in the world. And it’s not in France. Or anywhere in Europe, for that matter. It’s in Australia.
Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa has casks full of port-style fortified wine from every vintage dating back to 1878. The estate remains the only winery in the world to release a 100-year-old single-vintage wine every year. While Australian fortifieds, traditionally called sherry and port, have suffered a dramatic decline in popularity over the past 45 years or so, they are complex and intriguing wines that are still an important part of our drinking culture and continue to have outsize influence on everything from mixology to new-wave winemaking and whisky production. (Officially, there is no Australian sherry or port due to international trade regulations instated in 2009, which protect “sherry” as a distinctly Spanish wine and “port” as Portuguese. As such, Australian sherry-style fortified wine is technically “apera” and local port is referred to as “tawny”.)
Talia Baiocchi, the editor-in-chief of the American drinks magazine Punch and the author of “Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best Kept Secret” (2014), says interest in fortifieds is on the rise, largely driven by the cocktail revival. “Sherry began to boom [in America] in the early 2010s, much of that thanks to bartenders,” she says. “Many historic recipes that called for it became bartender darlings, so sherry found its way back onto wine lists because bartenders created a gateway for consumers. These days any well-regarded cocktail bar in America will have a sherry drink on the list.”
Australian cocktail bars have followed suit, many of them inspired by the current trend towards low- and no-alcohol drinking. At the Spanish-inspired rooftop bar Bomba in Melbourne’s CBD, sherry and other fortified wines get top billing, often mixed into fun, approachable cocktails. Compared with other wines, fortifieds are packed with flavour and texture, while also being lower in alcohol than spirits.
“Sherry is such a diverse category that it can be best friends with anything,” says Cara Devine, the bar manager at Bomba. “Fino and manzanilla love gin, while amontillado and oloroso are great with darker spirits like rum and whisky. That said, it can definitely hold its own. We use it for spritz-style drinks for ultimate low-alcohol refreshment.”
Sherry and port were once ubiquitous in Australia but unlike gin and whisky — old-school spirits booming in popularity among today’s drinkers — sherry has seen a multigenerational slump. “Fortified wines are not on the top of drinkers’ minds in Australia,” says Sharon Romeo, the director of the Fino restaurant group in South Australia. “Gen X might remember their grandparents drinking sherry and port, but Gen Zs and millennials are likely to know very little about them at all.” Romeo is among the hospitality professionals trying to revive appreciation for these excellent wines. “Since Fino first opened back in 2006, I have always championed sherry and Australian fortifieds, encouraging people to try them with our food.”
Modern Australian winemakers are also looking to fortified wines for inspiration to create new styles and flavours. Brodie Comer, of the up-and-coming Victorian wine producer Yūgen, has experimented extensively with ageing non-fortified white wines under flor — a traditional sherry technique in which a layer of yeast is allowed to develop on certain styles like manzanilla during maturation, which prevents oxidation and lends its own unique character to the wine.
“The first wine we made under flor was a gewürztraminer,” says Comer. “It ended up toning down some of the intense perfume that can be a bit of a turn-off with this variety and brought out softer florals and spice along with a beautiful savoury element.” The winemakers enjoyed it so much that Yūgen now makes wine under flor every vintage. “We’re currently using chardonnay, which without oak can be a pretty boring variety,” says Comer, “but the addition of flor gives us so much more character.”
Even in the world of whisky, fortified wines continue to play a decisive role, with the empty casks used to mature some of the world’s most popular styles of single malt. “Since the mid-19th century, wines like sherry and port have been fundamental to the flavour profile of Scottish whisky,” says the Australian whisky expert and author Luke McCarthy. He says it’s hard to overstate the influence Australia’s fortified wine industry has had on the development of Australian whisky. “Many of our most highly awarded whiskies have been matured in casks that previously held Aussie fortifieds,” he says. “The rich flavours these casks contribute have become a signature of Australia’s most recognisable whiskies, like Sullivans Cove, Lark and Starward.”
With everything from your favourite whisky to the cocktails at your local bar influenced and improved by fortifieds, these styles are well worth getting to know. As Baiocchi says: “If you’re a fan of flavour, I can’t see why you wouldn’t be a fan of fortified wines.”
Perhaps best of all, they can be had for an absolute steal. Most solid mid-tier fortified wines — both local and imported — run at about $20 to $30 for a 375ml bottle, and many high-end labels sell for well under $100. Our advice is to get stuck in before everyone else figures it out.
5 Brilliant Fortified Wines To Add To Your Cellar
Oloroso is a variety of fortified wine produced by oxidative ageing. The wine is exposed to air during maturation and becomes darker and stronger over time. This Australian version is a rich, amber-coloured wine with a depth of sweetness on the middle palate and a lingering dry finish. Serve at cellar temperature as an aperitif.
“Manzanilla” means “chamomile” in Spanish. This style of wine is aged under flor and named for its light, dry, floral and saline character. This bottle is wonderfully potent and briny with a deep, silky texture and plenty of sustained, tangy drive.
Palo cortado is a rare variety of sherry that is initially aged under flor to become a fino or amontillado but inexplicably loses its
veil of flor and begins ageing oxidatively as an oloroso. The result is a wine with some of the richness of oloroso and some of the crispness of amontillado. With an average age of 20 years, this wine is nutty with fine timber aromatics, cheese rind, balsamic
and oranges. Light, slightly creamy palate then a fresh, nippy finish.
This uniquely Australian style of dessert wine was developed in the Rutherglen region of Victoria when early winemakers found the muscat à petits grains rouge grape produced wonderfully complex wines in the area’s long, dry growing season. This classic example from Campbells has an incredibly rich aged characteristic, with great sugar that tastes of raisins and powerful acid through the finish.
A true piece of wine history and one of the few 100-year-old wines available anywhere in the world, this has great intensity harnessed by citrusy acid and notes of sun-dried stone fruit. It’s nutty and spicy with terrific length.
Apera cocktails to make at home
A perfect classic-style, lower-alcohol drink for Manhattan and martini lovers.
45ml manzanilla- or fino-style apera or sherry
45ml sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir over ice until chilled and diluted, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Bomba’s “Passion Project” Cocktail
Adapted from a recipe by Bomba’s senior bartender Ryan Casley, this refreshing drink incorporates passionfruit, Australian cane spirit and amontillado-style sherry.
40ml Australian white cane spirit or white rum
20ml passionfruit pulp
20ml amontillado-style apera or sherry
20ml lemon juice
10ml simple syrup
Add ingredients to a large highball glass, fill halfway with crushed ice, churn, top with more crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint.