I will always remember the first time I tried a Sherry. It was a glass of Manzanilla Solear from Barbadillo served during one of the first classes of my Sommelier diploma. The sensation of saltiness, the level of volume, the dryness and the depth of flavors were completely new to me. At that moment I understood what umami taste really meant and since then Sherry became one of my favorite wines.
Jerez – Xérès – Sherry and Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda are the two Denominations of Origin used for Sherry wine and they are located in Cádiz, the southernmost and hottest region in Spain. In this region viticulture is possible thanks to a special type of chalky and porous soil called Albarizas, which acts like a sponge and its capable of retaining the small quantity of rain that falls in this region (an average of 600 mm per year) and the humidity carried by the west wind or viento del poniente. There are vineyards planted over clay and sandy soils but they represent a very small percentage.
Grapes grown in Albariza soils will produce more elegant wines and are generally used for the production of Fino’s and Manzanilla’s.
Sherry offers a very wide range of wine styles that go from bone dry to lusciously sweet dessert wines. The Regulatory Council of Sherry only permits the use of three grape varieties: Palomino Fino for dry Sherry’s, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez for sweet wines.
Sweet Sherry’s begin their process by exposing to the sun the whole clusters of Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez in a technique called soleo. This is done to reduce the water content inside the berries and concentrate the sugar and aromas of the grapes – similar to the method used in Santorini for the production of Vinsanto. After this, the grapes are pressed, fermented, fortified and exposed to an oxidative aging.
Conversely, dry Sherry wines begin with the pressing of the Palomino grapes. The first juice extracted from the press with very little pressure is called mosto flor and is used to make the best wine. After the wine bases are ready, the cellar master or capataz will determine what to do with each wine depending on their aroma and taste profiles. The finer ones will be destined to undergo a biological aging and become a Fino, Manzanilla or an Amontillado. The darker, richer and heavier ones will be destined to undergo oxidative aging. Here is where the magic of Sherry starts.
What are biological and oxidative aging?
After the capataz chooses the wines for biological aging they are fortified with a neutral spirit until the wine reaches 15% to 15,5% alcohol, an strength that will allow the development of flor, a very special yeast that forms on top of the wine and protects it from oxidation during the aging process.
Fino and Manzanilla are wines where the flor stayed alive during the whole aging process that go from 2 to 7 years. They are pale in color and are the driest, lighter and finer styles of biologically aged Sherry but differ from one another for the fact that Manzanilla can only be produced in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. This region has a milder and more humid climate, which translates in a saltier and tangier Sherry with a characteristic iodine note. If you see a bottle labled as Manzanilla Pasada this will mean that it is a Manzanilla aged for more than 7 years from which the veil of flor started to disappear and was exposed to oxygen for a small period of time developing a more intense yellow color as well a deeper and richer taste.
Amontillado wines begin as a Fino or a Manzanilla but as soon as the veil of flor starts to die they are refortified until they reach 17% of alcohol content and from here continue with an oxidative aging. Amontillado is my favorite style of Sherry and it can be recognized for having the saltiness, dryness and freshness of a Fino or a Manzanilla, with a richer and more complex taste.
The most mystical form of Sherry is Palo Cortado. It is a wine that was classified to undergo a biological aging but before entering the Solera system for natural or caused reasons takes a new path towards oxidative aging.
The base wines classified to experience an oxidative aging are fortified to 17% vol, causing the flor to die, preventing it from forming and exposing the wine to oxidation. The wines will undergo a long aging process in the Solera system.
Oloroso is the only dry Sherry produced solely with oxidative aging and it’s characterized for having a deep amber color with intense nutty flavors.
The Solera System…
The Solera system is a dynamic style of aging traditionally from the Sherry region and consists in the arrangement of different levels of wood vessels.
The level close to the ground is called Solera and it contains the oldest wines.
The row on top of the Solera is called the 1st criadera and from there each row will have the next number. The top level of the system will be the one containing the youngest wines.
When wine from the Solera vessels is taken out, the same quantity is replaced with wine from the 1st criadera and like this each criadera will be filled with the wine from the previous row. The top criadera will be filled with the youngest wine that was kept inside vessels called sobretabla.
It is important to mention that the vessels are never emptied completely. Only about 1/3 is taken out, so the wine in the Solera will always be a mixture of all the vintages that the winery has produced since using that system.
Most of the time Sherry doesn’t have a vintage on the label and if you find a bottle of vintage Sherry you can be sure to have a real treasure in your hands. In order for Sherry to be from a specific year it needs to come from one single cask that was never refilled with any other wine. This means that vintage Sherry doesn’t go through the Solera system and instead experiences a static aging process.
Sherry is the perfect balance between nature, men and time. It is actually a tool that allows us to go back to the past, sometimes even more than a century, and experience the capacity that Sherry has to surprise our taste buds with its characteristic explosion of flavors.
This is the first of two articles that I want to dedicate to this style of fortified wines. The next one will be related to understanding Sherry labels as well as some tasting notes of some vintage and very old Sherries that I recently had the chance to taste.