When given an opportunity to do a deep dive into a category of wine that we know very little about, what are wine geeks to do? Grab that wine glass of opportunity with both hands, that’s what! And that is exactly what Steph and I did at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2018 in Walla Walla.
Thanks to the House of Lustau for hosting the session, and introducing a room full of mostly Sherry newbs to the nuances of this style of wine.
So what is Sherry, exactly. That odd smelling slightly sweet stuff that the elders at family gatherings used to drink out of those weird little glasses? Well, maybe, but there’s alot more to it than that.
Sherry, firstly, is fortified wine from southwest Spain. Unlike most fortified wines such as Port, Sherry is fortified after fermentation is complete. Sherry comes from the area of the “Sherry triangle” formed by the townships of Jerez, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Wines must be aged at least 2 years in one of these townships to be called Sherry. And it is the aging process, really, that separates Sherry from everything else.
But before we get to that – grapes? Yes, they use them. Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez (PX for short). And there are various soil types, shifting from the Albariza soils that have alot of chalk and are similar to the soils of Champagne and Chablis, to Arenos soils that have a high sand content, with little limestone and about 10% chalk. Palomino is by far the highest production varietal, and prefers Albariza soils. Moscatel in typically planted in the Arenos soils. PX can be grown in Albariza, but most comes in from a warmer region about 3 hours away to the northeast.
What’s with the aging thing? Most wines are aged with careful attention to avoid exposure to oxygen. Sherry is different. Aging is broken down into two main types – biological, and oxidative. For the former, the wines (fermented dry and fortified) are aged in casks that are not full. A layer of yeast on the surface, called the “flor”, develops and protects the wine from contact with the air while adding its own characteristics. Flor requires precise living conditions of temperature, humidity, air circulation and nutrients. Flor consumes alcohol, sugar, and glycerine and produces acetaldehydes and CO2. Biological categories of Sherry are Fino and Manzanilla.
Oxidative Sherries have higher alcohol content, too high for the flor to live. These wines are always in contact with air, therefore, and are constantly gaining in concentration due to evaporation. Oxidative categories of Sherry are Oloroso, Amontillado (Sherry that started under flor, but finished oxidative), and Palo Cortado (a very fine Oloroso that was originally meant to be Fino but transitioned to oxidative aging).
The sweet category of Sherry is really reserved to PX. These are made from overripe dried grapes, and aged using the oxidative method. Other sweet Sherries, typically referred to as Cream Sherry, are a blend of fortified dry sherry and naturally sweet wine, often PX.
I know what you are thinking, enough already, what do they taste like? Well, since this session was hosted by Lustau, the wines we sampled were all from that house. As follows:
- Manzanilla – pale medium fold. Effusive nutty oxidized sherry nose. Exactly what you expect so smell. Medium acid, crisp mineral and apple attack, nutty finish. Good.
- Puerto Fino – pale medium gold. Nose has an alcohol hit, and an oxidized shell note. Low medium to medium acid, white fruit attack with a bitter nutty mid palate that I found a bit odd. OK.
- Fino – Jarana (Jerez) – pale medium gold. Nose is light, and is entirely nutty white fruit. Low medium acid, white fruit attack with a rich mouthfeel. Less nuttiness on finish than the others, just tasty clean fruit. I enjoyed this, would be a great seafood pairing wine. Good plus.
- Los Arios Amontillado – medium gold. Really nutty nose. Low medium acid, medium body, with a ripe fruit attack but morphs into a bitter nutty mess. Not a fan.
- Don Nuno Oloroso – medium mahogany color. Nutty, raisiny nose. Starts with a rich mouthfeel, nutty flavor with coffee notes. Loads of alcohol on the finish with a bitter note that burns. Not a fan.
- PX San Emilio – very dark mahogany. Sweet raisiny wood nose. Super thick mouthfeel, like rich raisin juice. Loaded with honey and fig flavors. Long finish. Wow. Very good.
This category of wine definitely warrants more exploration. The food matching potential of the dry fino’s was truly a revelation. Had always thought of Sherry as an aperitif or dessert, it clearly has much more versatility than that.