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JEREZ

Sherry is associated with the British people, and they have had a passion for the wine since 1587, when the Spanish Armada was crippled, its stores were sacked, and Sir Francis Drake’s fleet made off with the equivalent of 180,000 cases of Sherry. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare’s Falstaff was toasting the wine as “sherris sack.” The region is named for the town of Jerez de la Frontera, the frontier in question being the frontier that, from 1264 to 1492, formed the barrier between the ruling Moors and the rest of Iberia. It must have been an inebriated Englishman, drunker than Falstaff, who mispronounced “Jerez” as “Sherry.”

When trade eventually was reestablished between Spain and England, Sherry barrels made their way to England. As a result, oak aging of these wines had become the standard a couple of centuries before Rioja even considered the idea. Even Bordeaux was not yet focused upon barrels as part of their styles. Today, Spanish Sherry continues to be defined by its time in oak. The new quality categories of VOS and VORS are rekindling the market’s interest in old Sherry. Wines that have sojourned for 12 or 15 years in barrel can state that on the labels.

The Palomino grape accounts for more than 90% of Sherry plantings; the other grapes are Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. More about these later.

Sherry’s multiplicity is a bewildering obstacle for too many people. It’s actually simple: Sherry is fortified wine. It’s fortified after the fermentation so, unlike Port, all Sherry begins its life as a dry wine. Sherry is initially classified as one of two wines: fino or olosoro. A fino is intended to be a light, crisp, delicate wine; surprisingly, it’s also a wine that carries an alcohol content of more than 15 percent. Yet the great finos are indeed delicate. They are aged in barrel underneath a yeast film called a flor (or “flower,” though it looks more like pond scum), and the flor protects the wine from oxygen, adding flavors and aromas as well. Visit DO Sanlucar de Barrameda for more information about the flor.

The other great category of Sherry is Oloroso. These are usually made sweet, although a handful of them are left dry. The term oloroso can be loosely translated into something aromatic (or something smelly?), and the long barrel aging required for great Oloroso certainly gives it aromas, which can smell of toffee, walnuts, prunes, cherries, orange rind, spices, chocolate, and myriad other things edible and perhaps inedible.

Olorosos might appear as Cream Sherry, Pale Cream Sherry, or under a host of proprietary, sweet-sounding names. As noted above, all Sherries begin life as a dry wine; most Olorosos are sweet. They are sweetened by the addition of grape must, grape paste, cooked grape paste—all sorts of products made from the vineyards, the winery, or some of the leftovers from the winemaking process. Palomino grapes can be used for these purposes, but the grapes Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel traditionally have been grown for the purpose of providing sweetening materials, whether in their natural state or as sun–dried raisins.

Aside from barrel aging, Sherry is also defined by its solera process of aging. Once again, there is needless confusion to the solera system. It works like this: Pretend you have a barrel of 1960 wine. You want some old oloroso to sell from that barrel, and by law you are allowed to remove only some of the wine, say, one–half to one–third of it each year. So you take some out to bottle to sell.

That 1960 barrel is now one–third empty. That’s okay, you have many more barrels. You refill the 1960 barrel with some wine from a 1961 barrel. Now that one is missing some wine. So you refill that with wine from a 1962 barrel. Onward you go until you reach the present year (in our example).

An intriguing part of the solera system is that mathematicians and scientists can prove that, while you’ve taken a lot of wine out of the 1960 barrel over the years, it is never completely empty of 1960 vintage wine. There’s always a little bit left, and the blend of wines in the barrel tastes if not older, at least more complex than it ought to. That’s the exciting part of the solera system: it makes the wine more exotic and intense than it has a right to be.

Palo Cortado describes a Sherry that began life as a fino but didn’t retain its flor long enough to take on that character in a strong enough manner. Instead, it has been fortified to 18% alcohol and allowed to age like an amontillado. Nonetheless; it has some of the flor notes in it. If this sounds subjective, it is.

Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are now being seen in stand–alone bottlings. They are remarkably sweet, so sweet in fact that almost no fermentation has happened in the must; the yeast can’t handle it. Whatever alcohol the wines carry (and they are usually bottled at typical fortified wine levels of 18% to 20%), that alcohol came not from fermentation but from the addition of grape spirit.

Great Finos have the tangy aroma of flor and a distinct almond character. The Finos aged in the bodegas of the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda typically grow a more robust flor and end up with a greater flor character and, in addition, aromas of the ocean; these are not called Finos but Manzanillas. Manzanilla wine is remarkable stuff, with a more nutty, mushroomy, flor character but also a shocking delicacy beyond fino.

Far too many books make a needless mystery of the development of the flor. There’s no mystery to it; if you want to grow the flor on a Sherry, you fortify the Sherry to about 15 percent. That level of alcohol is sufficient to encourage the growth of the flor but discourages the growth of acetobacters and other spoilage organisms. You’ll probably put the Fino into a barrel that has grown the flor in previous years, and you won’t fill up the barrel because you want to leave room for the flor to grow. The Finos will be left to age under the flor until the flor dies out, or until the market is clamoring for more Fino. You’ll leave the barrel near the windows of your bodega; you’ll probably open them too: the wind from the ocean feeds the flor as well. It’s for this reason that Sanlucar deserves its own DO; greater proximity to the ocean breezes differentiates Sanlucar’s sherries from those of the rest of the region.

Finos that eventually lose their flor will be topped up, fortified to a higher level of alcohol (around 18 percent), and allowed to age into something called Amontillado. Amontillados contain echoes of the character of the Fino from which they grew, but pecans, honey, caramel, toffee, nuts, dried fruits, and many other aromas and flavors begin to take over. In the case of a Manzanilla losing its flor and aging in barrel, it is usually called a Manzanilla Pasada.

Palo Cortado describes a Sherry that began life as a fino but didn’t retain its flor long enough to take on that character in a strong enough manner. Instead, it has been fortified to 18% alcohol and allowed to age like an amontillado. Nonetheless; it has some of the flor notes in it. If this sounds subjective, it is.

Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are now being seen in stand–alone bottlings. They are remarkably sweet, so sweet in fact that almost no fermentation has happened in the must; the yeast can’t handle it. Whatever alcohol the wines carry (and they are usually bottled at typical fortified wine levels of 18% to 20%), that alcohol came not from fermentation but from the addition of grape spirit.

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