Binny’s Wine Buyer, Bob Calamia traveled to Jerez to seek out Spain’s top sherry and learn a thing or two about this timeless region. Bob reports from the field:
World headquarters for sherry is Jerez in Southwestern Spain. Two things make sherry unique – its proximity to the Mediterranean and the high level of chalk in the soil. The chalk gives sherry some of its characteristic mineral flavors, but the soil’s biggest contribution is its ability to retain moisture. Jerez gets most of its rain in the fall and winter, and the chalk sustains the vines in the dry spring and summer. The climate is warm enough to ripen palomino fino – the primary grape of the region – and when grown in the chalky soil, it achieves a quality found nowhere else.
More photos and info after the jump!
To understand sherry, it is important to understand flor. This layer of active yeast cells rests on top of the wine as it ages in barrels. It protects the wine from oxidization and allows a wine that is several years old to taste remarkably fresh. Flor feeds on the alcohol and glycerine in the wine, and the flor’s ability to stay alive in the barrel will dictate what style of sherry will be made.
The second factor is the winemaker. After fermentation, the winemaker tastes all of the barrels and decides what wines will age under flor and which will not.
The lightest and most delicate wines are destined to become fino. Aged entirely under flor and then bottled, they are very dry, crisp and tangy and pair very well with shellfish and seafood in general. They have a slightly elevated alcohol level – usually around 15% – and are best within a year or so after bottling. Because they are protected from oxygen as they age and spend that same time in contact with yeast, they are sometimes compared to Champagne. They doshow some of the same aromatic nuances – oyster shell, chalk, toast and umami.
Amontillado is essentially aged fino. They start in barrel under flor. When the flor dies, the wine is aged further and oxidizes. This additional aging gives it a darker color and full, nutty flavors.
Palo Cortado is the one that got away. These wines were intended to be fino and had some time under flor, but the flor died unexpectedly. Like amontillados, these are left to age and oxidize in barrel. Similar in flavor to amontillado, but with a richness that is more like an oloroso.
Oloroso is the fullest and most aromatic of sherries, and is the only one that is aged entirely without flor. Wines selected to become oloroso is fortified immediately after fermentation to a level that is too harsh for flor to survive – typically to 18% alcohol. As it matures, it develops nutty, savory aromas and flavors but stays bone dry. Like amontillado and palo cortados, these are sometimes sweetened with a percentage of pedro ximenez.