Tour de Spain: Jerez
Since I discussed oxidation in my last post, I thought it would be a nice segue into my next topic: Sherry wines - where oxidation is sometimes the goal! I wouldn't blame you if you're currently thinking something along the lines of "Wait. Megan. You just talked about how oxidation is a flaw and now you want me to drink wines that have it?? You cray." Bear with me and you'll see why controlled oxidation can be a good thing, I promise!
Sherry comes from the region of Jerez, which is a coastal town in southern Spain. It's warm and sunny with lots of rain falling in the autumn and winter. Around 95% of the grape plantings in Jerez are the Palomino grape. It's a white grape that is low in acidity and does not have strong aromatics, so it produces a dry and rather neutral wine. Sherry sounds so appealing right now, doesn't it? It's made to be super boring at first so that later it can highlight the unique qualities that the wine receives from its maturation, which I'll dive into shortly. The juice is fermented at temperatures that are considered high for a white wine, further reducing the aromas. Then, it undergoes a slow fermentation where the yeast converts all of the sugars to alcohol, resulting in a bone dry wine that hovers between 11 and 12% abv. The wine is then drained from its lees (dead yeast cells), then moved to a large tank that is left unsealed, which allows flor to form.
Flor is made of several different strains of yeast and it forms a thick, whitish layer on top of the wine. Basically, if you saw flor anywhere but floating atop some Sherry, you would surely attack it with a spray bottle of bleach. But it plays a very important role in Sherry production! Flor feeds on oxygen and alcohol that is under 15.5% abv. If the alcohol is any higher than that, the flor will die. As the flor feeds, it releases carbon dioxide and acetaldehyde. The acetaldehyde is what gives sherry a unique aroma and flavor of green apple and nuts.
The amount of flor will determine whether a sherry is classified as Fino or Oloroso. Fino sherries have a well developed flor and will be light bodied and pale colored. Oloroso sherries have a small amount of flor or none at all and they are fuller bodied. After classification, both types of wine are fortified by adding a grape-based spirit. Fino is fortified to 15% abv, which is just under the maximum amount of alcohol for flor to survive. Oloroso is fortified to 17% abv, which kills the flor. Both wines are moved into oak barrels where they rest for 6 to 8 months. Vacation!
From there, the wines are matured either biologically or oxidatively. Sherry uses a unique maturation process called the solera system. It's essentially a tower of barrels that are arranged by ascending age: the top layer contains the youngest sherry and the bottom layer contains the oldest. Each barrel is only partially full, which allows space for oxygen. Fino sherries undergo biological maturation: the oxygen keeps the flor alive and the flor protects the wine from oxygen, so that it can continue to develop those apple, nut and dough flavors. They are usually matured for 3 or 4 years because the flor becomes weaker with age and the wine can start to oxidize. Oloroso sherries undergo oxidative maturation: the oxygen in the barrel begins to slowly oxidize the wine, which is preferred for that style of wine.
When it is time to bottle sherry, wine is pulled from the bottom (oldest) barrels but the barrels are not entirely emptied. Instead, it is refilled with wine from the next oldest set of barrels, which are refilled by the second oldest set, so on and so forth. This process creates a consistent style and a complex blend of wines that have characteristics of an aged wine with the freshness of a younger wine. This is particularly important for Oloroso sherries because the presence of the younger wine keeps the final wine from being overly oxidized.
There are more styles of sherry than just Fino and Oloroso, so for the sake of not completely overwhelming you, I'm going to briefly describe each one here!
Fino: Light colored with flavors of green apple, nuts, and dough. Best consumed while young
Oloroso: Deep brown with flavors of toffee, walnut, spices, and leather
Amontillado: Amber to brown in color, shows flavors of both Fino and Olorosso
Palo Cortado: A rare sherry to find! Has the body of an Oloroso with the characteristics of an Amontillado
PX: Made with the Pedro Ximenez grape. Deep brown in color, it's a sweet dessert wine with flavors of dried fruit and coffee.
Muscat: similar to PX, but also has citrus notes
Pale Cream: A Fino sherry blended with a sweet extract of grape sugars
Cream: An Oloroso sherry blended with a sweet sherry like PX or Muscat
Well that was a brain full of information, wasn't it? I've tasted a Fino sherry for this post. The sherry selection at many wine stores is usually quite tiny, so I was limited to one choice: Hartley & Gibson's Fino Very Dry Sherry. I wasn't very impressed with this wine, but it did show some classic examples of what flavors and aromas you should get from a Fino Sherry. It smelled like almonds, red and yellow apples, and biscuit. Simple, but you can totally smell the flor influence! It was high in acidity, light bodied, and it tasted like green apples and bread dough flavored with almond extract. However, the finish was pretty simple with the apple and almond flavors quickly giving way to the doughyness and that flavor hung around for a while, which wasn't too pleasant. It's on the simple side and, honestly, the flavors - although classic - seemed a little diluted. Considering the price point of this wine and the amount of effort that goes into crafting Sherry, I didn't really have high hopes for this bottle. I've had some really lovely sherries, so please don't let this fail keep you from trying one! But if your eyes land on this wine, maybe just keep those peepers moving ;)