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Sherry is a fortified wine that is produced almost exclusively from the Palomino Fino grape. There are two basic types of SherryFino and Olorosowith all styles being variations thereof. The dividing line between the two can be largely attributed to one unique indigenous type of yeast known as flor. Flor grows spontaneously on the surface of wines in the Fino family while they are in barrel, and forms a layer that provides a barrier to oxidation. The resultant wines will retain a sense of freshness, and the flor will impart a distinctive set of aromas and flavors. It grows more evenly throughout the year in the cooler coastal towns and has a particular affinity for Sanlucar.
Those wines that do not develop flor belong to the Oloroso family, and are matured in contact with the outside air. This controlled method of oxidation results in darker, richer, mellower wines. After the vintage, experienced tasters evaluate the newly made white wines and classify them according to their expected development. This is the first step a young Sherry takes on its way to being bottled in one of a range of styles that are derived from the two basic types. These include:
Manzanilla. Manzanilla is a variation of Fino that can only be made in Sanlucar. It is the lightest, palest, and most delicate of all Sherries. Cellared next to the sea, it is often characterized by a distinctive salty tang and vibrant acidity. These are fabulous aperitifs and pair brilliantly with shellfish in particular. As a matter of course, these wines should be served chilled.
Manzanillas should be consumed as soon as possible after bottling, as they degrade rather quickly in bottle. Bottles which have been languishing on shelves for over a year will bare little resemblance to the original, and should be avoided. This may be tricky however, as the bottling dates are not on the labels. This is where a conscientious retailer with a high volume becomes invaluable. Do not be afraid to ask how long your prospective bottle has been in stock. If your Manzanilla or Fino tastes overly maderized or is dark in color, it should be returned.
Fino. Finos are the flor-affected wines produced in Puerto and to a lesser degree in Jerez. They are a shade fuller than Manzanillas and have a characteristic bitter almond note. Jerez Finos tend to be the fullest of these lighter styled Sherries. Like Manzanillas, they make excellent aperitifs, but are versatile companions to the table as well.
Tio Pepe and La Ina are two famous brand names that are actually Fino Sherries. The freshness caveat about Manzanilla applies equally to Finos and it is imperative to purchase Fino in the freshest state possible and serve it chilled.
Amontillado. If a Fino Sherry is left to age, the flor will gradually consume nutrients in the wine until it can no longer replenish itself. This can take six to eight years, and sometimes longer under optimum conditions. Once the flor dies, the old Fino will begin to oxidize, and evaporation will gradually raise the alcohol content. Depending upon the length of this second phase of aging, the wine will attain a natural level of alcohol between 16 and 23 percent. The resultant Sherry will gradually darken in color and take on a perfumed nutty character.
At this point it is an Amontillado, the result of many years of labor intensive aging. Totally dry in its natural state, some Amontillados are sweetened with Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel to one degree or another, while others are bottled dry. The drier and moderately sweet Amontillados can be revelations at the table and pair well with a range of foods. Sweeter versions are a delight taken after a meal as a digestif. Both should be served at room temperature in order to maximize the bouquet.
Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado is a very rare Sherry, which is a style of Oloroso in that it breeds little or no flor. In other ways, however, it is a bit of a hybrid. Its bouquet is deep and complex while the wine retains a sense of clarity and crispness on the palate, showing great similarity to a fine.
Amontillado. In order to avoid confusion, it must be noted that a Palo Cortado produced in Sanlucar will be labeled Jerez Cortado and some houses choose to classify their Palo Cortados by age using the designations dos, tres, or cuatro cortado and so on. This designation varies from house to house however, and is not an accurate guide between varying producers wines. Most Palo Cortados are bottled dry although a few are lightly sweetened. All will match beautifully with a wide range of foods, while richer versions will make ideal sipping wines. They are best enjoyed at room temperature.
Oloroso. Oloroso, in Spanish, means fragrant, and a good Oloroso will be intensely aromatic in a way that is similar to an Amontillado yet more rounded. Unlike an Amontillado, however, which had a sense of lightness imparted by its development as a Fino, an Oloroso is richer and develops further viscosity with age. Some are bottled dry, and these make particularly fine matches for richly flavored foods, though most exports are destined to be sweetened, and these make appealing after dinner drinks. Those which have been lightly sweetened are known to the Spanish as Amorosos, but are not often labeled as such. These are ideal as winter warmers and have long been favored by the British in warding off their chilly climate. Like Amontillados, Olorosos show best at room temperature.
Cream. A Cream Sherry is generally an Oloroso that has been sweetened quite heavily. It was originally developed in Bristol, England and made famous as Harvey's Bristol Cream. These are truly dessert Sherries, in that, unlike an Amoroso, the initial complexity of the Oloroso is largely masked by the Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel which is used to sweeten it. Developed for export, this style is most often consumed much as a port would be after a meal.
A relatively recent phenomenon, Pale Cream Sherry, was pioneered only in the 1970's by the then newly established firm of Croft's. In order to make a light colored blend with a sweetness level akin to traditional cream Sherries, Fino replaces Oloroso as the base wine. This lightens up the style overall, and adds the interesting nuances that are generated by a flor accented wine. For one who is very familiar with dry Finos, the taste can be quite disarming, if a trifle odd.
Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are the minor grape varieties grown in the Sherry triangle and more prominently in provinces to the east. They are extremely rich sweet wines that form the preferred base for sweetening dry Sherries. Much more rarely they are bottled on their own, and Pedro Ximenez in particular makes one of the worlds best hedonic dessert wines.
Once picked the grapes are generally left to shrivel in the hot sun for a period of time, thus concentrating their intense sugars. Pedro Ximenez's of great age, such as those from the rare soleras of Osborne and Gonzalez Byass, reach an unbelievable level of viscosity that can be compared to motor oil, and the straightforward raisined character turns deeper, becoming quite complex and brooding. These wines can best be described as desserts in their own right.
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