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An Introduction to Sherry by Miguel Ángel Benito
Translated and Adapted by Jim Clarke
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
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
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
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
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
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