Manzanilla SherryThere are various wines and wine regions that are popular with people in the wine trade, but unpopular with the wine buying public. The cognoscenti love Alsace and Austria and proclaim Gewurztraminer and Riesling – yet the wines sit and gather dust. Apart from the stuff which flies off the shelf at Christmas time, sherry fits into this category.
But, sherry is an explosive wine. It can literally blow you away and once you have a taste for sherry, it will linger with you and bewitch. It is immediate and beguiling, it is both fiery and smooth – so why isn’t it more popular?
There are a few reasons for this – high alcohol content is one, although a Manzanilla sherry will, believe it or not, often have less alcohol than many an Aussie table wine. Fashion is another – sherry was very popular in the 70s and may still be suffering a reaction to that (see also any other wine popular in the 70s.) Finally, many of the high productions wines are pretty uninspiring.

However, my theory is that it’s just misunderstood. Look at the way that it’s served.

Imagine your reaction if you were served a wine that had been opened a year ago and kept at a luke warm temperature in a dusty drinks cabinet. Would you drink a glass if your aunt Mabel lifted the lid on the drinks globe and un-stoppered a grimy old bottle of champagne (opened the Christmas before) and poured you a schooner? Yet this is often the way we are introduced to sherry.

The Sherry Institute of Spain, has been battling this and is actively working with the trade and consumers through its Ten Star Tapas campaign to ensure that people treat Sherry like they would a wine - which means, white wine glasses, well chilled, in good measures, and always with food. There have been some very good results; perhaps it’s time for a schooner amnesty.

I can, however, understand why sherry is so misunderstood; it’s misunderstood for the very reasons that make it so fascinating. Sherry can be as thick as engine oil and sweet as molasses or it can be bone dry, and white as snow and every shade in between. Manzanilla is one of the finest aperitifs in the world and Pedro Ximénez one of the finest dessert wines.

I recently attended an Anada (aged) Sherry Tasting at Le Pont de la Tour and it inspired me, along with the tasting notes, to write a little about sherry. For some more meaningful information, have a look out for The Big Book of Sherry Wines, now the definitive text.

Sherry Country
The wines come from Andalucia in the South of Spain; the region of Sherry vineyards is shaped like a triangle. At each apex is one of the three Sherry towns: Sanlúcar de Barrimeda; El Puerto de Santa Maria with the inland apex being the town of Jerez. The Moors called it Seris. It’s not too hard to imagine why the wine they produce is now called sherry.

Another way in which sherry is different from other wines is that the most important part of the wine making process is where the wine is matured, and not where the grapes are grown. It is in the cellar (rather than the vineyard) that the wines take on their special distinctive character – wines matured in Sanlúcar but made from grapes grown near Jerez will take on the character of Sanlúcar. Those near the coast will take on a slightly fresher taste; those inland will be fuller.

Three grape varieties are used: Palomino; Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez. Moscatel and PX are used either to make sweet wines or to add sweetness to a sherry made from Palomino. Most of the wine comes from Palomino vines planted deep in chalk soil. Once the grape juice has gone through it’s fermentation, it is then classified and will go on to become a Fino or Oloroso. The fermented grape juice graded by experts and is decided to be delicate and light enough to be a Fino (these barrels are marked with a strike – palo) or if fuller and richer it will become an Oloroso and those barrels are marked with a circle – cortado.

At one end of the scale, Fino from Jerez – about 20km inland and therefore hotter – is richer and rounder. Sanlúcar is famous for another type of Fino – the aforementioned Manzanilla. It differs from other Finos because of Sanlúcar’s proximity to the coast and a special combination of salty air and humidity. The third hub, El Puerto de Santa Maria, produces sensational Fino too and fits somewhere between the two in body as it does in climate.

The difference can be largely attributed to flor, a type of natural yeast that grows on the surface of Fino wines, preventing oxidation while they are in barrel. The wines retain a sense of freshness together with distinctive aromas and flavours. Flor grows more evenly throughout the year in the cooler coastal towns, particularly Sanlúcar. Sometimes the flor dies away and the wine takes on a fuller, deeper taste – it is then reclassified as Amontillado.

Oloroso wines are made from sun-dried Palomino grapes. The grapes are fermented and then fortified and if no flor has formed then more brandy is added to bring the alcohol content up to 18 degrees or more. In the absence of the flor, the wine oxidises – this is deliberate, controlled and it’s effect is mitigated by the alcohol used to fortify the wine. These barrels are marked with a circle (Cortado)

Palo Cortado
This is the ‘mystery’ wine of Sherry. In essence, these are wines that begin life as Finos (first marked palo) and are then, after assessment by experts, re-routed and become distinguished members of the Oloroso family. They are then marked with a circle (cortado) and known as palo cortado. The body becomes full and rich like Oloroso but they are identified by their nose – clean and buttery – something of the Fino always remains.

Cream sherries
These are a blend of Pedro Xirnenez (PX) and Oloroso. PX sherries are made from PX grapes that have been sun-dried for 2-3 weeks. These wines are very dark, thick and sweet.

The solera system is an ageing and maturing process. Young wine is put into a barrel at the top of a heap of barrels. The barrels could contain 600litres but are only filled with 500L in order to leave a space for the flor to grow and the oxidation process to occur.
Sherry is drawn from the bottom barrels only. They are filled from the barrels above them and so on. Never more than a third of the wine is ever drawn off and so there will always be some incredibly old wine in the barrel.

Anada aging on the other hand is different, it is a static ageing process. The wines are chosen from a single vintage – normally a year when production was low. They are never blended with the wines of other years. 75% of the wine will evaporate between the day it is put in barrel and makes it’s way to the bottle. It isn’t therefore a commercial wine, rather they are flagship wines; more of a statement than anything else.

Here are my notes:

Valdespino 2000 Oloroso
Old gold, honey in colour; treacle tart and roasted hazelnuts on the nose. High level of acidity, mouth watering; quite sappy and fresh. Leaves aftertaste that tastes like fireworks smell – an iodine taste.
Very young, an introduction to the style – still excellent depth and balance.

Sandeman 1989
The grapes for this wine were crushed by foot. 1989 was a drought year and so the crop yield was very low. Exaclty the colour of Golden Syrup. Vanilla on the nose and sweetness of candy. Slightly salty, briney at first this opens into a marvellous savouriness. Softens almost at once in the mouth. Delicious smoked meat and almond on the finish.

Hidalgo Oloroso 1986
Brilliant amber colour. Seville orange on the nose, hint of raisin and honey, slightly nutty. Orange bitters – marmalade on the palate, great clean fresh acidity. Finish very fresh and great lingering aftertaste. Powerful and delicious. The sweetness, acidity and bitterness work wonderfully well together – try this at the end of a meal instead of a brandy.

Gonzalez Byas Palo Cortado 1979
This wine looks like molten treacle. On the nose the smell of clarified butter with a hint of cinnamon and spice. There is a flash of oak and immediately I was reminded of an old Meursault. There’s a little coffee and licorice on the palate and an impression of sweetness. Was it sweet or was it dry? Perfect balance.

Bodegas Tradicion Oloroso 1975
Each wine is deeper in colour than the last, this reminds me of an Islay malt, peaty and bright. The nose has a grapey, clean piercing note – prunes, dates and figs. Salty at first, although as the wine warms this vanishes and reveals a sweet or seemingly sweet note.

Williams and Humbert Dry Oloroso 1965
Bottled in 2001 the wine is a little ‘turbid’ cloudy from protein breakdown, this dulls the lustre, but doesn’t affect the quality of the wine.
The colour of brewed tea. A little truffle on the nose, butterscotch, vanilla and log fire. Very nutty and dry, with a note like grappa. Lean and dry. An amazingly sparky wine given it’s age. Leaves the mouth puckered.

Williams and Humbert Palo Cortado 1955
This is rich and dark, cognac coloured. The nose shows a note of sweetness and a distinct lactic note. Again log fire and clarified butter. Round, sweet and fat on the palate. Much closer to Oloroso than amontillado. Lingering aftertaste of burnt/ toasted almonds.
Excellent. Five out of five.

To purchase your copy of The Big Book of Sherry Wines please call 0207 2087263

COPOUT Book by Nick Breeze

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