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Sherry, Withnail?

For the past several years, without fail, various trade magazines, in partnership with some think-tank or another, have boldly predicted the coming 12 months to be “The Year of Sherry”.  They point to Majestic Wine recording a 25% increase in sales, the bastardisation of the wine with pop in order to appeal to hen-dos and the opening of numerous trendy tapas restaurants in Shoreditch as sure fire evidence of this.  It never comes to pass.  But it definitely will next year.

Poor Sherry.  The fortified white wine of Andalucía, has had a torrid time of it for the past 30 years.  Ask most people with a passing interest in wine what they think of it and they’ll tell you it’s the cheap, sweet tipple of little old ladies, tramps and Uncle Monty from Withnail and I, best drunk from a glass thimble. Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Croft’s Original are largely responsible for this.

Perhaps this is in part due to the fact industry insiders, who pride themselves on liking things no one else does, simply can’t believe a wine of such high quality, offered at such extraordinary value can continue to be so underappreciated (cf. Riesling).

Source: DO Jerez y Manzanilla

They’ll point to its versatility as a food wine, its length, consistency, uniqueness and how it’s always released ready to drink.  Styles other than Fino and Manzanilla can also be left open for days if not weeks without losing their freshness and are therefore ideal for drinking a couple of glasses at a time.

The problem is, like so many of the best things in life, Sherry is, particularly in its driest expressions and even more so when biologically aged, an acquired taste.  In my experience, handing a glass of Fino as a pre-dinner heart-starter to a guest hoping for the usual Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio can be like offering a bowl of anchovies to a teenager weaned on Haribo Starmix.

Before I became a fully paid-up member of the wine-wanker fraternity, I never gave Sherry much thought.  Why drink something ostensibly so demanding when you can guzzle a lovely sweet fruited Shiraz from McLaren Vale?  Basically, to someone without any experience of Fino Sherry especially, it just doesn’t smell right.  The ageing of the wine under a film of yeast or flor (picture below) contributes to its characteristic aroma, in part due to high levels of the chemical compound acetaldehyde, which would be seen as a fault in most other styles of wine.

 

Perhaps this is in part due to the fact industry insiders, who pride themselves on liking things no one else does, simply can’t believe a wine of such high quality, offered at such extraordinary value can continue to be so underappreciated (cf. Riesling).

Sherry covered in a layer of flor. Source: DO Jerez y Manzanilla

They’ll point to its versatility as a food wine, its length, consistency, uniqueness and how it’s always released ready to drink.  Styles other than Fino and Manzanilla can also be left open for days if not weeks without losing their freshness and are therefore ideal for drinking a couple of glasses at a time.

The problem is, like so many of the best things in life, Sherry is, particularly in its driest expressions and even more so when biologically aged, an acquired taste.  In my experience, handing a glass of Fino as a pre-dinner heart-starter to a guest hoping for the usual Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio can be like offering a bowl of anchovies to a teenager weaned on Haribo Starmix.

Before I became a fully paid-up member of the wine-wanker fraternity, I never gave Sherry much thought.  Why drink something ostensibly so demanding when you can guzzle a lovely sweet fruited Shiraz from McLaren Vale?  Basically, to someone without any experience of Fino Sherry especially, it just doesn’t smell right.  The ageing of the wine under a film of yeast or flor (picture below) contributes to its characteristic aroma, in part due to high levels of the chemical compound acetaldehyde, which would be seen as a fault in most other styles of wine.

Studying Sherry under the tutelage of an obsessive, I became besotted with the drink and that is down not only to his infectious passion but also an understanding of how and why Sherry tastes the way it does.  Once we get past our initial distrust of it and are able to appreciate it for what it is, a world of affordable pleasure awaits!

It should be noted that the mere act of drinking Sherry makes you cleverer, cooler and suaver than everyone else.  Despite being Spanish it’s the quintessential choice of old-school British sophistication.  I’ve also never met a Sherry lover who wasn’t a thoroughly good egg.

There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in the Sherry region, from unfortified flor-aged whites, unfortified red wines, single vineyard bottlings and vintage expressions.

Over the next two weeks however, we’ll look at the traditional, dry and what I like to think of as true styles of Sherry, where they come from, how they’re made and what to eat them with.  But first, a bit of history…

A Potted History of Sherry

The town of Jerez in South West Spain is thought to have been founded by the wine-loving Phoenicians in around 1100 BC, then the Carthaginians had a pop at it and then the Romans.  These Romans, who loved a drink and had a habit of turning every corner of their empire into one big vineyard, set about making huge advancements in viticulture here.  By the time the Moors rocked up in 711 AD the winemaking culture of Jerez (by this point called Seris) was in full swing and the conquering Muslims did little to curtail the locals’ passion for boozing.  Then came the Christians who cranked production up still further and trade with France and England began towards the end of the C15th.  By this time, many of the wine merchants were Englishmen who in true Anglo-Saxon style introduced production rules and established quality standards.

The English and Spanish weren’t getting on very well throughout the C16th for obvious reasons – the former had begun establishing theme pubs and Indian restaurants in Cadiz.  Under orders from the court of Elizabeth I, English Privateers such as Drake raided Spanish ports, plundering huge quantities of wine from the region and it was this bounty that helped forge the initial popularity of Sherry in England.

Source: Do Jerez y Manzanilla

Despite continued setbacks, mostly on the back of subsequent Anglo-Spanish wars with a bit of Phylloxera thrown in for good measure, the industry continued to grow and by the mid-to-late C19th was booming.  In order to keep up with demand, products were cut with inferior plonk from outside the region.  This, allied to a price war and the proliferation of imitation New World “Sherry”, saw its reputation and demand in Victorian Britain and Holland drop dramatically.

Shortly before World War I the Sherry Shippers Association embarked on a marketing program which saw Sherry’s fortunes revived before the market collapsed again in the face of World War II.

An upturn in popularity in the UK, fuelled by styles such as Harvey’s Bristol Cream, was followed by yet another period of price-cutting initiated by the Rumasa group.  Rumasa had borrowed huge amounts of money from the banks to buy up swathes of bodegas in the 1960s in order to supply Harvey’s and they went bust in the 1980s sending the region into another downward spiral.

However, Sherry seems to have finally learnt its lesson.  Vineyard areas and stocks have been dramatically reduced as the market has acted to bring supply in line with demand.

Quality, not quantity, is now the watchword of winemakers and the introduction of very high end, limited production wines as well as clever marketing has helped improve the category’s reputation markedly.  Producers such a Tradicón and Equipo Navazos have bought up old Soleras and even single barrels from defunct bodegas in order to bring them to market and showcase their unique quality.  Products of such an extraordinarily high standard have earnt rave reviews from critics which has translated to an increase in demand from consumers.

The premium end of the market is now focused on authentic, dry expressions as the region recognises the floundering fortunes of sweeter styles of wine. Quality has never been higher and this, allied to the remarkable value they offer and clever management from the regulators may just see this category thrive once more.  In short, there has never been a better time to drink Sherry.

Next time we’ll get nerdy as we take a look at where Sherry comes from and how it’s made.

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Styles of Dry Sherry

Now, we’ve got the (potentially dry) production process out of the way we can look at the main styles of true, definitely dry Sherry sometimes referred to as Vinos Generosos.  It’s worth noting that most wines labelled Amontillado and Oloroso are sweetened and although some of these are of excellent quality (e.g. William & Humbert’s “As You Like It”), they’re often not worth bothering with.  If you want to avoid these, look out for labelling terms such as “medium” and “cream”.

NB: all these Sherries should be served in a proper white wine glass to maximise their aromatic qualities and not in the Lady Dowager’s cut glass doll’s house stemware.

 

Fino ­– This is bone dry, pale and light bodied, typically with aromas of almonds, bread dough and wild herbs.  It is a biologically aged wine and takes much of its distinctive flavour and nature from being nurtured under a layer of yeast know as flor for at least two years but in some cases as many as ten or eleven if the scales are run often and the conditions in the bodega allow.  Once the base wine is made it is fortified to between 14.5% abv to 15.5% abv and the barrels are filled but never completely.  At this alcohol level and with plenty of oxygen available to it through the head space in the barrel, the flor can thrive and impart its unique flavours into the wine at the same time as protecting it from oxygen and therefore preserving its freshness.

The conditions in the bodega are crucial here – the flor likes things relatively cool and humid which promotes its growth, enhancing the classic characteristics of the wine.  In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a coastal town where maritime influence makes things cooler and wetter than in Jerez, wines that would otherwise be labelled as Fino bear the protected name Manzanilla – a tribute to their unique delicacy and freshness

An En Rama (literally “on the vine”, figuratively “raw”) Fino undergoes a far less intensive clarification than a typical Fino.  The result is a more complex, intense experience as along with sediment, flavour is also stripped away during the clarification process.  The downside is the wine is less stable because microbes that would otherwise be stripped away during clarification remain.  They are therefore best drunk as soon as possible after release.  A seasonal wine.

Serving Temperature: Chilled (6°C – 8°C).  Not at room temperature from a bottle that’s been open since Easter.  Freshness is vital.

Food Pairing Suggestions: All kinds of tapas but especially seafood.  Grilled prawns in garlic are good or anything salty.  A bowl of salted almonds and a glass of Fino on a summer’s evening is about as good as life gets for me.

 

Amontillado – This starts life as Fino but becomes an Amontillado when the flor dies and the air gets to it (again the barrels are only 4/5 full).  This can be achieved by fortifying the wine with grape brandy to 16% or so to kill it or waiting for it to die off naturally in time.  Without the protection of the flor the wine begins to age oxidatively which results in a darker colour, more hazelnutty, dried citrus aromas and fuller body.  They therefore combine the characteristics of biological and oxidative ageing and can be incredibly complex wines.

Serving Temperature: Lightly chilled (12°C – 14°C)

Food Pairing Suggestions: Roast poultry, tuna, mushroom risotto, hard cheese and anything with asparagus or artichokes.

 

Oloroso – Translating as “fragrant” these are made from the coarser pressings described last week.  They are fortified to around 18% and put in barrel to age.  This means they are entirely oxidatively aged without any influence from the flor which is killed by the concentration of alcohol.  The exposure to air results in a darker, nuttier wine which through time and evaporation can become very full bodied, intense and rich with the appearance of sweetness whilst still being dry.  They often have flavours more akin to walnut than hazelnut or almond and often bitter orange.

Serving Temperature: Lightly chilled (12°C – 14°C)

Food Pairing Suggestions: Meat stews, chorizo, pig and ox cheeks, game, wild mushrooms and hard cheese.

 

Palo Cortado – It is said only 100,000 bottles of this style are produced in a single year (compared to around 60,000,000 bottles of Sherry in total).  Often marketed as a mystery of nature it is said one can’t deliberately make a Palo Cortado, rather it “occurs” by chance when a wine that is pre-selected to become a Fino or Amontillado, for whatever reason, doesn’t develop a flor and the wine therefore ages oxidatively from the start like an Oloroso.  I’m slightly sceptical of this as commercial reality demands a degree of certainty and the knowledge and experience of many modern winemakers is surely sufficient to create a Palo Cortado by design.  The winemaker will make a note of the barrels that develop this way and mark them out for life as a Palo Cortado.

The end result is a wine with the mouthfeel of an Oloroso and the elegant aromatic qualities of an Amontillado.  They are often amongst the highest quality Sherries and are highly sort after.

Serving Temperature: Lightly chilled (12°C – 14°C)

Food Pairing Suggestions: Nuts, hard cheeses, cured meat, roasted red meat, ox cheek dishes and game pie.

 

A Note on VOS/VORS

You may have noticed these labelling terms adorning the bottles on the shelves of your local wine merchant.  They were introduced by the region’s Consejo Regulador in 2000 to guarantee a certain average age and quality as previous age statements such a Muy Viejo weren’t governed by law and were potentially misleading or inconsistent between different producers.  VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum) indicates an average age of 20 years and VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum) 30 years.  Less than 1% of all Sherry produced qualifies for the right to bear these terms and they are reliably wines of the very highest quality.

 

Some Sherries to Try

If you’re new to Sherry (and if you’ve managed to get this far, well done), Gonzalez Byass’ Tio Pepe is a great place to start to experience an affordable, well-made Fino.  It’s, fresh, vital and, as an added bonus, available nationwide in pretty much every supermarket for around £10.  You’ll often see a half opened bottle on the shelf of your local boozer alongside similarly ruined bottles of Vermouth and Campari.  Avoid these like the plague/Prosecco.  They need to be freshly opened and chilled.

Gonzalez Byass is one the largest and certainly amongst the best producers in the region.  Their “Palmas” range is an excellent insight into high quality, traditional Fino and drinking through it, from the youngest Una Palma to the Cuatro Palmas Amontillado (by this point it has passed from a Fino into its Amontillado state) is a great way to see the effect of the Solera ageing process in action with the wines gaining weight and complexity as time passes.

Gonzalez Byass also produce and excellent 12 year old Palo Cortado (Leonor) a great introductory Amontillado (Viña AB) and an 8 year old Oloroso (Alfonso).  All are priced at less than £15 a bottle, are widely available and offer fantastic drinking.

If you’re feeling fruity and want to experience something really special, the wines of Bodegas Tradición and Equipo Navazos will never disappoint – if you can find them.  These are invariably low volume wines and highly sort after so expect to pay a premium.  As with all Sherries however they still offer tremendous value for the quality on offer.

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Sherry Production Explained

Following on from last week’s introduction, we’re now going to have a look at how the drink is made.

The production of Sherry is fairly technical so what follows is a very simplified version of events, if you can believe it.  If you happen to be writing your thesis on the matter and are after more detail, Julian Jeff’s brilliant “Sherry”, in print since 1961 and now in its 5th edition, is well worth a look, as is the Consejo Regulador’s website (www.sherry.wine) 

The Palomino Fino grapes are harvested in early September.  Once they’ve been removed from their stems and pressed to separate the liquid from the skins, the resulting juice is fermented quickly at a relatively warm, controlled temperature in stainless steel tanks to produce a neutral, dry base wine with around 11% – 12% alcohol.

Once the fermentation of the must has finished and the nascent wine has been clarified it is fortified with a very, very alcoholic grape brandy mixed with an equal proportion of base wine so as not to “shock” it.  The level of alcohol the wine is fortified to depends on the wine that is being made.  If the winemaker is looking to make a wine that ages under a layer of yeast (flor) such as a Fino, the base wine is fortified to around 15% alcohol as this is the alcoholic strength at which the flor is happiest.  If he or she is after an Oloroso, a wholly oxidative style, the wine is fortified to at least 17% which prevents the flor from growing and therefore the oxygen is free to attack the wine with gay abandon from the start.

We will look at the different styles of bottled Sherry next week but it’s worth mentioning here that they are made from two different styles of base wine that come from the same grape and are made in a similar way.  Sherries such as Fino and Amontillado are made from fino base wine (note the small “f” to differentiate it from the bottled version) which in turn is made from grapes from older vines grown on the best Albariza soils.  They are pressed gently, if at all, to yield a pure, elegant, free-run juice, low in impurities.  The first press, if you like.  Olorosos, in contrast, are made from oloroso base wine produced from the fruit of younger vines which grow on heavier, clay based soils and they will be pressed with more force to produce a coarser product with a higher level of impurities, body and astringency.  This isn’t to say Olorosos are therefore inherently inferior to Finos and Amontillados, just different.  A winemaker certainly wouldn’t be able to make a great Fino from the oloroso juice but a true Oloroso couldn’t be made from the gentle pressings intended for Finos.

Whatever style is being produced, the finished base wine is now ready for ageing and blending…

 

The Solera System

 

Now, if you’re a cork dork, this is where it gets interesting.  One of the keys to the production of Sherry is the Solera system of maturation and blending.  Sherry wasn’t always made this way.  It basically came about in order to ensure consistency.  This system isn’t unique to Sherry and not all the wines are made this way but the vast majority are and it’s worth examining before looking at the different styles of bottled Sherries next week.

Wine Boar Ltd ®

 

For the sake of clarity examine the two-dimensional pyramid of Sherry casks above, all filled to around 5/6 capacity.  The reason for leaving this ullage in barrel will become but in a nutshell it allows the layer of flor to “breathe” and thrive on the styles of Sherry that require it and for sufficient oxygenation to occur when producing wines that are aged oxidatively.

Real Soleras don’t look quite like this and the different barrels may even be kept in separate bodegas.  They usually comprise of 3 or 4 layers (known as criaderas) but more complex Soleras can have as many as 15.  Wine from the bottom criadera, confusingly also referred to as a solera (note the small ‘s’), is where the wine for bottling is drawn from.  The casks are never completely emptied and once the bottling has taken place the 1st criadera is replenished with wine from the 2nd criadera which in turn is refilled with the next level up and so on.  The criadera at the top of the system is refreshed with new wine.  This process is known as “running the scales” and its frequency depends on what wine the producer is trying to make with Finos requiring the most regular refreshment in order to maintain the flor.

This system is integral to Sherry production because it enables consistency with all those wines being blended together and keeps the wines fresh.  Without the introduction of younger wines, Amontillados and Olorosos would become too concentrated, astringent and ultimately unbalanced.  When making a Fino Sherry the process enables the flor to survive by replenishing the nutrients it needs allowing it continue imparting its flavours and protecting the wine from oxygenation which is not desired in this style of Sherry.

Claro?  Good.  As mentioned, next time we’ll be getting into the different styles of dry Sherry, what foods to pair with them and some recommendations to try but in the meantime feel free to get in touch with any comments or questions you might have.  Emails can be sent to the address in the bio below.

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Wine & War

On this Remembrance Sunday I thought it would be apt to recommend the fantastic “Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and France’s Greatest” by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup.

It’s an account of how five prominent wine families in France managed to maintain their dignity, their livelihood and their stocks of wine during the Nazi occupation, harbouring Jews and establishing laboratories to aid the resistance.  A cracking yarn.

You can buy it here: