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To categorize Sherry, there are only two types - Fino and Oloroso.  (Photo: Flickr user, jypsygen)
To categorize Sherry, there are only two types - Fino and Oloroso. (Photo: Flickr user, jypsygen)

Wines of Spain: Sherry

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Of all the wine regions in Spain, Rioja and Ribera del Duero are probably two of the most well-known. However, there is one other that could be called iconic. More familiar as a drink for elderly grandmothers, it has been produced since before the Romans. But it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th C that England started importing the wine and became an influential market for this beverage. Each of the world's greatest wines are inextricably tied to a storied locale: Champagne to the region of the same name in France, Port from Portugal's Douro River, the wines of Mosel from Germany, Madeira on the rocky island off the coast of Morocco and Marsala from sun-drenched Sicily. The complex Sherry wines of Andalusia in southwest Spain definitely belongs in this exalted category.

The wines are produced in what is called the “Sherry Triangle”, an area in the province of Cádiz between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. It is here that the grape varieties, climate and soil come together to produce, without a doubt, the most unique aperitif/dessert wine in the world.

Palomino is the dominant grape and approximately 90% of the grapes grown are intended for Sherry. As regular varietal table wine, it produces a wine of very bland and neutral characteristics. But this neutrality is actually what makes it ideal. Pedro Ximénez or PX as it is also called is used primarily to produce sweet wines while Moscatel, which is similarly to Pedro Ximénez, is less commonly used.

The region has a very predictable climate with about 300 days of sun per year. The 60 some-odd days of rain mostly falls between the months of October and May. The summer is dry and hot with temperatures as high as 40°C, but winds from the ocean bring moisture to the vineyards in the early morning and the clays in the soil retain water below the surface.

The soil in this region may not be the best for growing traditional grape varieties like Cabernet, Chardonnay or Merlot but for ones intended for Sherry, it is the best. There are three soil types throughout the Jerez district. The lightest of these is an almost white soil called Albariza, which is a combination of 40-50% chalk, limestone, clay and sand. Albariza preserves moisture well during the hot summer months and is the best for growing the Palomino grape and by law 40% of the grapes making up a Sherry must come from Albariza soil. The benefit of the Albariza soil is that it can reflect sunlight back up to the vine, aiding in the growth cycle. The nature of the soil is very absorbent and compact so that it can retain and maximize the use of the little rainfall that the Jerez region receives.

The two others are Barros and Arenas. Barros is a dark brown soil with high clay content and10% chalk while Arena, a yellowish soil has high sand content and 10% chalk. These soils are used mainly for growing PX and Moscatel.

To categorize Sherry, there are only two types - Fino and Oloroso. The production of Sherry will determine which is which. Fermentation starts off normally as a white wine but when the wine is placed in oak barrels, they are only partially filled. This allows the wine to come into contact with the air, a destructive force normally but an essential part of the Sherry process. This curious method develops, without human intervention, a pale scum of yeast on the wine called Flor and is destined to be a Fino. An Oloroso has no Flor or very little.

When the new wine has been classified, it is racked (drawn off the lees from one cask to another), tested for alcohol content and adjusted if needed. Fino’s are adjusted up to about 16%, while an Oloroso is about 17% or 18%. This addition of alcohol separates one style of Sherry from another.

The most intriguing thing about Sherry, apart from the Flor, is the way it is aged. The inherent attribute of Sherry is such that an older wine is able to improve a younger wine and it is for this reason that the wines are stored in an aging system called a Solera. A Solera is a system of aging and blending and consists of several rows of small oak barrels stacked upon one another grouped by vintages. The oldest is at the bottom and the most recent at the top. The young wines are introduced in the upper rows of casks and are used to top up casks of older wines stored below in order to produce a consistently aged blend. At bottling, approximately one third of the contents of each of the barrels on the bottom level are removed. Sherry from the row immediately above will replace what was removed and so on until a complete transfer is made from top to bottom.

As mentioned, there are only two types of Sherry, Fino and Oloroso. However, there are sub-categories to each type.

Fino Sherry is the lightest and youngest style and is a pale yellow/straw color. They are aged under flor for a period of time and are not heavily fortified (their alcohol is usually around 15-16%). They tend to be aromatic but fresh and bright with a pleasing acidity. Usually served chilled, they are an outstanding thirst quencher in summer and can be served alone as an apéritif or with salty appetizers like olives, almonds and other finger foods.

Manzanilla's are similar in production and style to Fino's, but are exclusively made in a region right along the coast at the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Served in the same manner, they tend to be slightly lighter and are often served chilled along with fried seafood and other light fare.

Amontillado starts off similar to a Fino but sees additional aging under the flor. After awhile the flor is removed allowing the wine to be in content with oxygen. This develops oxidized, nutty and caramelized aromas as well as a darker amber colour. Still possessing good acidity, they can be enjoyed alone for their rich, complex aromatics but are a great match for French onion soup and roast poultry.

Oloroso is even darker than an Amontillado and is aged in wood for even longer without flor protection. The wine develops a deep, dark and rich colour from this extended aging along with a toasty, smoky, nutty and even butterscotch type aromas and flavours. The richness of these wines, despite being dry, make them a better option for after dinner, either to sip alone or to partner with nuts, pungent cheeses or even some desserts.

Cream Sherries are basic wines to which sweet wine has been added before aging. It is a rich, sweet wine that is meant as a dessert wine to drink alone or with some dessert courses.

Pedro Ximénez is a type of Sherry made exclusively from the Pedro Ximénez grape. The grapes are traditionally left to dry on mats in the hot sun becoming raisiny, concentrated and powerful. The resulting wine is a rich, intense sweet wine which is best served as dessert or along with dessert courses.

The upcoming Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival will be an excellent opportunity to try a wide and varied selection of Sherry.

In Vino Veritas

Winter still seems to still be upon us so a glass of warming Sherry might be just the thing. Really good value is the Alvear line of wines. Try these two wines, available at the local gov’t liquor stores.

Produced in the hotter in-land region of Montilla-Moriles, you can’t go wrong with the Alvear Fino ($14.49 LDB). Although not technically Sherry producers as their wines are from Montilla-Moriles, it still has the complexity of a Jerez Fino. A pale straw-yellow, it has a delicate slightly salty fresh taste with a trace of the floral notes more associated with Pedro Ximénez grapes. Offering intriguing aromas of Middle Eastern spices with pear fruit, hazelnut, almonds and cedar, the finish is bone-dry, spicy and warm, with a slight herbal edge, it has excellent length.

The Alvear Amontillado ($15.49 LDB) is bright amber in colour, with light, appealing walnut and pecan-like scents. Full-bodied and quite dry, it shows only a faint fresh-fruit sweetness cloaked by zingy acidity. Nutty and delicate stone-fruit flavours follow the nose and persist in a long, clean finish.

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