Sherry. For little old ladies with blue rinses?

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 19th Jul 2018

Sherry. For little old ladies with blue rinses?

Sherry was once much more popular than today. Everybody has heard of it, but few drink it and even fewer buy it. For many, Sherry’s image is that of a sweet, fortified tipple, enjoyed mid-morning or mid-afternoon out of small cups, by little old ladies with blue hair rinses. Is this true? Should it be?

Xeres or Jerez, anglicized to Sherry, is a wine made from white grapes in the province of Cadiz in Andalusia in Spain. The wine generally comes from the Sherry triangle formed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. There are three important soil types: albariza soils are white having a high chalk content, barros soils are brown being mainly clay and arenas soils are reddish with a high sand content. The albariza soils are the most important and are largely planted to the Palomino (Palomino Fino) grape. They produce lower yields of higher quality grapes than the other soil types. There are several different wine styles and I will briefly discuss them later. In broad terms the wines fall into two categories: those that have been aged under a flor yeast and those that have not. The former are called Finos and Amontillados and the latter Olorosos (Spanish for fragrant).

Let us begin with grape varieties. Firstly, they are all white. Today there are basically three grapes though there were many more in the past. Most important for the Fino and Amontillado styles is the Palomino or Palomino Fino. This is the most delicate grape which is used for the production of flor matured wines. Then we have Moscatel (Muscat d Álexandrie) and Pedro Ximenez. Wines from these grapes are not matured under flor and are destined for Oloroso styles.

Winemaking in Jerez begins as it does for most grapes and most regions; regular alcoholic fermentation usually carried out in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. After fermentation to dryness, those wines made from the highest quality Palomino grapes, the most delicate wines, are fortified to around 15% abv (alcohol by volume) and placed into barrels on ullage (not filled to the top). Fortified refers to the addition of brandy spirit to a base wine, in the case of Sherry, only to increase the alcohol content. The wine ages under the flor, so-called biological aging. The flor protects the wine from oxygen though not fully and a certain amount of oxidation does take place. Wines not intended to be aged under flor; lesser Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are fermented to dryness and then fortified to about 17.5% abv and undergo oxidative aging. They have no flor to partially protect them from oxidation and they darken in color.

Let’s delve a bit into wine styles:

Fino: The most delicate and lightest wines grown under flor are Finos. They are very pale, have a nutty character from the flor and are dry. When Finos are aged in Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic coast, they are called Manzanillas. Manzanillas are, if anything, even lighter than other Finos and aficionados claim they can detect a hint of saltiness from aging at the coast.

Amontillado: Typically a Fino that is allowed to age further, particularly as the flor diminishes, retains its nutty character and darkens somewhat developing some Oloroso nuances. These are called Amontillados.

Oloroso: Olorosos do not grow a flor. They oxidize and become much darker. They are the strongest Sherries being fortified to 18% - 20% abv. Often they are sweetened somewhat and are then called Cream Sherries, the preferred style of the little old ladies so I’m told!

Moscatel and Pedro Jimenez usually vary from sweet to very sweet. The best can be complex and very rich and more than capable of standing their ground against the great dessert wines of the world!

Then we have Palo Cortado: Palo Cortado is almost an accidental wine. High quality delicate musts, intended for Finos, develop flor but poorly. Or the flor begins to die prematurely. What results is a delicate, high quality wine with just a hint of nuttiness, tending to combine the lightness of a Fino with some of the more solid characteristics of an Oloroso. Alternately, some bodegas bottle as Palo Cortado, Oloroso wines that do not darken and become heavy Olorosos but maintain a degree of lightness both in color and body. Very few bottles of Palo Cortado are made. Today, winemakers understand their musts better than ever and have sufficient knowledge to render the production of Palo Cortado less “accidental.”

As far as drinking is concerned, Sherry, given that it is made from just three grape varieties, is extremely versatile. It is a wonderful experience to have a meal pairing each course only with Sherry. Fino pairs well with soup and with a plate of anchovies, is sublime. Have the Fino or Amontillado styles with fish or lighter meats such as chicken. Sip Amontillado with Jamon Iberico, one of Spain’s world class hams. A fine Palo Cortado will pair effortlessly with most meats that have been cooked with flair. And, of course, sweet Moscatel or Pedro Jiminez are a great foil for rich desserts. Remember though to drink in moderation as all Sherry is fortified and the heavier Oloroso styles can be up to 20% abv!

The wines of Jerez are unique but there are other regions in the world where the flor yeast has been isolated and where credible Sherry styles are made. The USA, South Africa, Cyprus and Australia are among them. I have tasted an extremely good Sherry style wine made in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany, Italy. Arguably the greatest non-Sherry flor wine is Chateau Chalon from the Jura region of France. This wine, generically called Vin Jaune (yellow wine) is made from the white Savagnin grape. It is aged on ullage for more than six years and, unlike Sherry, is not fortified. Very expensive but a great treat!

So, it turns out the little old ladies are onto something! Sherry is not as fashionable as it once was. Yet, it is truly great and distinctive wine. It is very underpriced for the quality, the history and the tradition. I drink a fair amount of Sherry, mainly Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado. Aside from some memorable culinary experiences with Sherry, a wonderful occasion comes to mind; visiting the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art to see the Lipizzaner horses and enjoying a copita or two of fine Fino at about €1 per glass!

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