Sherry. A Unique Taste of Spain
Sherry: A Unique Taste of Spain
Be it fino, amontillado or oloroso, Sherry is a complex, esoteric fortified wine with the versatility to go from apéritif to table wine to after-dinner sipper.
One of the attractions of the world's great fortified wines is that each is inextricably tied to a storied, exotic locale: Port to Portugal's winding Douro River Valley, Madeira to a rocky island off the coast of Morocco, Marsala to sun-drenched Sicily, and Sherry to a trio of frontier towns in southwest Spain.
To really know these wines is to visit their origins—historic, hot, often hilly. But only the most fortunate travelers will actually spend quality time in these off-the-beaten-path regions, tasting the fabled wines with an array of local dishes. What is more likely is that the wines will have to come to you.
In the case of Sherry, a truly unique but underappreciated wine that has been produced in a range of styles since the 1600s, this shouldn't be a problem. From the very beginning Sherry has enjoyed some success as a product for export, originally to England, and later to all parts of the world. Sherry production today is pushing up toward 10 million cases, and a tour through the enormous cathedral-like cellars of venerable producers like Pedro Domecq, González Byass or Williams & Humbert will reveal thousands upon thousands of neutral American oak barrels housing fino, amontillado, oloroso and Pedro Ximénez Sherries.
Except for the very oldest and rarest of cask-select bottlings, Sherry is not one of those cult wines in short supply. In fact, it's just the opposite. In the quaint Andalucian towns where Sherry is produced—Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria—a crusade is underway to convince the world that Sherry isn't just a sweet sipper for old English ladies but instead is a multifaceted, intricate wine with enough versatility to be served before, during or after a meal. And that's not some marketing notion; it's true.
Admittedly, Sherry is an acquired taste. The finos (and the manzanillas that hail from Sanlúcar) can come across as being razor-sharp, with a salty edge to boot. To the uninitiated, the amontillados and olorosos can also taste salty, as well as slightly bitter and introverted; and the cream and other sweet Sherries are just that, sweet. But with an open mind and a curious palate you will find that these are wines of nuance and subtlety—and best of all, there is no other wine in the world that is made like Sherry or tastes like Sherry.
Sherry made simple
For starters, almost all Sherries are made from the Palomino Fino grape, a fairly neutral, large-crop white grape that thrives in the albariza soil, a chalky, white, absorbent composite common to the vineyards nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Guadalete and Guadalquivir rivers. Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, the other two grapes of the region, are used for sweet Sherries.
Jerez (pronounced Heh-RETH), population 200,000 and slightly inland from the coast, is the main Sherry-producing town. It is home to the largest producers: González Byass, Williams & Humbert, Domecq, Sandeman, Sanchez Romate, Emilio Lustau, Valdespino and others. These and other firms also have aging cellars in El Puerto de Santa Maria (headquarters for Osborne) and in Sanlúcar, where manzanilla specialists such as Barbadillo and Hidalgo are based. Together the three cities form the so-called Sherry Triangle.
The Palomino grapes are harvested fairly early in the fall, usually the first week of September. The fruit is pressed quickly at vinification facilities on the outskirts of Jerez or in the vineyards themselves, and then the must is put into giant steel tanks for fermentation. It's after fermentation that the Sherry-making process really begins.
Step one for the Sherry bodegas is to identify the batches of wine that will become finos and the ones that will become olorosos. Wines deemed the cleanest and most aromatic are destined to be finos (or manzanillas, if they are to mature in a cellar in Sanlúcar). Chunkier, fuller-bodied wines will be the olorosos.
Wines classified as finos are then fortified with a wine-based distillate to about 15.5 percent alcohol by volume and added to 600-liter casks already containing wine from a previous year; at this point something that takes place nowhere else in the world occurs. Due to the native yeasts, warm temperatures and humidity of the region, the wine almost immediately develops a natural cover of live yeast called a velo de flor, or flowered veil. It is this flor, which is thickest in the spring and fall and nearly dies off during the summer and winter, that protects the fino wine from oxidation during the five or more years it spends aging in casks. A fino whose flor cover dies is immediately classified as an amontillado; it will be additionally fortified to 17.5 percent abv and then continue aging with exposure to the air, which over time oxidizes and enrichens the wine.
Olorosos are Sherries that are never even given a chance to develop flor because they are fortified to 18 percent alcohol after fermentation, a level too high to allow the yeast cells to survive. Olorosos do all their aging in direct contact with the air, yet the finished product does not taste tired or overly oxidized. A fine dry oloroso is usually as lively as an amontillado, even though the latter spent the early part of its life protected from aeration. A sweet oloroso, commonly called a cream Sherry, or an oloroso dulce, is a mixture of Palomino-based oloroso and a small percentage of sweet Pedro Ximénez.
Then there's the unique method by which Sherry is aged. During the second half of the 19th century Sherry producers unanimously adopted a system of aging called the solera y criadera system, which is designed to yield a consistent product from year to year. It's quite an ingenious setup.
A solera is comprised of a number of groups of barrels called criaderas (clase is used instead of criadera in Sanlúcar). Each barrel in the criadera is filled five-sixths full, to allow for the flor to prosper or the wine to oxidize, depending on the type—fino or oloroso. The word criadera means "nursery" in Spanish, and it's in the criaderas, which traditionally were stacked one on top of the other but now are often kept in different parts of the bodega, that the wines grow and mature. The bottom row itself is, like the aging system, called the solera, a name derived from suelo, Spanish for "floor."
There are usually three or four criaderas in a Sherry solera, each containing wine of a different age. The first criadera contains the youngest wine, while the second criadera contains the next youngest wine, and so forth and so forth until you get to the solera row containing the oldest wine. When it's time to bottle a finished Sherry, wine is removed from the solera row, with wine from the oldest criadera replacing what was taken. In turn, wines are taken from each previous criadera to refill the next-oldest criadera. Finally, fresh wine is used to top off the first criadera. In general, finos and manzanillas spend about five years in the solera system, but sometimes more. Basic amontillados and olorosos spend 10 or more years in criaderas, but it is typical for much older stocks to be blended in with younger wines to create high-end reserve wines. These wines rarely indicate an age on the bottle, but they can contain elements that are well over 100 years of age.
Individuality and style
So what makes one bodega's amontillado different from that of another? And why is manzanilla different from a fino from Jerez or El Puerto? Unlike the differences among Napa Cabernets or grand cru Burgundies, it's not about the quality of the fruit or the toast of the barrels, for everyone uses basic Palomino and inert barrels to make Sherry. What it boils down to is microclimates within the three Sherry towns—even microclimates in different parts of the same bodega, which is why the solera row is always positioned closest to the ground—and blending and aging.
Jerez is the furthest inland of the three towns, and consequently it is hotter than El Puerto or Sanlúcar, with summer temperatures regularly rising well above 100°F. As a result, wines from Jerez, especially the delicate finos, are fuller and nuttier than wines aged closer to the ocean.
In Sanlúcar, the humidity carried on the wings of strong marine breezes fosters vigorous growth of a distinct flor, and the resultant wines are paler, finer and taste more of green apples than do those matured elsewhere. "Here in Sanlúcar, the flor is very active; it doesn't die like it can in Jerez," says Bertrand Nouël, export director for Barbadillo. And it's about 10°F cooler on an average summer day in Sanlúcar than in Jerez.
Beyond that it is predominantly a question of blending—when the cellarmaster chooses to move wines from criadera to criadera, and how much he transfers at a time—and aging. Older Sherries certainly have more character than younger ones, and a house style or the character of a reserve bottling will be determined by the percentages of older stocks versus younger wines.
From a collector's or connoisseur's perspective, it's the older wines that are the most intriguing, complex and idiosyncratic. An older oloroso, amontillado or palo cortado can be packed with years' worth of individuality, to say nothing about the smooth nutty palate and sublime lingering finish. As you would imagine, such Sherries are many times more expensive than the basic bottlings.
For a taste of Sherry at its ultimate, any of the rare and aged Sherries can be a treat fit for a king—or at least for a captain in Sir Francis Drake's fleet, who was alleged to have stolen 3,000 butts of Sherry from the port in Cádiz in 1587, thus hooking the British on this most unique wine. For everyone else, a simple chilled fino or manzanilla with appetizers instead of yet another glass of white wine could be a vinous epiphany.