David Mitchell, digital insights manager and a keen wine student, is seduced during a special staff tasting here at Society HQ in Stevenage with Beltran Domecq…
‘The most undervalued, dynamic and complex wine I have ever come across’To be completely honest, I have always seen sherry either to be mouth-puckeringly dry and bitter or teeth-achingly sweet and only really to gather dust at the back of a sideboard ready for the visit of an aged aunt.
I can now say that after this tasting this cannot be further from the truth!
What have I been missing over all these years!
The tasting started with a general history of sherry and how it has been made for more than 3,000 years; indeed the Romans made mention of it. It was known as ‘Sherry Sack’ in the UK – ‘Sack’ is believed to be a corruption of the Spanish name for drawing the wine from the bottom of the complex solera ageing system.
The soil that the main grape – palomino – is grown in is known as ‘albariza’, which has a high chalk content to help retain the high rainfall in the vineyards for the very hot summers. The palomino grape is used for the dry styles of sherry, whereas Pedro Ximenez (PX) and moscatel grapes are mainly used for the sweeter styles and used in blending.
I found it amazing that so many styles can be made from the palamino grape alone; depending on how the base wine (known as mosto) was aged through the solera system, and how the flor (yeast covering the top of the wine) developed over time.
The first few sherries that were tried were fino, the driest style. These wines are aged under floating flor yeast, meaning that they develop ‘biological’ flavours rather than oxidative flavours as would usually happen in oak barrels. This gives finos a relatively light character with floral aromas and flavours of green apples, as well as a light nutty character of salted almond.
Manzanilla is a fino, but from around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda: the close proximity to the sea gives a much more pungent and intense flavour than a fino further inland. However, both gave very fresh flavours – great with tapas!
An aged fino was also tried, which had an average of between 6-8 years, and there was a slight increase in some of the oxidative flavours and slightly more woody and oaky notes due to a longer period of time in contact with the oak.
One thing to note is that the older the sherry is aged for, the more concentrated the flavours and alcohol. This is due to the fact that there is a 3-4% reduction in the overall volume of the wine where water evaporates from the oak barrels but retains the alcohol. This means that the alcoholic % increase over time but also brings added complexity.
The next few sherries tried were amontillados. These were selected fino barrels which had lost the flor layer part way through the aging process and were then fortified. Arguably these wines had the best of both worlds: they possess a fresh initial flavour but with the additional complexities of nutty flavours, mainly of hazelnuts. We tried a medium-dry blend which had the initial hit of sweetness much like a port, but then some of the vanilla characters from the oak barrels and a hazelnut finish.
A Palo Cortado was also tried. This is a sherry which was destined to become a fino or amontillado but then loses its protective layer of flor and starts to age as an oloroso (see below) and then fortified to stop the wine spoiling. This doesn’t happen that often, making this style relatively rare. The wine still had notes of fresh apples but with a light oxidative character and was both elegant and full-bodied.
We then tasted some olorosos: sherries which have no flor protection and so age oxidatively. These have a much darker colour and an intense, nutty aroma. You can definitely sense that these are fortified wines: they are much fuller with a much longer finish and have more of a hazelnut flavour rather than almond as found in the fino.A medium-sweet oloroso blend had some additional notes of raisin on the nose; this would be due to part of the blend being made up from the Pedro Ximenez grape to give the additional sweetness. This sherry had an initially sweet hit, much like a port, but then evolves into the characteristic hazelnut flavours of an oloroso with a fantastic long finish. This went down especially well with those present.
A 30-year-old oloroso was fantastically complex with the nutty character, very concentrated flavours and an amazingly long finish. At £21 per bottle, the price worked out on average at 70p per year, considering the whole solera in which the wine was aged would be 40-50 years. This is fantastic value for this level of ageing!
The last sherry we tried was a 30-year-old Pedro Ximenez, one of the sweetest of all wines with intense raisin flavours, along with notes of figs, dates, caramel and fudge. Despite its sweetness and fullness, the wine was still in balance and very enjoyable.
I hope the above shows that that there will be a style of sherry to suit everyone!
Types of sherry and their flavours:
• Fino sherry is the lightest and freshest tasting with flavours of apples and almonds.
• Manzanilla is a more intense version which is fuller in style.
• Palo Cortado is the most elegant and intense version of fino-derived styles, with fantastic freshness.
• Amontillado has the initial freshness of a fino but also has the added complexity and nutty character of an oloroso – a great ‘best of both’ sherry style.
• Oloroso has a more intense nose with added aromatics and colour, and the flavours lean towards hazelnuts rather than almonds with a long finish – a joy to drink and savour.
• Pedro Ximenez is very sweet and used in blends to increase the sweetness, on its own it gives flavours of raisins, figs and caramel.
A few other tips…
• The longer a sherry is aged for, the more intense and complex it becomes. There is also a slight increase in alcohol due to water evaporation; however, this adds additional flavour concentration.
• Treat lighter sherries much like you would a white wine: it should be served chilled and be used within a week or so. Other Sherries such as oloroso will last slightly longer once opened, but should be consumed fairly soon after opening – not stuck in the back of a cupboard!
• Sherry is very good value for money considering its long ageing and complex nature, not to mention the joy of trying so many different styles.
• Most importantly, perhaps – treat sherry as a wine! Use a normal wine glass and enjoy the aromatic notes and flavours that develop in the glass.
• No other wine give so much complexity and enjoyment for the price – find as many opportunities to enjoy sherry as you can!
Some suggestions to try:
• Light but intense – Alegria Manzanilla (£7.95)
• Still light but with added nutty complexity and a whisper of sweetness – Romate Maribel A Selection of Amontillado Medium Dry (£8.50)
• Slightly sweet but with complex nutty flavours and amazingly long finish – The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Sweet Oloroso Blend (£11.95)
Digital Insights Manager
Not merely a trifle, nor indeed merely a wine for the trifle, sherry is a wine I seldom need an excuse to enthuse about. I feel that it is one of the most underrated wines in the world, and so leapt on the chance to celebrate International Sherry Week.
During this week, therefore, we have laid out a wide selection of sherry in our Cellar Showroom for members to try, offering a veritable palette of sensations.
If you’re in or near Stevenage, I thoroughly recommend you come and indulge. A range of styles are on offer, from tangy salty manzanilla and the appley freshness of The Society’s Fino (a perfect match for almonds at the start of a good evening) to warming hazelnutty amontillado and fragrant nutty oloroso, which is robust and sweet enough to take on chocolate puddings. Those with a sweet tooth will also be wowed by the velvety, treacly Pedro Ximenez – arguably a dessert in itself!
All of which, I hope, will demonstrate that sherry offers wine for every palate and indeed for every meal. We hope to see you in the Showroom!
The Cellar Showroom
We have now added three fantastic sherry-friendly recipes to our website. Enjoy!
Gonzalez Byass’s (if not the world’s) most famous Fino Sherry is Tio Pepe which, if you didn’t know, is Spanish for ‘Uncle Joe’. Last week I attended the Big Fortified Tasting in London where I tasted this year’s bottling of Tio Pepe En Rama – the unclarified and unfiltered expression of Fino Sherry which this year celebrates its fifth bottling. They call it “puro zumo de flor” (pure flor juice).
My necessarily brief tweeted tasting note said:
— The Wine Society (@TheWineSociety) April 24, 2014
It has a really broad mouthfeel and a long finish – an ‘en rama panorama’, if you like.
The official launch date is Wednesday 30th April, and it will be on sale with us very soon after at £14.50 per bottle.
UPDATE: 30/4/14 – It’s available right here, right now, while stocks last.