Fortified wine

Weekend Wine Sips has been devoted rather relentlessly to red wines from California, so for a complete change of mood and mode, we turn to white wines from France, one from Bordeaux, one from the Loire Valley, one from Burgundy, the remainder from the South. One is a sweet sparkling wine, three are dessert wines and the other five are dry and perfectly suited to the changes in weather and food that are inching upon us. These are quick reviews, taken often directly from my notes, designed to pique your interest and spark your palate. I keep technical, geographical and historical information and ruminative speculation to a minimum, so the emphasis is on the wines and my impressions of them. The “Little James,” the Sancerre, the Bourgogne and the Muscat Beaumes de Venise were my purchases; the rest were samples for review. Enjoy… and have a good rest of the weekend.

Jaillance Cuvée Impériale Clairette de Die “Tradition”, nv. 7% alc. Muscat blanc à petits grains 90%, clairette blanc 10%. My previous experiences with Clairette de Die were dry sparklers, but they were 100% clairette; this jaunty example is definitely sweet. Pleasantly effervescent, a lovely mild straw-gold color; pears and peaches, softly ripe, notes of cloves, lime peel, spiced tea and limestone; hint of jasmine and some tropical fruit, lively acidity. A bit too douce for my palate, but should be pleasing as an aperitif or with desserts with fresh berries. Very Good+. About $16, a Good Value.

Little James’ Basket Press 2011, Vin de Pays d’Oc. 13% alc. 33-year-old viognier from Minervois with sauvignon blanc and muscat of Alexandria. From Chateau de Saint Cosme, established in Gigondas in the Northern Rhone in 1570. Pale straw gold; pears, yellow plums and a touch of peach, some astringent little white flower nestled in a briery hedge; fig and thyme, hint of caramelized fennel; very dry, very crisp and taut, a bit of greengage and grass. Highly unusual, really appealing. Very Good+. About $14, making Great Value.

Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Picpoul de Pinet 2011, Coteaux du Languedoc. 13.5%. 100% picpoul grapes. Pale straw color; honeydew melon, yellow plums, orange blossom and zest; crisp acidity but with a lovely silken texture; bracing, savory and saline, a hint of salt-marsh with dried grasses, thyme and sage; sleek mineral-packed finish. Delightful. Very Good+. About $14, Buy by the Case.

Paul Mas Estate “Single Vineyard Collection” Chardonnay 2011, Vin de Pays d’Aude. 13.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Pale gold color; very dry, taut, crisp, vibrant; lemon and cloves, ginger and a hint of quince; lemon balm and a touch of grapefruit with its welcome astringency; attractive texture subtly balanced between moderately dense lushness and pert acidity; lots of limestone and flint. An attractive and slightly individual chardonnay. Very Good+. About $14.

Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre 2011, Loire Valley. 11-14% alc. 100% sauvignon blanc. Scintillating purity and intensity; pale straw-gold color; gunflint and limestone, roasted lemon and lemon drop, lime peel and tangerine; bare hint of grass in the background; very dry, tense, lean, pent with energy; deeply earthy with a hint of sauteed mushrooms; long flinty, steely finish, a little austere. Feels archetypal. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $25.

Capitain-Gagnerot Bourgogne “Les Gueulottes” 2009, Hautes Côtes de Beaune. 12.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Medium straw-gold color; just freakin’ lovely chardonnay, minutely, gracefully sliding into maturity; roasted lemon and lemon curd, touch of grapefruit and mango; limestone under a soft haze of spicy oak; very dry, with plangent acidity and a lithe but generous texture; a wayward hint of orange blossom and lime peel, ginger and quince jam; long silken finish. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $27.

Les Petits Grains 2011, Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois. (Les Vignerons de la Mediterranee) 15% alc. Pale gold color; orange blossom and candied orange peel, baked peaches, pears and quince; cloves and sandalwood; bananas Foster with buttered rum; dense and viscous without being heavy; lightly honeyed cinnamon toast; a long sweet finish balanced by vibrant acidity. Very Good+. About $14, for a 375-milliliter half-bottle, a Steal.

Domaine des Bernardins 2009, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. 15% alc. Brassy gold-light amber color; softly ripe and macerated peaches and apricots; tremendous sweetness that turns dry mid-palate then austere on the finish, testifying to the immense powers of rigorous acidity; crème brùlée with a touch of the sweet ashy “burned” sugar; caramelized apricot with a hint of baked pineapple; that distinctive slightly funky muscat floral character; lip-smacking viscosity. Now through 2018 to ’20. Excellent. About $25 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.

Chateau de Cosse 2008, Sauternes. 13.5% alc. 85% semillon, 15% sauvignon blanc. The second label of Chateau Rieussec, owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Medium gold color with a greenish tint; smoke, spiced peach and candied grapefruit, pungent with lime peel and mango and a touch of buttered pear; cloves, vanilla and toasted almonds; satiny smooth, clean, pure, dense yet elegant; exquisite balance and verve. Now through 2018 to ’22. Excellent. About $35 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.

Well, O.K., make that 176, though the venerable firm in Jerez celebrated its dodransbicentennial last year with great fanfare. Founded, therefore, in 1835, Gonzales Byass is still family-owned, now in the fifth generation. The company owns 850 hectares (2,184.5 acres) of prime vineyards in Jerez Superior, where they grow mainly palomino, the chief grape for the production of sherry. Because of its low acidity and low sugar content, palomino does not make acceptable table wine — such wines tend to be flabby and bland — but it’s perfect for the unique process that results in sherry.

Sherry — the name is jealously guarded by international trade agreements — is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in way far southern Spain, around on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.

Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino fino grape (95 percent) with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.

The solera system is essentially a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce. Unfortunately, modern times have seen the adulteration of the method through shortcuts and the addition of sweetening agents, mainly used for cheap versions and for so-called “Cream Sherry.”

The types of sherry can be confusing, certainly as confusing as the many types of Port. Basically, the system goes like this: Fino is the most delicate and elegant of sherries and the best to be served with tapas and other light appetizers. A fino from Sanlucar is a Manzanilla. If a fino, either through natural process or induced, loses its flor, the increased exposure to air will result in a darker, more flavorful sherry; this is the famous Amontillado. The sherries called Oloroso, fortified after fermentation to around 18 percent alcohol, never develop flor, and so their character is far different, being darker in color and more intense and concentrated. All of these are dry wines. The rarest and best sweet sherries are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, though vast quantities of sweet sherries are turned out using other, cheaper processes.

This summation could be expanded into a book, but we’ll leave the matter in this brief, simplified form for our purpose today, and that’s to taste six of the most popular sherries from Gonzalez Byass.

Imported by The San Francisco Wine Exchange, San Francisco. These were samples for review. Image of one of the solera at Gonzalez Byass by Jim White for

Tio Pepe — “Uncle Pepe” — is one of the best-known fino sherries in the world. This is made from 100 percent palomino grapes and spends an average of five years in solera in American oak barrels, under the layer of flor. The color is pale straw; subtle aromas of toasted almonds and coconut are enlivened with a hint of sea-salt. This sherry is very dry, almost achingly so, yet the total effect is of elegance and finely balanced delicacy and nuance, along with penetrating earthy nutty flavors. Always terrific with handfuls of almonds, cashews and green olives or, the classic match, sherried pea or sorrel soup. 15 percent alcohol. Serve quite chilled and return the recorked bottle to the fridge; don’t store on a shelf or sideboard. Very Good+. About $18.

Image, fairly cropped, from

It’s highly probable that more people have read Edgar Allen Poe’s story “A Cask of Amontillado” — or can mindlessly quote “For the love of god, Montressor!” — than have actually tasted Amontillado, which, I’ll say right here, is my favorite style of sherry. The Gonzales Byass Vina AB Amontillado is made from 100 percent palomino grapes; it enters the solera, where it develops a skin of flor, and then when the flor fades, the wine is transferred to a Vina AB solera where exposure to air allows it to oxidize; it stays in American oak barrels for an average of eight years. The color is an entrancing medium bronze-amber; the bouquet wreathes touches of toasted coconut, caramelized raisins, roasted hazelnuts and a hint of toffee, and while the aromas seem to imply sweetness, the wine is bone-dry, intense, concentrated, though smooth and supple; the dryness, the slight sense of rigor, lead to a limestone-laced, high-toned, fairly austere finish. 16.5 percent alcohol. Should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Try with white gazpacho or paper-thin slices of really good Iberian ham. Excellent. About $20.

The color of the Alfonso Oloroso Seco — “seco” means dry — is a ruddy medium copper-amber hue, perhaps tending toward mahogany; smoke and cinnamon toast, roasted raisins, toffee, orange zest and a slightly resiny quality are woven in the bouquet. This is 100 percent palomino grapes; the wine spends an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. This is full-bodied, though not viscous, vibrant, earthy, permeated with the flavors but not the sweetness of maple syrup and brown sugar; it’s dry, like cloves and citrus peel, and hovers at the edge of woodiness. 18 percent alcohol. Serve chilled. Very Good+. About $20.

The Cristina Oloroso Abocado — “semi-sweet” — is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes; it spends an average of seven years in solera in American oak barrels. The color is medium amber; this offers the typical toasted almonds-coconut-raisins bouquet and flavors with toffee, orange rind and bitter chocolate. The entry is sweet, but from mid-palate back through the finish, the wine is dry, and though the texture is seductively supple, Cristina feels a bit rough-edged, like the least balanced and integrated of these six sherries. 17.5 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $20.

The “dulce” of the Solera 1847 Olorosa Dulce says it all; this is a sweet, robust, full-bodied sherry suitable for certain cheeses or savory pates and desserts that include fruit and nuts; it would be devastating with foie gras. It’s a blend of 75 percent palomino grapes and 25 percent Pedro Ximenez, and it spent an average of eight years in American oak in the solera. A dark amber color, slightly ruddy garnet around the rim, this sherry exudes notes of smoke, oolong tea, toffee and orange zest, figs, fruitcake and bitter chocolate, all consistent in flavor too. You feel the liveliness and resonance of firm acidity and the recognizable yet indefinable presence of a winning and winsome personality. A few moments in the glass bring in more aspects of woody spices — cloves, cinnamon, sandalwood — and a more intense impression of fruitcake woven with potpourri and pomander. The finish is dry, drawn-out and spicy. 18 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $20.

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The Gonzales Byass Apostoles Palo Cortado Viejo is a blend of 87 percent palomino and 13 percent Pedro Ximenez; this sherry spends an average of 30 years in the solera in American oak barrels. Palo Cortado is a rare sherry that started out to be Amontillado but did not, by happenstance, develop the covering of flor, so it ages, instead, as a dry oloroso of unusual complexity. The color is medium amber with an inner radiance of golden embers; fruitcake, baking spices, roasted hazelnuts, toffee, smoky maple syrup; dense and viscous in the mouth but stays just shy of sweetness and on the inside of dryness in risky but empathetic poise. The finish is dry, earthy, spicy. Not really a dessert wine but demanding intensely flavored pates, terrines and cured meats. 20 percent alcohol. Drink now or cellar through 2020. Excellent. About $49 for a 375 milliliter half-bottle.

Image, slightly cropped, from

Sometimes it’s the regional oddities of the world of wine and spirits that offer the most interest, the most appeal. Thousands of people produce cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines, but how many make the anything-but-natural vin doux naturel or the “forbidden” fragolino? The category of intensely, almost jealously regional applies to Pineau des Charentes, a fortified aperitif or dessert wine made in the Cognac region, where the départements — like states in France — are Charente and Charente-Maritime. Pineau des Charentes, simply put, is a combination of young Cognac (it must be at least a year old) and lightly fermented or just about to ferment grape must; with fermentation stopped, the spirit retains the sweetness of the grape juice. By law, the result must age in wooden casks until July of the following year; “Vieux Pineau” classification is awarded Pineau des Charentes that aged at least five years.

What do we make, then, of Pineau des Charentes that matured in cask for 25 years?

Nicolas Palazzi has done it again. The young Frenchman (with an Italian name), based now in New York, haunts ancient cellars in Cognac and exercises his talent for sniffing out old and forgotten barrels, bottling the contents and hand-selling the limited edition products to high-class restaurants, bars and retail shops around the world. Late last year I mentioned his Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grand Champagne Cognac, distilled in 1951; Palazzi produced 257 bottles and sold it for $600 a bottle. Now it’s the turn of the Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3; about 1,280 bottles are available, and it’s much cheaper than the Cognac.

Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3 — “very old barrel, third bottling” — is a beautiful medium amber color; aromas of orange rind and cloves, candied and crushed almonds, toffee and grapefruit marmalade with its peel slowly unfold to reveal hints of chestnut honey, dark chocolate and crystallized ginger. It smells like Scotch, but slightly lighter and more exotic; it feels historic, deeply imbued with an immutable sense of a particular time and place. This Pineau des Charentes is very smooth, very supple, dense and chewy, almost viscous in its combination of sweetness, body and alcohol, and yet there’s an elevating quality about it, an element of lacy transparency to the structure. Marvelous stuff, unique, heady, yet calm and stately. Pineau des Charentes is usually described as a dessert wine, but this was superb, we found, with a piece of a dry Piave Nuda Stravecchio cheese and some of the hazelnut-fig crackers we like. Serve Pineau des Charentes chilled; once open, it will keep in the fridge for a week or so. 17.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $90.

A (very small) sample for review.