By Charles B. Rubinstein
“If penicillin cures illnesses,
Sherry resuscitates the dead.”
–Sir Alexander Fleming
“I don’t get any respect,” was the oft-repeated line that the late Rodney Dangerfield used in his comedy routine. The same words could well apply to sherry.
Although sherry offers enough variety to have a place at the table on almost any occasion when wine is served, sherry remains largely undiscovered by American consumers. It could be an image problem. Most of the sherry consumed in the United States is cream sherry, which is sweet. That might explain why sherry has gotten a reputation as a wine Grandma sips before bedtime.
For the most part, sherry still remains a secret pleasure enjoyed primarily by connoisseurs, but that shouldn’t be the case. Perhaps the lack of popularity in our country can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about the wine by American consumers. That condition can be easily rectified. The basic facts are not difficult to understand.
Four factors contribute to the unique character of the wine: soil, climate, grapes and the wine-making process. Within the triangle formed by the Spanish towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Jerez and Puerto de Santa Maria, the distinctly chalky soil retains moisture beneficial to the vines. There is an abundance of sun in the summer and the necessary rain in the winter and spring. Two principal grapes are used: Palomino and Pedro Ximénez. More than 90 percent of the vineyards are planted in Palomino.
The process whereby sherry is made is distinct. At harvest time the grapes are picked and may be placed in heaps to dry in the sun. Drying time depends on the weather, grape variety and type of sherry to be made. The fresh grape juice from the pressing is put into oak butts, or casks, and transported to the bodegas, or wineries. The heart of the bodegas is the solera, the system of butts from which sherry is made. Each solera consists of 130-gallon butts stacked in rows on each other.
When the wine completes its fermentation, it is tentatively classified by sight and smell as a potential fino or oloroso or undetermined. The wine is then lightly fortified to about 15.5 percent alcohol with grape brandy to fill about 80 percent of the butt’s capacity.
Confirmation of the classification comes within 18 to 24 months after the harvest. The wine destined to become a fino develops a flor, which consists of a thick scum of yeast cells on the surface that will thicken more each year and float indefinitely. A wine that is destined to be an amontillado forms a thinner flor. It dies after a year or two and falls to the bottom of the cask. Wine destined to become an oloroso does not develop a flor. Future oloroso are immediately fortified to 18 percent alcohol. Why flor develops in the casks of some wines and not in others remains a mystery.
After about two to three years, the new wine is added to the highest row in the solera. Each classification is kept separate. A few times a year, wine for shipping is taken from the bottom row of the solera. Not more than a third is ever drawn off in a single year. The wine is replenished by siphoning wine from the next row above, and so on progressively up the solera. By this method the newer wines are skillfully blended into the older wines. The date of the solera’s founding might appear on the sherry label, but remember that the wine is a blend of many, many vintages.
Mature sherries are of a few basic types. Fino is a pale golden wine which has a delicate almond-like aroma. Manzanilla is the palest and driest fino. It’s made in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda where the salt air contributes to the aroma and taste. Amontillado is an amber colored wine that has a hazelnut aroma. Oloroso is a dark colored, full-bodied wine with an aroma of walnuts. Palo Cortado has little or no flor, the nose of amontillado and the flavor and color of oloroso. Cream sherries are rich olorosos that have been sweetened by the addition of Pedro Ximénez grapes. Fresh finos and manzanillas make splendid aperitifs. Amontillado add to the enjoyment of soups and cheeses. Olorosos are fine with rich meats and desserts, and cream sherries are enjoyable after a meal.
If you have questions or comments about wine write to me at The Two River Times™ or email me at email@example.com.
Pick of the Bunch
NV Lustau Light Manzanilla Papirusa Solera Reserva, Andalucia ($16)
NV Alvear Asuncion Oloroso Sherry, Montilla-Morales ($20)
NV Lustau Palo Cortado Península Sherry, Andalucia ($20)
NV Alvear Fino Sherry, Montilla-Morales ($13)
NV Osborne Fino Quinta, Andalucia ($13)
NV Bodegas el Maestro Sierra Fino Sherry, Andalucia ($20-375ml)