After an experience at one of Barcelona’s best tapas bars (Irati, just off the Ramblas), I have a better perspective on Americans’ failure to embrace Sherry, Spain’s best-known wine. To accompany the gorgeous array of crustaceans in front of me, I ordered Manzanilla, a type of Fino Sherry particularly well suited to seafood. The barman looked at me quizzically, but hurried off and returned sometime later with a pot of tea. It turns out that manzanilla is the Spanish word for chamomile tea, so I know the confusion was not my pronunciation (although given my lack of facility with the language, that should have been the first explanation). If a Spaniard working in a tapas bar doesn’t think of Sherry to accompany food, why should an American consider it? Why? Because Sherry is a great match for food–and not just for tapas–as Michael Franz, my colleague here at WRO, will detail in a column here next month. For now, here’s an overview of the world’s most under appreciated and undervalued wine.
The Best Sherries Are Dry
Sherry is confusing and misunderstood. Most Americans think Sherry is sweet because of the predominance of Cream Sherries–which are sweet–on the market. In the United States, 60% of the Sherry consumed is sweet. In Britain, two-thirds is sweet. In truth, the best Sherry is dry, which probably explains why the vast majority (80%) of the Sherry consumed in Spain is dry. Some categories of dry Sherry, such as Amontillado or Oloroso, are rich and mouth coating, but they still contain no sugar.
Another common misconception is that Sherry is an oxidized wine because it’s aged in barrels that are only filled partially, allowing the wine to be exposed to oxygen. While the Amontillado and Oloroso styles of Sherry undergo oxidative aging, which helps explain their lovely nutty or caramel nuances, Fino Sherry ages under a layer of flor that protects it from oxygen.
Dry Styles of Sherry: Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso
The three major categories of dry Sherry, Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso, vary in taste from light and delicate (Fino) to rich and unctuous (Oloroso). All are made primarily from the Palomino grape grown on white chalky soil, known as albariza. All are fortified wines; that is, a small amount of pure alcohol is added to the wine after fermentation. The amount of fortification helps determine the style of Sherry. An explanation–below–of how Sherry is made, allows the consumer to understand the character of these three styles of dry Sherries.
Just as in Oporto where the cellarmasters must determine which wines are destined for Vintage or Tawny Port, their counterparts in the Sherry bodegas must decide immediately after fermentation–before fortification–which wines are destined to become Fino and which will become Oloroso. (Amontillados morph from Finos, but more about that later). Some of the newly made wine–deemed unsuitable for Sherry–goes immediately for vinegar production or for distillation. The name notwithstanding, Fino Sherries are not finer or better than Oloroso. The difference between the two is based on the character of the base wine, which in turn determines the amount of fortification and how they will be aged. The paler and lighter wines are destined for Fino while those with more power and body are more suitable for becoming Oloroso.
Flor is the Secret to Fino
Fino’s unique delicate character comes from how it is aged–in a partially-filled old barrel under a layer of yeast, known as flor. ‘Flor is the most important part of Sherry,’ according to César Saldana, Director General of the Consejo Regulador Jerez (the regulatory commission for Sherry) because it is responsible for the character of Fino and, to a lesser extent, Amontillado.
Flor is extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity. It grows only in the so-called ‘Sherry triangle’–an area on Spain’s southwest Atlantic coast near Gibraltar and bordered by the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria–and explains why true Sherry can come only from this region. In fact, if you bring wine made from Palomino grapes grown outside of the region into the Sherry triangle and age it, the resulting wine will taste like Sherry (legally it cannot be called Sherry because the grapes were not grown there). But if you take wine made from Palomino grapes grown in the Sherry triangle and mature it outside of the area, the wine will not be transformed into Sherry. Even within the Sherry triangle, the flor varies from village to village. That’s why Manzanilla, the type of Fino I ordered in Barcelona, can be made only in Sanlúcar because the flor there is different as a result of the cooler and more humid climate.
To see–or taste–for yourself the impact of location on the flor, you can try a simple comparison at home. Sample a trio of Fino Sherries that have been aged in each of the three towns of the Sherry triangle, but all made by Lustau, one of the region’s premier producers. These wines–Lustau’s Manzanilla ‘Papirusa’ from Sanlúcar, their ‘Puerto’ Fino from Puerto de Santa Maria, and their ‘Jarano’ Fino from Jerez–were all made from the same grape and by the same winemaking team. The only difference is where they were aged.
The flor consumes alcohol, glycerin, proteins and any residual sugar in the wine. Hence, Fino Sherry is the world’s driest wine because it contains zero sugars. Additionally, the lack of glycerin in the wine means that a Fino will always have a certain astringency or sharpness.
To encourage flor to grow, the wines destined to become Fino are fortified to 15% alcohol (which still leaves them less alcoholic than many California wines) because the species of yeast that comprises the flor–different from the yeast that ferments grape sugar to alcohol to make wine–needs that relatively low concentration of alcohol to stay alive. Aging under flor also keeps Fino Sherry fresh because the layer of flor acts as an impermeable membrane preventing oxygen from coming in contact with the wine and oxidizing it.
The Solera System
Practically all of the world’s great wines rest in barrels and are transferred from barrel to barrel (racked) infrequently. In contrast, Sherry ages in a solera system, in which the wine is moved from barrel to barrel frequently. The solera system–with its addition of younger wine–provides nutrients that keep the flor alive and flourishing. Additionally, mixing of younger and older wines results in a more complex final product.
In the solera system wine is drawn from the final (oldest) layer of barrels (confusingly called the solera from the Latin, solum, or floor, since that’s where it is located) for bottling. An equal amount of wine from the next oldest layer of barrels is added to the solera layer to replace the liquid which was just bottled. An equal amount of wine from the third oldest layer is moved into the second oldest layer, and so on. Wine from the current vintage replaces that wine removed from the youngest barrels. (Each layer of barrels is called a criadera, or nursery). The net effect is that barrels are never emptied entirely and since some solera were started over 100 years old and have been used continuously, a tiny amount of very old wine is mixed into the final blend.
Oloroso are made from the heavier and richer base wines that the winemaker fortifies to 17% alcohol, which kills the flor, preserving the glycerin in the wine. The wine is then barrel-aged in a solera system (as with all Sherry, new oak is never used) that allows for oxidative aging which delivers those rich caramel and nut-tinged flavors. Additionally, some barrels that start as Fino lose their flor. Since the cellarmaster tastes every barrel at least monthly, those barrels that have lost their flor are identified quickly, refortified to 17%, are moved to an Oloroso solera and, with further aging, will become the Oloroso style of dry Sherry. Oloroso Sherry is a richer, more full-bodied dry Sherry, and even young ones will have a lush roundness to them because they have lost none–or very little–of their glycerin to flor.
Over the years, as Finos continue to age under flor, the wine in some barrels loses delicacy and develops more richness. As the cellarmaster continues to taste every barrel to monitor its development, he identifies those barrels and moves them to an Amontillado solera to continue aging. This constant selection by the cellarmaster maintains the delicacy of Fino, while giving consumers another style–slightly heavier and richer–of dry Sherry. Although by regulation an Amontillado must spend a minimum of three years under flor, they typically spend seven to 15 years under flor, so even the very old ones, will have lost much of their glycerin and have an astringency that is, in my mind, a wonderful balance to their caramel or nutty richness. Think of an Amontillado Sherry as a cross between the lean and delicate Fino and the rich, round Oloroso.
A Fourth Style of Dry Sherry: Palo Cortado
The Palo Cortado category is the hardest to define. Asking a variety of producers during a recent trip to the area to explain Palo Cortado resulted in a multitude of definitions. Some said a Palo Cortado had the nose of an Amontillado and the body of an Oloroso. Others characterized it as the nose of an Oloroso and the body of an Amontillado. The most useful definition came from Javier Hidalgo, head of the eponymous bodega that produces a stellar line of Sherry. A Palo Cortado represented the ‘best barrels in the cellar.’ Originally, these barrels were reserved for the family. But after it became apparent that there would be an excess over what they could use, it was bottled and sold.
A Palo Cortado should have a unique aroma reminiscent of an Amontillado, according to César Saldana, but, unlike an Amontillado, it should never have astringency in the finish because of its high glycerin content.
Sweet Sherries can be made from naturally sweet grapes–such as Pedro Ximénez (PX as it is commonly known) or Moscatel–or can be a blend of Sherries made from sweet grapes with a dry Fino or Amontillado to give a Pale Cream Sherry or with Oloroso to give a Cream Sherry.
Very Old and Very Old Reserve Sherry
Because of the use of the solera system, which actually erases vintage-to-vintage variations, Sherry is rarely vintage dated. Some producers, such as Sandeman and Lustau, bottle single vintage Sherries, but they are in short supply. The Consejo Regulador Jerez has, however, introduced two new categories of Sherry to indicate their age. To qualify for very old Sherry (VS), the average age of the wine must be 20 years or more, and for very old reserve Sherry (VORS), 30 years or more. The designations, VS or VORS, do not replace Amontillado or Oloroso, which refer to a style, not an age, of Sherry. The VS or VORS Sherries are denser and more powerful as evaporation over time has concentrated the dry extract.
The challenge for the consumer is to unravel the styles of Sherry–dry, sweet, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and so forth. The silver lining is that the plethora of styles allows an almost infinite ability to select one for virtually any palate, food or setting. The labeling is imperfect because some Amontillado, for example, can have a touch of PX included in the blend, which lends a hint–or more–of sweetness. The best course is to find a producer whose Sherries you like and stick with them.
The challenge for producers of dry Sherry, according to Javier Hidalgo, whose light and delicate Manzanilla, La Gitana, one of the most marvelous Sherries on the market, is to change the pattern of Sherry consumption outside of Spain. In the export market, Sherry is usually sweet and consumed as an aperitif. In Spain, it is dry and always consumed with food. Except in Barcelona, perhaps, where at least some seem to think it is tea.
April 7, 2009