Tuesday, December 28, 2021

:: from jerez to jalisco -- expressions of sherry ::

Two Tuesdays ago, I attended a class on sherry at Faces Brewing Co. in Malden hosted by Patrón to showcase their new añejo tequila aged in sherry casks (more on that in the next post along with a cocktail recipe). Patrón's East coast ambassador Steph Teslar introduced certified sherry educator May Matta-Aliah; May is a New York-based wine educator, president of In the Grape, and sherry whisperer with 18 years experience talking about that fortified wine. In the past, I have covered sherry before such as in seminars like Derek Brown's at Thirst Boston and when posting recipes from Talia Baiocchi's Sherry book, but I felt it was a good time for a refresher of sherry basics.
So what is sherry? Sherry is a fortified wine of place with that location being the southern part of Spain. Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda make up the "sherry triangle" which is where the maturation occurs, and the vineyards are located throughout that southwestern portion of Spain as long as the soil and growing conditions are correct. The fortification started as a pragmatic reason for casks were not hygienic and storage conditions were not temperature controlled; with these cities being along the coastline, preparing wines to be stable to make it through ocean voyages was essential. Over time, they learned that an elevated alcohol content of 15-17% ABV makes wines more stable against spoilage bacteria. Sherry was perhaps the oldest wine produced to be exported. The Moorish denomination in Spain were knowledgeable about distillation, but as Muslims, they did not use this technology for drinking. The Moors were driven out of this region during the reconquest of 1264, but the technology for distillation remained. The 1800s were a great time for sherry for viticulture was booming in the area with well-established shipping routes such that production jumped from 7,000 to 70,000 casks. Aging Scotch in sherry casks became common for pragmatic reasons since bottles were not as common and there was no system to return the shipping casks.

The most cherished growing regions have albariza soils for they make the best wines for sherry; the high concentration of calcium carbonate gives the soil not only a white color but an amazing ability to retain loads of water. The next best is arenas which is more sandy; Moscatel grapes are grown on this soil, and this soil lines the insides of bull fighting rings and sherry bodegas (wineries). The last is barros or clay soil which is not coveted much for grape production. On these soils, there used to be 40 grape varietals grown, but now there are only 3 main ones, namely Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, and Moscatel. Palomino is rather neutral and not very exciting on its own with low levels of acid and aromaticity; however, the wines are rather heat tolerant and aging friendly. Pedro Ximenez is a white grape varietal that is utilized both for dessert-style sherries as a single varietal or as a sweetener for certain sherry styles (as described below). And lastly, Moscatel is an aromatic grape that is found all around the Mediterranean; none of the sherries we tasted contained this grape though.

The sherry bodegas where the wine is produced are often called cathedrals due to their architecture. They are built with an orientation to allow the ocean winds to provide ventilation. An interesting fact is that the sherry casks are painted matte black for a particular reason – if a leak occurs, the wetted area becomes rather shiny. These barrels stay in the solera system for decades and are repaired in house, and they are not the same as the shipping barrels (600 liters for aging and 500 liters for shipping; aging need to have an air space (see below) and thus are slightly bigger). The solera is an aging system of fractional blending. It imprints a very special dynamic on the aging process and influences the nature of the wine in a singular ways – by eliminating the variation that occurs between vintages to ensure continuity. The newest barrels are often at the top and called the 2nd criadera, and they feed the 1st criadera. The 1st criadera feeds the oldest barrels referred to as the solera. None of the barrels are emptied all the way, and this fractional blending gives a new food source to the older barrels. Food source? Yes, there is a layer of yeast called flor growing on top of the sherry in the barrel, and this yeast not only protects the wine from oxidation but breaks down the wine such as the sugar and glycerine content and returns flavor components and acidity to the mix. This living colony requires humidity and an air source (meaning the barrels cannot be completely filled). Choices are made with each barrel as to what sort of sherry it will become labeled as whether by nature or wine maker's intervention. Fortification of 15% and less promotes this biological aging, whereas as raising it over 17% ABV will kill off the flor and take the sherry on a path of oxidative aging.
The various styles:
Fino: Made from Palomino grapes completely under biological aging in Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa María. Both Fino and Manzanilla have been aging in the solera system for at least 2 years and in Jerez often 3 years or more. These wines like Manzanilla are dry, high acid, and bright. Tasting notes include dough, yeast, brine, lemon zest and pith, green almond.
Manzanilla: This is a Fino style that is aged in Sanlúcar de Barrameda which is surrounded by ocean, an estuary, and a river which add a sea brine aspect to the wines. Often lighter in style with more flor influence than Fino. The name translates to chamomile which can be one of the tasting notes.
Oloroso: Here, the wine made from Palomino grapes is fortified above 17% to kill off the yeast before it can become a protective flor. This leads to not only a darker color and nutty notes from oxidation, but the wine will have more weight since the flor did not breakdown all the glycerine and other components. Both Oloroso and Amontillado will be dry, medium in acid, and nutty.
Amontillado: Like Oloroso, this is another oxidative aging, but here, the wine starts its life aging underneath a layer of flor (often 3-4 years) followed by a time when it ages oxidatively due to the flor dying or being killed off. The end result has the nose of an Oloroso but the finish of a Fino.
Palo Cortado: This is a unicorn category that sits somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso. The wine starts as a fino and within 6 months (as opposed to 3-4 years), the ABV is raised to cut its flor growth.
Pedro Ximenez: Both Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are raisinated by being placed on straw mats for a few weeks to concentrate the juice. The result is a rather sweet dessert wine that possesses raisin, molasses, figgy, stewed, and carob notes with a syrupy and rich feel. These wines can also be used for blending (see next category).
Cream: These are blends of dry and sweet sherry wines. Pale cream is a Fino or Manzanilla sweetened with concentrated grape must such that it is off dry. Medium falls in between Pale and full Cream in sweetness and often is an Amontillado sweetened by Moscatel or Pedro Ximenez. And finally, sherries labeled as Cream are generally Oloroso sweetened with Pedro Ximenez with a higher sugar content than Medium.

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