I recently read the 1846 short novel The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. In it, the protagonist Fortunato was so obsessed with finally tasting a cask of Amontillado, that he let his murderer lead him down into a vault and bury him alive. In a way, I was able to feel sorry for him; he was left to die, without being able to have a sip of his desired Amontillado.
Loved by wine professionals and hedonists and unknown by many more, Amontillado is a style of dry, fortified wine made in Sherry and Montilla-Moriles. Its origin is generally linked to the fact that around the 18th century, animals transported Fino wine from Montilla to Sherry. During this journey, the wines would be exposed to high temperatures, changing their profile along the way and once they arrived to Sherry, the Fino would have a “Montilla taste”, thus the word and style of Amontillado was born.
Nowadays, Amontillado is made through different methods of production and aging. When it comes to aging, Andalucía holds a special position in the world of wine for creating the solera aging system. Solera is a dynamic method for aging wines that produces some of the most unique and special wines in the world.
The solera system is built using several different rows of old casks stacked on top of each other, called criaderas. This type of aging system is said to be dynamic because the wine moves from the top to the bottom row of casks. The process begins when young wine is added to the casks located at the top of the storage system. After some time, generally around one year, this wine will be “sprayed” into the casks of the next row below, in an action called rocío. This process will be repeated throughout the years until the wine reaches the row on the ground, which is named solera. After it has aged in the solera the wine will be taken out and bottled, in a process known as saca.
The solera system can shape the profile of two different main aging styles of wines, produced in both Sherry and Montilla-Moriles. The first being biological aging where a layer of yeast that forms on the surface called flor protects the wine from oxidation, which traditionally produces Finos and Manzanillas. The other is called oxidative aging, where the wine is not protected by this layer and therefore oxidizes. A typical example of a wine of this style is Oloroso. Amontillado is shaped by both styles of aging and is hence the perfect wine to explain them.
While Sherry and Montilla-Moriles use the solera system to age their wines, both regions produce wines with different personalities. These differences are mainly based on the different grape varieties used and the climate in both regions (to discover more about them read part 1 of this series).
At the beginning of the wine fermentation process, yeasts have the perfect living conditions. The high levels of sugar and nutrients in the must will allow the yeast to reproduce and work to transform sugar into alcohol. Towards the end of the fermentation, this perfect environment begins to be polluted by the high levels of alcohol and lacks sugar and nutrients. For the majority of wines, fermentation will stop because the yeast dies. The dead yeast, called lees, can be used during the aging of the wine to provide further complexity and volume.
Nevertheless, for the wines aged in the solera system, i.e. those from Sherry or Montilla-Moriles, the work of the yeast is not over once fermentation has finished. At this point, strong strains of yeast can keep living, and even thrive. These are generally strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae like capensis, montuliensis and beticus. However, their job will not be to ferment, but rather to transform the characteristics of the wine. This is where the process we call biological aging begins and the yeasts form a protective layer on top. These yeasts will feed on the alcohol (instead of sugar) and glycerol, a by-product of fermentation that gives viscosity, fuller texture and slight sweet taste to wine. This means that, the longer the wine spends aging with these yeasts, the less glycerin they will have and the drier and thinner they will become.
By law, in order to classify a wine as Fino, Amontillado or Manzanilla, the alcohol content in the young wine needs to be 15%. One of the differentiating factors between the wines from Sherry and Montilla-Moriles is that in the latter the percentage of alcohol is generally reached naturally. While wines from Montilla-Moriles may be fortified in rare cases, Sherry requires fortification for reaching those alcohol percentages. This is mainly due to the Pedro Ximénez capacity of producing high levels of sugar with the help of the warm weather conditions of the region.
With high levels of alcohol and glycerol available to feed from, yeasts are only missing two important components: oxygen and humidity. But, nature is wise and self-sufficient; through different processes the yeast will develop an oily exterior that will allow them to float to the surface where the level of oxygen is higher. The yeast will reproduce and create a film that will cover the wine, called flor. This is the reason why the casks containing wine for biological aging will never be filled entirely: in order to leave a gap for the flor to be in contact with oxygen. The whole dynamic process of the solera system will allow the oxygenation of the wine throughout the aging process. Flor will act like an oxygen sponge, and the film on top of the wine will protect the wine from the oxygen and as a consequence, from oxidation.
Humidity is an important ingredient for the flor. As a matter of fact, is a factor that will influence the character of biologically aged wines from Montilla-Moriles. This region is drier than Sherry, mainly due to its distance from the ocean. The low humidity levels will contribute in the development of a thinner flor. As a result, the wines aged under flor from Montilla-Moriles are known to be fuller and a bit more structured than the ones from Sherry.
If you think about it, under the right conditions, we could make wines aged under flor anywhere in the world. The tricky part about the flor is not to create it but to keep it for a long time. When it comes to time, Sherry and Montilla-Moriles win all the medals.
Amontillado is a wine that gave up at the middle of the race, but at the end surpassed the other contestants shortly before crossing the finish line. Just like Fino, the aging of an Amontillado starts as a wine destined to undergo biological aging. After some years of aging under flor (a minimum of five years are required by the DOP Montilla-Moriles), the thin layer of yeast breaks. The protection against oxygen disappears and the wine begins to oxidize. At this point, the wine needs to have 16% of alcohol, which can either be reached through the evaporation of water and concentration of alcohol during the aging process, or with the addition of alcohol. The wine is then put into a new solera system, where it needs to spend at least three more years in contact with oxygen, gaining its distinct amber color and nutty aromas.
For the majority of wines, oxidation is a fault and a prolonged exposure of the wine with oxygen is definitely avoided. Oxygen can allow the development of bacteria that could spoil the wine; wines become flat, with cooked and uninteresting flavors.
For fortified wines, the story is different. Since they have high levels of alcohol, they are more stable and bacteria have a hard time developing. With a controlled aging process, oxygen can become a partner for transforming the style of a wine. The most evident changes can be perceived in the color, flavors and aromas.
For red wines, one of the most famous styles of oxidative fortified wines is Tawny Port. These wines began with a deep, purple color that, with the influence of the oxygen, evolved into more pale brown shades. Different phenolic compounds that are suspended in the wine oxidize and precipitate as the wine is exposed to oxygen over time.
White wines usually begin their lives with a bright, pale yellow color that will evolve towards more golden or amber shades. For example, Amontillado started with the color similar to Fino and once it gets exposed to oxygen the color begins to get darker. In contrast, Fino is a fortified wine that didn’t age in contact with oxygen thanks to the protection from the flor, and is a wine style known for having a bright and pale yellow color even after six years of aging in the solera system.
Flavors and aromas also change. In the case of fortified wines oxygen helps fresh fruit aromas to evolve into more caramelized notes. A good example for this would be Oloroso, generally related to sweeter aromas of candied fruit like orange and hazelnut.
One of the key elements for identifying biological aged or oxidative fortified wines from Montilla-Moriles and Sherry is the glycerol content. We’ve mentioned that flor feeds from glycerol and as a result, wines that have been biologically aged have a thinner texture and less volume. This is the case for Fino and Amontillado. In contrast, wines that have not developed a flor have maintained their original glycerol levels. When compared, styles like Oloroso will tend to have a fuller volume and a slight sweetness in taste.
Like Fino, Amontillado will initially develop a flor, which will decrease the glycerol levels over time. Unlike Fino, though, Amontillado will eventually have been exposed to oxygen, stopping the glycerol reduction process. Now, even though the glycerol levels are nowhere near those of Oloroso anymore, they do concentrate during the second aging process, when water evaporates from inside the cask over time.
Time is one of the most important factors for the personality of Amontillado. During the biological aging, the yeast produces acetaldehydes, a compound that gives aromas of apples to the wine. This type of aging is also known to give bread aromas to the wine. The ratio of time aged under biological and oxidative aging is important. The longer it spends in contact with the oxygen, the more it will develop nuttier and sweeter aromas. It becomes more difficult to identify the dough aromas, which come from the yeast, and the oxidative character pushes itself to the foreground. As it develops, its aromas start to close in on those of Oloroso and it can be tricky to differentiate them simply by smell, without tasting them.
Amontillado is the perfect balance of complexity from both types of aging! For me, that is why it is the ultimate winner among the fortified wines from Andalucía!