Wine Tips from Sommelier Miguel Ángel Benito of El Chaflán - Madrid (España), Spain
My answer to the question "what is your type of wine?" is straightforward: I don't have prejudices - for varietals, regions, or countries. I don't pigeonhole myself in a closed circle of a dozen wines; I believe that ultimately there are enough varietals, climates, soils, winemaking methods, and cultures to be surprised by, to savor, to discover, and to be thrilled by.
I have the good fortune to be living at a special moment in the course of Spanish wines; previously there were a limited number of wine styles, but now there is an emerging vanguard of wines which can rub shoulders with the best of the world. For them, tradition is neither a burden nor a challenge. For winemakers in a country so privileged in geography and climate there are many choices to be made. In my opinion a good part of the responsibility lies in the care and work in the vineyard, redirecting nature as it expresses itself in the union of fruit and earth. With that in mind, I can enjoy the blend of Tempranillo and Graciano in one of our Riojas, or of Garnacha and Parraleta in a Somantano, as much as an unknown Bobal from Utiel-Requena. Furthermore I continue to be astonished by the wines of Barolo, Tuscan, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Port, Napa Valley…in short, I find so many agreeable and amazing wines around the world that my interest in enjoying them and describing them is ever increasing.
Nonetheless, there is something special about the wines of Andalucia, Jerez, Manzanilla de Sanlucar, Montilla-Moriles, and Condado de Huelva - the wines the world knows collectively as Sherry - which may be the most genuine Spanish contribution to the world's viticultural panorama, providing unique aromas and flavors.
The influence of various factors is needed to create them: the climate - southern, but with clear Atlantic influences, so that the summer as well as the winter is mild, with high humidity from the proximity of the sea. The cloud cover is appreciable enough - although it can appear otherwise - to offer a contrast to the many hours of sunlight each year. Albariza, the white limestone soil of the area, is capable of absorbing a lot of water. In the hottest months it forms a crust on its surface, which impedes evaporation; meanwhile its clear, white color reflects the sun's rays onto the vines, concentrating and increasing the sugars in the grapes.
A few different varietals are grown in the area: Palomino is the most common grape in Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda, while Pedro Ximenez dominates in Montilla-Moriles. For sweet wines Pedro Ximenez is actually used in both regions along with Moscatel in Malaga. The winemaking process up to and including fermentation is little different than winemaking in other regions around the world, excepting the singular properties of the varietals and the soils of the vineyards. But from this point on, some new complex and diverse factors come together, and magic makes its appearance.
The Veil of Flor
When fermentation has finished, the wine has reached a minimum of 13.5% alcohol; the wine is racked into 500 liter casks, but they are not filled to the top as they would be in almost any other wine region of the world. Inside the cask an unusual biological aging begins under what is known as the "veil of flor," a white cap resembling foam which forms on the surface of the wine. However, for this to occur the wine must possess between 15% and 17.5% alcohol, so in Jerez and Manzanilla the winemaker fortifies it with neutral grape brandy; in Montilla-Moriles this higher level of alcohol is reached naturally during fermentation as the Pedro Ximenez grape ripens to a higher level of sugars than Palomino. The cap of flor only forms in the very particular climate of the southwest of Andalucia; humidity is a fundamental factor, and the sherry casks are left open inside the bodega to promote flor growth. For the same reason the bodegas are not cellars but are instead at ground level. Flor is actually a form of yeast; it absorbs any remaining sugars in the wine while lowering volatile acidity and glycerine. At the same time it also increases aromatic esters and aldehydes that give sherry its characteristic aromas.
Each wine will become quite different according to their individual evolutions in the cask. Here the winemaker has many different classifications to choose from, deciding which will become the finest and most elegant wine. Those with an abundance of flor are destined to become "fino" sherries, but may become classified as amontillados instead, depending on their future aging. The casks which do not develop enough flor, or whose quality is otherwise insufficient, are used to make olorosos; they are fortified again up to 18% alcohol (flor can not survive at more than 17.5%) and are aged in separate casks.
Flor is the first element unique to sherry; the solera aging system is the second. This special aging method was thought up to balance the characters of the different wines. In principle, long lines of casks are stacked on top of each other at least three casks high. This stack is called the solera, and each layer of barrels is called a criadera. When the time comes to bottle the wine, one third of the contents of the lowest cask in the solera is siphoned off; the cask is then topped off with the same amount of wine from the cask immediately above it in the solera. Similarly, each criadera is replenished with wine from the "younger" criadera above it. The barrels at the top of the solera are topped off with wine from the most recent vintage. This process unifies the aromas and provides a consistency which makes them unique.
The Finos are required to pass through a minimum of three criaderas before bottling, but it is possible to find complex soleras with as many as 14 levels. If the flor dies during the solera aging process the wine becomes an amontillado. It is refortified to prevent future flor development and transferred to a separate solera for further aging.
The Varieties of Sherry
Here are the various types of Sherry, depending on the evolution of the "veil of flor"
(Editor's Note: For those less familiar with true sherry, it's important to note that, aside from the Pedro Xinemez, none of these wines are usually sweet. The "Cream" sherries one sees outside of Spain are blends sweetened especially for the export market, which is why Mr. Benito does not address them. The Cream style was developed to cater to the 19th century British market; while there are some quality wines made in this style, by-and-large these wines have only hurt the reputation of sherry abroad):
FINO: The most popular and delicate of the sherries. Finos are made with 100% Palomino grapes and develop and retain the veil of flor for their entire aging process. Usually the flor does not provide a hermetic seal, so some oxidation occurs which gives the fino a marked and penetrating aroma.
MANZANILLA: A fino, but made in the bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. Here the humidity pretty much guarantees a permanent cap of flor that insulates the wine, making this the palest and lightest of the sherries, with a very characteristic iodine note.
AMONTILLADO: A wine that starts being aged as a fino, but which loses its veil of flor during the solera aging process and so is fortified and aged oxidatively (exposed to the air). This gives the wine greater acidity and a darker, golden shade; sharp notes of dried fruits stand out on the nose, with a fuller body than a fino.
MANZANILLA PASADA: Made in the same manner as the Amontillado of Jerez, but more elegant, but less well-known; like Manzanilla, it is made exclusively in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
OLOROSO: This wine is fortified early on to 18% alcohol, and so never develops any flor. All the aging is oxidative and lasts much longer - it usually takes at least 10 years before the wine is brought together into the solera process. Complex and full-bodied, with a dark, mahogany color, olorosos show notes of walnuts and hazelnuts.
PALO CORTADO: This is an oloroso with very special characteristics; it begins by "wanting" to be a fino; the flor develops, but falters and so the wine evolves into an amontillado. Then the winemaker decides to age the wine extensively, like an oloroso. This wine earns its name when the winemaker marks the cask by cutting (cortado= cut) a mark on the cask to set it apart for this prolonged aging. They are classified with one, two, three, or four cuts depending on the wine's age. A joy.
PEDRO XIMENEZ: A wine made solely from grapes of the same name, the grape clusters are picked, raisinated in the sun and then collected again; this process concentrates the richness of the sugars. During fermentation a neutral grape brandy is added to the must which stops fermentation with some residual sugar remaining. The result is a sweet fortified wine which is then aged to balance the wine. These wines are smooth and velvety on the palate, with a refreshing acidity.
The wines of Montilla-Moriles are classified in the same manner as those of Jerez with the notable exception that they are made with the Pedro Ximenez grape, which does not need to be fortified to develop the veil of flor. This difference means some subtle differences such as more body, smoothness, and some bitterness. Some of the Pedro Ximenez (P.X.) sweet wines made here are truly spectacular, above all in special vintages like the 1939.
Sherry is a very special and often under-valued contribution to the world of wine which regales our senses and enchants us with its extraordinary character.