Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Sherry at Jerez de la Frontera

Continuing from its Part I, Sommelier Gagan SHARMA continues to share his learnings from the travels to the Sherry Triangle. Here, he provide in-depth information in to the fascinating word of oxidative Sherries – Amontillados, Palo Cortados, and Olororso. Forget not to read him placing his bets on the future of Sherries.

Take a sip, wait a moment, and then, surprise!

The magic of Sherry seldom fails. Educated fine palates can’t take their hands off of a well-matured and age-refined Sherry. What has been poised as an afterthought for decades now, from a mahogany-hued, sticky, boozy, post-dinner sipper, it’s growingly gathering the confidence of acquiring much more space on wine lists, and coming in to the mainstream as a drink in its own. Oxidative Sherries have risen in stature since their revival in the mid 1980s. They’re now becoming the centre of talks amongst connoisseurs, sommeliers, and trade professionals. Some, as much the Grand Crus of Burgundy, the single estate Napa Cabernets, or the German Rieslings. 

SHERRY STYLES

Hailing from Andalusia, the Sherry Triangle comprising of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The Sherries have two basic shades – biological and oxidative. Biologically produced sherries are a gift of a naturally occurring yeast, called Flor. It’s unique to these Southern Spanish regions. Flor sits on top of the liquid in the partially-filled barrel, protecting the wines from oxidation. And in the process, it delivers its own unique character and a salty, seaweed-like, coastal taste. These light, crisp, and linear wines are called Finos and Manzanillas. Oxidative Sherries, however, are fortified wines that are finished with a dose of Spanish brandy to stabilise them. They’re then rested for years with ample exposure to oxygen. These twany, golden, and copper-hued elixirs are classified as Amontillado, Oloroso, or Palo Cortado

OXIDATIVE SHERRIES – PRODUCTION

Understanding these sherries is simple. To a finished dry wine, a generous splash of local brandy is added. It raises the alcohol share up to 18%, distancing the liquid from any possibilities of developing the flor. They are then transferred to a traditional 600 litres American oak barrel, called butts. These butts are filled up to 500 litre capacity, allowing a chamber of air to deliberately oxidise the wine. These wines, usually aged for 5-8 years, turn golden-hued. And, thanks to the generous dosage of alcohol retain their nervy booziness. They are called Oloroso. These are unapologetically nutty, crunchy, earthy, toasty, and savoury. This makes the a brilliant food companion. Especially with roasted meats, garlic-heavy dishes, and hard and blue cheeses.

THE PERFECT MIX – AMONTILLADO + PALO CORTADO

At times, wines begin as a Fino, and are failed by the environment in maintaining ideal conditions. Rendering it weak enough for the sustenance of yeast, it sinks to the bottom of the barrel. These wines that began their journey as a biologically Sherry now resort to oxidative maturation. This mix of influences creates two very special and hard-to-find styles called Amontillado and Palo Cortado. Amontillado are more biologically bent, while Palo Cortado’s oxidative ageing reigns. They’re made only in the best vintages. And, are aged for the better half of a decade, at times even more. This makes them a pricey proposition and an acquired taste, not meant for all. 

NATURE’S GIFT – AMONTILLADO OXIDATIVE SHERRY

It’s essentially a Fino that started under the influence of flor, aged biologically for three to six years. And then, it slowly oxidises through oak and the dying yeast layers. They develop a darker tone, retain the refreshing zingy crispness, yeasty and fresh dough-like tones, wild herbs, and a kiss of florals and ages to develop nutty, herbaceous, and tobacco characters with an ethereal oaky tone at the finish. This accentuated elegance, structure, and organoleptic goodness is owing to the dual ageing process. They are best served slightly chilled, say 12-14C, to carefully enhance the complex aromas.

In Jerez, I had a dish of fresh clams cooked in white wine with garlic, capers, chives, and white onions. It worked completely in-hand with a mid-aged Amontillado. And yes, do away with those small Sherry copitas. Taste these complex wines through the same chambers as a commendable Burgundy or a German GG Riesling.

Amongst the finest Amontillados I tasted during my visits that’re highly recommend for those getting acquainted with the style are:

LETTING THEM BREATH – OLOROSO OXIDATIVE SHERRY

This is possibly how all sherries were supposed to be. It is the simplest of all styles to make and, thus, the most difficult to master. The dry base wine is quickly fortified to approximately 18% alcoholic strength. They’re then transferred to ageing butts in the presence of oxygen. That’s it! Some volume is lost owing to the prolonged oxidation and the resultant Oloroso sits firmly at 20-22% alcohol level. Oloroso traditionally shows nutty aromas, of which walnuts and almonds are most commonly identifiable. It’s quite easy to find balsamic notes, dried fruits, toasted hints, tobacco, cedar, truffles, and forrest floor as well. Older ones tend to develop spice, meat, and leather notes as well.

TASTING OLOROSOS

Olorosos are dry and they are quite easy to befriend. Especially, for those who have keenness towards long-aged whiskies and dark spirits. It’s the play of time, finesse of the oak, and the romancing of oxygen with the liquid, I suspect. Technically, all Olorosos have to be dry and boast of an identifiable greater structure, definitive weight, and a round mouthfeel. Oxidation can often trick you to believe that the liquid is sweet and have some candied notes. Olorosos do justice to that mind-play. They are effortlessly complex, a host of a pleathora of intense aromas and flavours, and hauntingly memorable.  

After our wine exams in a frosty London winters, we would hop over the street to a neighbourhood bar and have a spirited Olorosso. With a serving of toasted Almonds and aged cheese, it’d make a commendable afternoon tipple. Though there’s game, smoked meat, aged beef and venison, and much more, I personally believe the key to Oloroso’s perfect pairing is in simplicity. Do not sweat over concepts, and just simply get a bowl of nuts and enjoy, the way the Spaniards do.

RECOMENDED OLOROSOS

While at the triangle, some of the Olorosos I most enjoyed were the Gonzalez Byass’s Matusalem Oloroso Dulce VORS, Lustau’s Anada 1990 and 1997, Yuste’s Aurora, and the quintessential Tradicion’s VORS Oloroso. I wish I could bring them all back. 

PERFECT IMPERCETION – PALO CORTADO OXIDATIVE SHERRY

Amongst these style, Palo Cortado is the king. It’s the rarest of all sherries and is surrounded with stories, myths, legends, and a generous dressing of exaggeration. Like most good things, it originated accidentally too, and no one fully understands its origins. The Consejo Regulador’s website itself describes it as ‘a wine of great complexity which combines the delicate bouquet of an Amontillado with the body and palate of an Oloroso. Finest grape juice is selected and initially fortified upto 15% alcoholic strength, destined to age like a Fino under the blanket of flor. Upon periodic tastings, if the cellarmasters notice a development of special characteristics, these selected casks are further fortified upto 18% and left to age oxidatively like an Oloroso would. Hence, emerges a wine with praiseworthy complexity. 

THE OPEN SECRET OF PALO CORTADO SHERRY

Palo Cortados are seldom out-of-stocks. Though over the years their demand have soared, and so have the prices yet the gap still needs plugging to let Palo Cortados shine in their entirety. Such is its enigma that to produce a laudable Palo Cortado nature has to take its course. And needless to say, technology and winemakers’ prowess have advanced so, that they can successfully select the right liquid and the right casks to ensure a high chance of developing a Palo Cortado profile. Is that to say that cellarmasters are deliberately making Palo Cortado, rather than accidentally stumbling upon them now?

It seems to be an open secret that’s still spoken in whispers between the rows of dusty Sherry butts in Jerez bodegas. But this very ambiguous definition also allows winemakers to flirt with the boundaries within the style and carve their own styles, making it a further interesting proposition to develop a palate for!

RECOMENDED PALO CORTADOS

In my visits, Palo Cortados featured frequently, and they all superseded one another. Apart from the usual nutty, oxidative, and savoury tones, Palo Cortados can be astonishingly complex. Labels like Lustau’s Almacenista ‘Vides’, and ‘Cayentano del Pino’, Gonzales Byass’s Apostoles and Anada 1987, Obispo Gascon by Barbadillo, Privilege 1860 VORS by Hidalgo, and Palo Vortado VORS by Tradicion that have set the mark so high, that they can convert a Sherry virgin to a Palo Cortado aficionado in a single sip. And once you’ve been introduced to the finesse and complexity of this golden nectar, it’ll be hard to settle for anything but the finest.

THE FUTURE OF OXIDATIVE SHERRY

Internet is filled with articles about Sherry’s grim future, justifying ‘extinction’ being its synonym, and it nearly becoming a global ingredient only to feature in cocktails and mixed drinks. To some extend they may have a point, but the global demand for fortified wines seem to be surging lately. Ports are enjoying a newfound revival, the category of Madeira is slowly finding a second life, and soon the sun will shine over Sherries too. Not for long would the millennials be able to resist the charm of the longest-living liquids the wine universe has to offer and in one way the other the nectar will keep reaching their copas before they realise its potential.

GREAT PROPOSITION

The factor of value-for-money is not to be discounted. Where in auctions a 25-30 year old First Growth Bordeaux Grand Cru may easily fetch a five-figure Euros tag, a century old Sherry of great provenance would settle only for a few thousands. Couple that with the factors like limited production and rarity value, hight cost of production and risks involved in prolonged cellaring, and the probable life ahead of them even after being uncorked in their post its 100th birthday, all makes this a deal that’s nearly undeniable. Though that’s not enough to promise a golden future for Sherries, it is enough to conclude that the wine-style isn’t facing its ‘extinction’ just yet. Amongst all global cuisines, Spanish gastronomy is amongst the fastest growing matrix, and with that comes the fine tipples.

With an array of styles, flavours, ages, and expressions, Sherry will continue to rise and reserve its spot in our cellars. Salud!

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