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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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6 Nations Tasting Notes

It’s that time of year again.  The time when rugby fans from all over the world unite to support whoever’s playing England. The BBC is allowed to air an actual sport (one that doesn’t boil down to who’s the best at exercising). Welsh fans do their best impression of England football supporters by losing all sense of reality.  Journalists coo over an ever improving Scotland team’s ability to pass the ball from one side of the pitch to the other (bravely).  Everyone unites in describing the French as being bursting with elan and unpredictability despite having for some years been international rugby’s most predictably one-dimensional and boring team.

It’s all great fun.  No competition in world sport consistently attracts as many fans to games with stadia sold out tens of times over.  Even Sky Sports News takes short breaks from analysing the move of Norwich City midfielder Tyrone Leroy to Stoke FC on loan to report on whatever inflammatory cricketing analogy Eddie Jones has made about Scotland’s front row.

Alcohol and rugby go together very well indeed.  This is partly because you have to be half in the bag to cope with the prospect of your team losing to Wales which will result in a year’s worth of grief from the office’s secret Welshman (who’s lived in London his whole life and supports Man Utd).  It’s also because unlike football fans, when rugby fans get shedded it’s bawdy fun and no one gets beaten up (unless you find yourself queuing for a cash point outside Jumping Jacks in Cardiff at 3am in an England jersey and chinos).  Anyway, in the spirit of the symbiotic relationship between alcohol and egg-chasing I have devised a definitive which-rugby-team-would-be-what-sort-of-wine-list-thing:

  • Scotland – Chianti Classico

For years Chianti was bland, unsuccessful and a bit sour.  In recent years, the region’s researchers such as Dave Renniso have been able to identify the clones of Sangiovese which produce the best quality wine (Stuart Hogg 2AB and Finn Russell 167), which means that today the great majority of Chianti is almost unrecognisable from the pale, sour plonk of old.  Using New Zealand oak has also been a great help. Personally I think people are getting a bit carried away but I’ll be shot for saying so.

  • Wales – Red Burgundy

In its best incarnations, Red Burgundy is hard to beat.  Archetypically it has flair, elegance, power and finesse and a history which can’t be argued with.  It is capable of producing experiences in wine that cannot be replicated anywhere else.  However, its source material is capricious and the end product is often a catastrophic disappointment, probabaly because the vigneron has refused to adopt modern techniques and training methods.  Vintage variation is a massive problem.  Still, Burgundy fans swear their wine is the greatest in the world and discount their last dozen experiences with the wine in the never ending expectation their next bottle will encapsulate those peerless memories of misty yesteryear.

  • Ireland – Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon

Having recently emerged from relative obscurity Margaret River is now consistently producing some of the best Bordeaux Blends in the world and has the trophies to back this up.  Tend to be powerfully structured with great precision, satisfying attack, elegance and an excellent all round kicking game.  Superb winemaking with the best personnel and modern techniques has led to great reliability.  Possible question marks over ability to travel and are best experienced at the source.  The best have a capacity to age gracefully and go on to present alongside John Inverdale on BBC Grandstand (Paul O’Connell 1979)

  • England – Claret

Many like to knock it as overrated and overpriced but Red Bordeaux is Europe’s greatest wine.  Rightly judged sternly by critics given its reputation and resources and doesn’t always hit the mark.  Now returning to its classic style after the Robert Parker (Stuart Lancaster) effect saw it stripped of its identity.  Chateaux are often accused of being stuffy and arrogant compared to winemakers from other regions who are just jealous.  The best incarnations are powerful and balanced with great depth but this vintage has been challenged by frosts that reduced crop by up to 80%.  Well structured with a great finish but can take time to open up (see last 20 minutes against Australia).  Foreign expertise and modern training methods have helped improve quality.

  • France – Real Natural Wine (not biodynamic/organic)

Well known for being unpredictable but 9 times out of 10 it’s a stinky mess that that tastes like flat homemade cider.  Lots of people get excited about it but only romantics take it seriously at the moment.

  • Italy – Prosecco

Put it away and have a beer instead. Preferably Georgian.

The official wine of England opensides