Sherry


Every wine writer in the world has probably written a sentence like this five times during his or her career: “Sherry is the most misunderstood product of the vine.” And then goes on to explain again why Sherry matters, how it’s made, its unique properties and so on, fashioning again a plea for understanding. I’m not going to indulge in such folderol now because I’ve done it before, especially here, a post from December 1, 2011.

Bodegas Hidalgo, founded in 1792 and owned now by the sixth generation of the original family, is the last remaining family-operated business to produce and export its own unblended, single-solera Sherries. Hidalgo relies entirely on its estate vineyards, 500 acres of palomino fino grapes, in the chalk areas close to the sea. The family’s bodega is in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, entitling its fino Sherry to the Manzanilla designation. La Gitana Manzanilla (“the gypsy”), is Hidalgo’s flagship wine, product of a family solera established in the early 19th century, around the same time Manzanilla as a wine type came into existence.

The color of La Gitana Manzanilla is very pale gold with a tinge of greenish-silver; a hint of smoked almonds dominates the nose at first, as one expects, but then comes in a maritime element, with sea salt, salt marsh and a briny snap, followed by a touch of lemongrass and an echo of caramelized fennel. In the mouth, this manzanilla is very dry and bracing yet surprisingly viscous, announcing itself as a presence on the palate rather than a congeries of flavors; at bottom, though, a thoughtful earthy and autumnal character emerges: smoke from burning leaves, perhaps, dried moss, and a finishing note of almond skin bitterness. Mind you, all these ethereal qualities are assembled and displayed with utmost delicacy and elegance. 15 percent alcohol. Sipping this, I’m longing for a small plate of grilled octopus with roasted peppers or paper-thin slices of Serrano ham with fresh green olives. Excellent. I paid about $20 for a 500 milliliter bottle; average price in the U.S. is about $18. Either way, a Great Bargain.

Imported by Classical Wines, Seattle, Washington.

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 secretsherrysociety.com
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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 delongwine.com.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Image from vendomestore.com.
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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 thisislondon.co.uk.
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It’s too bad that sherry is such a misunderstood and abused wine, because its pleasures are manifold and even endowed with nobility. Unfortunately, describing how sherry is produced in a couple of paragraphs is like trying to summarize the Matrix Trilogy in an hour — “O.K., so, then Neo goes into this dark place that’s sorta like Purgatory and sorta like an android mosh pit, see, and then …” — but I’ll give it the ol’ college try.

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.

The motivation behind this brief disquisition is the tasting I did recently at home of three spectacularly good aged sherries from the house of Williams Humbert. These qualify for the recently permitted designations of V.O.S. (“Very Old Sherry”) if the wine has aged at least 20 years and V.O.R.S. (“Very Old Rare Sherry”) if the aging has been at least 30 years. These are sherries to be savored slowly, thoughtfully and appreciatively at the end of a meal, not to be partaken of as an aperitif or with tapas. For that function, there are many choices, but one of my favorites is the Emilio Lustau Solera Reserve Jarana Fino, as light, as dry, as delicately nutty, as elegant as you could desire (Excellent, about $19).

By the way, fino sherry should be served chilled, the others at room temperature.

The Williams Humbert sherries are imported by Kindred Spirits of North America in Miami, Florida.

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The William Humbert Dos Cortados Rare Old Dry Palo Cortado Solera Especial falls between an Amontillado and an Oloroso style sherry; it spends at least 20 years in the solera. The color is medium-amber suffused with old gold. The bouquet is an intoxicating wreathing of roasted hazelnuts, toffee, baked apple, orange rind and toasted coconut. After such a heady display of aromas, it’s startling how dry, I mean bone-dry, this sherry is, both sensuous and austere; it tastes like smoldering peat, iodine, sea-salt and woody spices bound in a sumptuous yet not overwhelming texture that flows liberally across the tongue. There’s an after-burn of alcohol, spicy wood and vanilla. Quite a performance. Excellent. About $50.
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Well might one cry, “For the love of god, Montressor!” The Williams Humbert Jalifa Rare Old Dry Amontillado Solera Especial spends at least 30 years in solera. The color is medium-amber with a hint of green-gold. It smells like scotch, warm, enrobing, inviting, richly spiced; one understands why wars were fought over cinnamon and cloves. Again, a briskly dry sherry (but so mellow, so smooth!) that embodies elements of pomander, wheatmeal, orange marmalade, the blondness of sawdust, the characteristic dusty woody (and woodsy) earthiness and mossiness, all given bass tones by a strain of deep, dark bitter chocolate. Oh yes. Exceptional. About $70.
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Made from sun-dried grapes and aged at least 20 years in solera, the Williams Humbert Don Guido Rare Old Sweet Pedro Ximenez Solera Especial offers the color, but not quite the viscosity, of molasses. This, friends, reaches the Platonic extents of sweetness along an astonishing depth and range of effects: smoky brown sugar, roasted raisins, rum raisin ice cream with bananas Foster, almond brittle, orange zest and orange blossom honey. This is almost shamelessly enjoyable, but it does not offer quite the dimension or complexity of the Dos Cortados or Jalifa Amontillado, though its vibrancy, resonance and sheer appeal-power are admirable. Excellent. About $50.
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