Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sherry for the Holidays

It won't be long (I know, I know) before we begin thinking of which wines to have for the holidays. Even though there are many choices, most of us will stick with the tried and true. I'd like to suggest that this year you think outside the box and consider Sherry. 

Throughout this article, all references to the fortified wine from Spain will be "Sherry," while those wines from other places will be noted as "sherry."

Interest in Sherry has never been better, but sales are still slow and the reason may be that Americans don't understand the value of Sherry. Before the wine boom in the early 1970s, the image of Sherry in this country often meant wines called "sherry" made in large quantities by big New York wineries, like Taylor, Great Western and Gold Seal. I remember my mother drinking New York sherry then, probably thinking she was enjoying the real thing. 
The list of reasons for declining Sherry sales in late 1990s and early 2000s is long, with some industry observers pointing to the sale of Sherry houses and their stocks to multi national companies in the 1980s. Advertising stopped and investments dried up as multinationals had no interest beyond quarterly profits. Fortunately, things began to slowly turn around as wine consumers developed an interest in all things Spanish.

While sales of Sherry may be creeping along, the good news is that new interest in Spanish red wines and Spanish cuisine has been a bright spot. And the taste for Sherry appears to be moving toward drier styles like Fino, Manzanilla and dry Amontillado, rather than the sweeter styles like Cream Sherries.

The Jerez region, centered around the city of Jerez de la Frontera, is in Andalucia, in southwest Spain. The production of Sherry lies in a triangle of land defined by three cities: Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. The English word Sherry is from the Spanish word Jerez.  

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Jerez de la Frontera
The two main types of Sherry are fino and oloroso and you might palo cortado, a special rare Sherry. The time-worn trope that wine is made in the vineyard is certainly true in Jerez where a first selection of grapes is made to determine if the wine will be a fino or an oloroso. The second selection is made at the end of fermentation, with the addition of grape spirit, raising the alcohol level from 12% to a minimum of 15%. At this stage, a spongy yeast known as flor, resembling cottage cheese with a dusting of dirt, develops mainly on those wines destined to be finos. Olorosos do not mature under flor.

At one time, it was believed that the thin layer of flor somehow appeared on its own. However, the growth of flor is determined by the amount of fortification: finos are fortified to 15% and olorosos are fortified to 16% or more.

Three general types of Sherry: Fino: These dry Sherries are both a class and an individual wine. Finos are pale colored, with a crisp, delicate bouquet often described as almond-like, dry crisp flavors with good acidity. The Fino class includes Manzanilla, a pale dry wine, with a "briny" character, possibly from the aging bodegas near the sea in San Lucar de Barrameda; and Amontillado, an amber-colored Sherry with a nutty (hazelnut) aroma and flavor. 
Oloroso: Sherry with a dark brown color, full-bodied nutty flavor and a smooth texture.  Sweeter than Oloroso are the Cream Sherries, made by blending Oloroso and sweet wines made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes.  
Palo Cortado: The style of this special Sherry offers the bouquet of an Amontillado and the taste of an Oloroso.

The driest Sherries, fino and manzanilla, are made solely from the Palomino grape, and are sometimes referred to as "flor Sherries." Flor blocks oxygen from the maturing fino allowing the wine to develop a pale color and light texture and flavor. Palomino makes very good fino but very ordinary, even bland wine, not unlike the relationship of Folle Blanche to Cognac, odd but fortuitous quirks for those of us who love Sherry and Cognac.

True finos vary in taste and character depending on where they are from: Jerez Fino, Puerto Fino or Sanlucar Manzanilla. Manzanillas are finos aged in bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Some Sherry aficionados attribute the “briny” character of manzanilla to the bodega's location near the sea. Supposedly, a butt (500 liter oak cask) of fino taken from a Jerez bodega to a bodega in Sanlucar will become a manzanilla, but no such transformation takes place when a butt of manzanilla is taken from Sanlucar to a bodega in Jerez.  

A second factor that is crucial to the character and consistent style of Sherry is the solera, a fractional blending system that is used most commonly in Jerez. The object of solera blending is to smooth out the differences in vintages, resulting in a consistent style. Soleras are not commonly used for amontillado and oloroso, as they vary less from year to year.

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Sherry solera
Basically, a solera consists of three tiers (known as scales) of barrels, with the barrels closest to the floor, containing the  oldest wine, called the solera, and those above called criadera. Thus, the oldest wine is drawn from the solera for bottling. A like amount is then taken from the 1st criadera and put into the solera barrels. The 2nd criadera then replenishes the 1st. criadera, and so on up the scales. In a three tier solera, new wine goes in to the top scale.

True Amontillado is a fino that has lost its flor, allowing the wine to come in contact with oxygen, causing the color to darken from a pale gold to light brown and the aromatics to take on a nutty character. To keep the cost down, many commercial amontillados are blends of fino and oloroso, sometimes even with a little sweet wine made from the Pedro-Ximenez (PX) grape, resulting in a medium-dry amontillado finished at about 16.5% alcohol.  If the alcohol rises above 15% alcohol, flor will disappear, so amontillados have no flor character.  

The absence of flor and higher alcohol (up to 18%) are the main characteristics of oloroso. Without the flor contact, an oloroso ages in contact with oxygen. Olorosos are sold dry or sweet, with sweet-style olorosos far more popular among American Sherry drinkers than Oloroso Seco.
Sweeter yet are Cream Sherries, a blend of oloroso and concentrated, raisiny PX an unctuous treacle-like sweet Sherry made from the Moscatel grape. 

Palo Cortado, a rare Sherry that falls between amontillado and oloroso, are expensive but a complex treat that should be a must-try for anyone starting a Sherry exploration. 

Other sherries outside the regular fino-oloroso offerings include vintage-dated Palo Cortado and unfiltered finos out of cask. Before the latter part of the 19th century, and the introduction of the solera system, all Sherry was vintage dated.

Select Sherry Producers: Gonzalez Byass, Pedro Domecq, Emilio Lustau, Valdespino, Emilio Hidalgo.  You'll find popular brands like Tio Pepe and Bristol Cream in most stores, but talk to your local merchant about Valdespino Inocente Fino and Deliciousa Manzanilla, Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, Lustau Los Arcos dry Amontillado, Domecq La Ina Fino, Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco and Matusalem Oloroso Dulce

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Sherry and tapas
Sherry with Food: In Spain, rules for pairing Sherry with food are simple. Tapas, small bite-size foods like olives, cheese tarts and marcona almonds can be found in every bar in Jerez. Dry Sherry such as Fino and Manzanilla are the perfect aperitif wine with salted nuts, olives and other salty holiday snacks, including popcorn. A lightly chilled glass of fino, manzanilla or dry amontillado is a good match with oysters and clams or lightly cooked shrimp. Sweeter olorosos and cream Sherry are best with a simple cake or fresh fruit. The rule here is the dessert should not be sweeter than the wine.

George Saintsbury, the early 20th century English gourmand regretted in his famous diary, “Notes on a Cellar Book,” that his fellow countrymen paid little attention to the lighter sherries such as Manzanilla. “It goes with anything from oysters (with which Chablis, though orthodox, does not please me, while Champagne, though it has Thackeray’s sanction, seems to me a sin without solace) to anything short of ‘sweets.’”  Wise words from a man who knew his wine, to which I would add a glass of fino and a salute! 

Next Blog: Holiday Bubbly

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