Biological Sherry – A Gift of Nature (Part I)

Sherry is amongst the most versatile and unique wine styles on the planet and has been seriously undervalued. Sherries are truly natural wines, requiring no human touch to enhance their goodness. Thus, one finds many famous brands but no celebrated winemaker from the Sherry region. This is the only wine style that nature can claim as its true child! In my recent travels to the Sherry Triangle, I became a convert.

ORIGINS AND PRESENT

The city of Cadiz in southern Spain was first settled in 1110 BC by the Phoenicians. But, it was the Romans who brought the boon of viticulture to the region. Even the Muslim rulers, the Moors, who ruled between the 8th and the 15th centuries, didn’t arrest its production, despite being religiously separated from alcohol. But it was with the Christians gaining command in the 15th century that Sherry rose to its true glory. Julian Jeffs, a proficient commentator and writer on the subject, claims that Sherry was the first wine to enter North America in the wake of Christopher Columbus.

POPULARITY SOARS

Its popularity, however, has resembled a seesaw of rise and fall. Its monumental surge in the late 1970s and 80s brought ample attention. But with this attention, it felt visible dents on its quality and image. This led to a consortium of Sherry producers to rally at the EU. The order was to limit the production region and successfully establish a legally protected wine-style in the 90s. Today, Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda form the ‘Sherry Triangle’ in Andalusia. Easily accessible from Seville, Cordoba or Granada, it makes a great a day-trip option

MAKING IN THE VINEYARDS

In winespeak it’s said, let your vines suffer and they’ll yield you the best produce. Vines here suffer way more than any of their other European counterparts. If it weren’t for the ocean winds, Sherry wouldn’t be in production today. The average seasonal temperatures spike up to 40°C in Jerez, rendering viticulture impossible. And the Levante, the strong, dusty, dry, piercingly hot wind of the western Mediterranean Sea and the southern coast of Spain that blows towards the east adds to the problem. At times its wrath is so fierce that viticulturists fear even venturing out into the vineyards. It’s the cool and porous, white chalky Albariza soil, the hardy Palomino grape, and the breezy, soothing, westerly, Poinente winds that counter the heat, and bring some respite.

Harvests begin in early-September, and the grapes are pressed almost immediately to retain freshness and acidity. Usually this is done in different stages; the first pressing produces the best juice, and the last is suited only to being distilled into local brandy. As the fermentation finishes, wines are left to age on lees, and are tasted periodically; at this point, winemakers segregate them for their destined styles. The lighter, elegant ones become Fino, marked with a single slash on the barrels; heavier ones are set aside for Oloroso, bearing two slashes. Finos are fine, dry, yeasty, crisp, and elegant wines that are aged biologically. And, Olorosos are nutty, candied, complex, oaky wines that are matured in the presence of oxygen. All sherries conform to these two basic styles initially, and evolve thereafter.

NATURE TAKES CONTROL

From the first ferment, base wines are blended and shifted to 600-litre American oak butts. They’re filled only up to the 500-litre mark, leaving a chamber of air on top. They are fortified to 15% alcoholic strength with a neutral grape spirit. This creates ambient conditions for a naturally occurring yeast, called flor, to develop, inviting it to reside above the liquids. The flor sits like a blanket between the oxygen chamber and the wine beneath. It protects it from oxidation and adding its own special characteristics. The wine continues its process of ageing and blending in the pyramid-styled solera. Barrels are arranged in a certain hierarchical way, following a simple system of younger wines progressively topping up older wines as they are taken out.

Each top up is called a criadera or nursery – the Spanish expression for raising a child. Each year a proportion of wine from the final stage of the criaderas is extracted and bottled, and the same amount of new wine is added to the system, maintaining freshness and balance. This last stage of the formation, also confusingly called Solera, is the closest to the ground, which in Spanish is called suelo, hence the name.

Since the wines keep moving within the solera, a wine’s age and the vintages contributing to its final blend can only be guessed. This makes it possible to state only an approximate average age of the wine. Interestingly, it can be estimated that some liquid from the solera’s founding year is still present in the system. This makes its contents probably the oldest living liquid in the world! Amongst the oldest soleras still in use are those at Osborne (Capuchino laid down in 1790 and Sibarita in 1792), El Maestro Sierra (1830), Valdespino (1842) and Gonzalez Byass (1847).

MANZANILLA – WINES WITH AN OCEANIC TOUCH

Wines that fail to develop flor are fortified further – between 18% and 20% – and aged oxidatively. But those that are blessed with flor’s presence need to be aged in humid and cooler conditions. Having said that, flor develops thicker and more consistently in the moist and breezy town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Salty winds add further layers of complexity, with notes of seaweed, salinity, minerality, and oyster shells. This heavily ocean-driven Fino-styled wine of Sanlucar is called Manzanilla. It is an acquired taste, but a perfect match for the local seafood. Manzanilla made with a vintage character and very little human interference is called Manzanilla En Rama. As one of the winemakers told me, 65% of all wines consumed in Spain are Manzanillas. And for the small town of Sanlucar, carrying the amiable burden of providing for so many thirsty citizens is quite a task!

AMONTILLADO – A CURIOUS BLEND

Over the years, a third style of Sherry has evolved. Amontillado allows a mix of biological and oxidative ageing. In years when the flor is weak and sinks to the bottom of the barrel after a few years of ageing, winemakers let the liquid continue ageing in an oxidative style. As a result, the finished wine is predominantly yeasty, crisp and light. But, has a flirtatious kiss of oxidative characters too, leaning towards nuttiness, husky oak, candy, and a crunch. It isn’t as elegant as a Fino, but has more weight and age, and is therefore a complex treat.

I haven’t come across any other wine that has more die-hard fans appreciating its unique qualities, yet having such dismal visibility and sales. Some restaurants that don’t feature even a single Sherry on their list. It is precisely these reasons that have kept Sherry prices remarkably affordable.

However, Sherry should be commanding seriously high prices considering the time and effort that goes into its production. Just like Epernay is associated with Champagne, Avignon with Châteauneuf du Pape, and Barossa Valley with Shiraz, so Andalusia is connected with fortified wines, and Sherry- Xerex-Jerez is the undisputed king. Its relative obscurity is mainly due to poor PR, which is gradually improving.

With sommeliers and mixologists flirting with sherries, there’s a newfound interest in the style. We hope that the Sherry wave will hit the shores of our subcontinent too.

WHY DRINK SHERRY

Sherry is perfect for a variety of great pairings, given the plethora of styles ranging from aperitif to digestif, and the unique natural flavours. Be it a Vietnamese pho or an Indian curry, a  ragout, or a simple serving of olives and almonds at a bar, there’s no food that sherries can’t be paired with confidently. Yes, there are sweet avatars too, but they constitute just 3% of Sherry production; the majority is composed of complex, unique, thought-provoking wines that are gastronomically compatible in every sense.

TASTING NOTES

On my recent visit to the region and its producers, I encountered some really memorable Finos, Manzanillas, En Ramas, andAmontillados. These are my picks from the lot

Tradicion 12 Years Old Fino Sherry €35

Founded in 1998, Tradición is a hallmark name for high quality, old and super long-aged Sherries. Dull golden hue. Subtle opening, savoury and complex from the first sip. Moderate flor and saline character, impressively floral and herbal. A crisp mouthfeel, a tad resiny, concentrated, musty, and very pleasing to sip. Powerful, respectful, gentle.

Diez Meritos 30 Years, Fino Imperial Sherry €80

Amongst the finest Finos in the market, the wine is rare to find. Dark coloured, nearly amber. Very salty, crunchy, dominated by oak, warm alcohol, obviously nutty and savoury, developing forest floor and animally character. Bone-dry. A memorable treat.

Barbadillo Solear Manzanilla Sherry €10

Barbadillo is big, has been in operation since 1821 and produces approximately 60% of all Manzanilla, located in Sanlucar. Change of style, becomes less aromatic, but adds more layers and character to its personality. Heavy biscuity notes, clay, and yeasty influences. The oak is prominent, savouriness and toastiness take centerstage. Simple and approachable.

Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla En Rama Sherry €21

At the forefront of Sanlucar’s production scene, La Gitana has been making supreme quality wines since 1792. The En Rama is made in a 19th century solera that has approximately 14 levels of ageing, and is released when five years old. Mild aromatics with ample chamomile and yellow florals. Slightly toasted and evident nutty notes, seaweed and mineral touches emerge later. Quite complex with earthy, saline, and soft herbal notes emerging before a bitter finish. A great introduction to the style.

Gonzalez Byass Del Duque, 30 Years Old, Amontillado Sherry €75

Among the most celebrated producers from the region, Gonzalez Byass has a strong reputation for producing affordable and accessible lines of long-aged wines. Salty caramel almonds are the first notes I draw. Very yeasty, chalky, woody, and savoury, holds a grainy texture, without losing the ripe white fruit sweetness. Complex, surprisingly refreshing citrus, cedar, toffee, mushrooms, leather, and a long lingering aftertaste. Worth a grab.

Lustau Escuadrilla Amontillado Sherry €17

Dating back to 1896, Lustau has had a reputation for consistent fine wines, with its team repeatedly winning the International Wine Challenge trophy for the World’s Best Fortified Winemaker year on year. Sweet oxidative ageing notes, floral aromatics, refined, hints of yeast and saline, warm spices, woody hues, kiss of candied touches, mostly tertiary notes of cedar, sweet tobacco, creaminess, ending with citrus and spice. An absolute delight.

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