Relegated to the back of your parents drinks cupboard in the past, Sherry is currently experiencing a small revival, though this time in a different direction. If you haven’t tried a sherry recently now is the time to give it a go. A surge in the more premium dry styles such as those produced by boutique sherry house Fernando de Castilla has been helped by the increasing popularity of tapas and Spanish food internationally. The long history of the wines of Jerez is fascinating, with political worries helping to mould the style of Sherry we see today: The War of the Spanish Succession and the following Napoleonic Wars led to a dramatic down turn in exports due to hostilities with England and the Netherlands. This stockpiling of excess stocks however, led to the development of the oxidised, concentrated styles which define the wines from here, on reflection a fortuitous turn of events! The unique style of sherry is created by a culmination of production methods. These include fortification, fractional blending through the Solera system and oxidative or biological ageing. Here follows a short explanation of these methods.
The basic wine of most sherry is made from the neutral low acid variety Palomino Fino. (Sweet Pedro Ximenez sherries are made from the grape from the same name and high quality sweet sherries tend to be a blend of Palomino and PX.) Depending on where the grapes were grown and their quality the wines are fortified into styles with Fino wines fortified to 15%abv and Oloroso wines to 18%. 15% fortification still allows the growth of special yeast who form a white film over the surface of the wine and protect it from oxygen whilst adding a certain salty tang to the wine known as acetaldehyde character. This type of ageing seen only on Fino and Manzanilla wines and partially on Amontillado and Palo Cortado styles is called biological ageing. To keep the flor refreshed a system of topping up the barrels happens at least 3 times a year. This process called ‘running the scales’ involves topping up older barrels with those more youthful ones next in line, refreshing the nutrients and increasing the complexity of the wine. This is called the Solera System.
Those wines fortified to 18% are generally from the sandy soils and are fuller bodied with less finesse. Flor can’t grow at this stage so the wines, sitting in old barrels with access to oxygen start to develop the nutty oxidised characters associated with the Oloroso style. The complexity and richness found in the bottle can in part be attributed to the constant topping up with fresher younger wines in the Solera system. This is the reason that Sherries tend to be non vintage. Older producers will have solera systems that have been running for decades, sometimes centuries meaning that every bottle contains a trace of a VERY antique wine.
So what about Amontillado and Palo Cortado I hear you say. These, can be described as in-between styles. They undergo a degree of flor ageing and then the flor either dies off naturally or they are re-fortified to continue the ageing process in an oxidative style. The precise method of producing a Palo Cortado depends on the producer, but at Fernando de Castilla Jan Pettersen chooses those wines which see the flor die off and manage to continue to evolve in complexity despite the loss of the protection, these can be seen as some of his finest wines. Sweeter styles of sherry vary dependent on price point and producer. Lustau produce a particularly fine sweetened Oloroso, made by blending PX into the wine. More commercial styles tend to add concentrated grape juice which does little for the quality of the wine.
On our recent visit to Fernando de Castilla in Jerez, I was amazed by just how natural the whole sherry production process was. Having trailed round many a winery asking about enzymes, yeast, SO2 and other such additions, the sparsity of intervention at this winery was impressive. To reflect this we’ve chosen their Fino En Rama to be our Wine of the Month. unfiltered and unfined this wine is basically pulled straight out of the barrel and put into the bottle. The complexity and depth attained from not stripping it of any properties by over handling as well as the affordable price tag of €11 has meant we can’t help but place it at the top of our recommendations for July. Fortification, flor and good cellar practises ensure the wine evolves in as natural a way as possible. Sulphur Dioxide is only added at bottling to retain some freshness. If you look at the care, attention and long ageing these wines undergo and then considering the price paid for these wines is less than many still wines on the market which have far less complexity, it makes me wonder what you’re all waiting for. I’ve got my bottle of Fino En Rama and a cheeky bottle of Antique Palo Cortado in the fridge for later, have you??**
**For those of you new to Sherry and suspicious of the saline dryness and different flavours of Fino, delve deeper… sample the delights of Amontillado with its nutty richness or Oloroso with its full rich concentrated body. Don’t give up, Sherry is like coffee, once you’ve got it in your system it’s very hard to think of anything else!