Monday, February 10, 2014

Unit 5 – Day 3: The Spanish Islands, Southern Spain and Sherry

In Unit 5 of the Intensive Sommelier Training we studied the wines of the Iberian Peninsula – Spain, Portugal, Sherry and Madera. On Days 1 and 2 we covered Spain and on Day 3 we learned about the winemaking process, styles and flavors of Sherry. We did not cover the Spanish Islands, Southern Spain nor go into this much detail on Sherry in class. In this review I will complete my studies of the Spanish Islands, Southern Spain, and Sherry wine production. I will then review the 8 different Sherries we tasted in class.

Spanish Islands

The Canary Islands lie nearly 700 miles from the Iberian Peninsula off the coast of Africa. The islands were created by volcanoes and the region had a sub-tropical climate.  As unlikely as it may sound for such a climate, wine is produced on most of the inhabited islands and there are 10 DO zones. The islands of El Hierro, La Gomera, La Palma, Gran Canaria, and Lanzarote are each a DO zone and there are 5 DO zones on the island of Tenerife.  Phylloxera never reached the islands so many ancient century-old vines are still producing wine on their native root stock.  Red wines are usually produced from Listán Negro, Negramoll (Tinta Negra), Malvasía Rosada, and Listán Prieto (related to the pink Criolla grape of Argentina, the red País grape of Chile and the Mission Grape of California). White wines are produced from a combination of grapes including Malvasía, Gual, Forastera Blanca, Moscatel, and Listán Blanco (Palomino).  Once the home of fortified wines, they now produce fresh vino joven styles popular with the islands’ tourists.  

Southern Spain

Wine is produced in every autonomía of Southern Spain, including Murcia and Valencia, which comprise the Levant region on the eastern coast. The most well known are the dessert wines and Sherries.


Andalucía runs along Spain’s southern coastline and it includes the DO zones of Málaga, Sierras de Málaga, Montilla-Moriles, Condado du Huelva, Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, and Manzanilla Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  The city of Jerez de la Frontera was known as “Sherish” (خيريز دي لا فرونتيرا) in Arabic from which the British derived the term “sherry”.  The region was thoroughly influenced by a Moorish culture until the fall of Granada in 1492, which brought an end Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula.  That same year, 8 months later, Christopher Columbus set sail from Andalucía in hopes of finding a route to the East Indies.  This quest for the expansion of colonial power and discovery in the Americas had an enormous impact on the future of the Spanish wine industry, especially the fortified wines of Andalucía.

Montilla-Moriles DO

Montilla-Moriles DO is green region in the center of the map
Montilla-Moriles DO, to the northeast of Jerez, lent its name to the style of amontillado, although it is legally barred from using the term on its labels in other EU countries.  The zone’s primary grape is Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Jerez has received dispensation to import PX must from Montilla-Moriles to compensate for its own declining acreage of the grape.  Wines in the style of sherry (fino, oloroso, and amontillado) are produced in both fortified and unfortified versions.  The hot climate of Montilla-Moriles enables the Pedro Ximénez grape ripens extremely well so they naturally ferment to 15.5% alcohol which is ideal flor to survive and the post-fortification strength of fino sherry. 

Málaga DO

The coastal Málaga DO is directly south of Montilla-Moriles and its specialty is dessert and fortified wines.  In the past it was a prosperous region that produced its own wine and a supplied grapes to the Jerez soleras. Today Málaga suffers from a decline in the international market for both fortified and sweet wines. 

Like its neighbors, the dominant grapes are Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel.  The grapes are dried for a period of up to 20 days on esparto grass mats (a process known as the soleo) prior to fermentation.  The wines are either naturally sweet produced either from overripe grapes, the soleo or they are fortified sweet wines.  The fortified wines either retain natural sweetness, or the winemaker restores it through the addition of grape concentrate (arrope).  The fortified wines undergo solera aging in American oak. Table wines from the region are released under the Sierras de Málaga DO. There are 5 ageing categories:

Málaga Category
Barrel Aging
Málaga Pálido
Maximum 6 months of aging in oak
6 to 24 months
Málaga Noble
2 to 3 years
Málaga Añejo
3 to 5 years
Málaga Transañejo
Minimum 5 years

The History of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry

Jerez, Málaga, the Canary Islands with Porto and Madeira brought Spanish wine to the New World (I’ll discuss Porto and Madeira further in my next review).  So important was Sherry, in 1519 when Ferdinand Magellan set out to circumnavigation of the world he spent more money on it than on weapons.  In 1587 English Admiral Frances Drake “acquired” from the Spanish armada nearly 3000 barrels of what he called “sherris sack” which ensured a market for the wine in England, France, and Flanders. The word “Sherry” is an Anglicization of Xeres (Jerez). Sherry was previously known as sack, from the Spanish saca, meaning “extraction” from the solera.

For the next 300+ years Sherry was in high demand in Great Britain, in fact William Shakespeare refers to the wine in his works.  In the 17th and 18th centuries British companies such as Osbourne, Garvey, John Harvey (now Domecq) founded wineries (bodegas).  Unfortunately, in 1894 the region was hit with the Phylloxera plague and other nations throughout Europe began producing “sherry” style wine, which lessened the demand for Sherry from Jerez

Then in 1933 a Jerez Consejo Regulador was established and the region received a DO status which launched a revival of the Sherry industry.  By 1979, Jerez was exporting 200 million bottles a year.  Unfortunately, much of the wine has been of mediocre quality and the reputation of the region had declined. But, there is currently an on-going effort to revive the Sherry industry with a focus on producing better quality wine. 

The Climate of Jerez

Jerez has a warm Mediterranean and very sunny climate with 300+ days of sunshine and the weather can be dramatically affected by the prevailing winds. The poniente is cool and humid whereas the levante is hot and drying and can send the temperature in the growing season to 40°C.

The Sherry DOs: Jerez-Xérès-Sherry and Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda

There are 2 DO zones today that share the same vineyards and Consejo Regulador: Jerez-Xérès-Sherry and Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  There are 3 towns that form a “golden triangle” of production from which all sherry wines must be shipped - Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria

The Grapes of Sherry
Pedro Ximénez Grapes with Albariza Soil

The three authorized grapes are, in descending order of importance, Palomino, Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel.  Palomino (also known as Listán on the islands) produces neutral table wines but is the preferred variety for dry sherry. 

There are 3 distinct soil types in Jerez. The albariza which are the most important is the lightest soil, almost white, and best for growing Palomino grapes. It is approximately 40-50% chalk, the rest being a blend of limestone, clay and sand. Albariza preserves moisture well during the hot summer months and by law 40% of the grapes making up a Sherry must come from albariza soil. The lower-lying vineyards usually contain more barros, which is clay soil and the arenas, which is a yellowish soil with 10% chalk but with a high sand content. Both are considered inferior for Sherry production and are principally suitable for Moscatel grapes.

Vinification of Sherry

The Palomino grapes are harvested in early September, and pressed lightly to extract the must. The must from the first pressing, the primera yema, is used to produce Fino and Manzanilla and the must from the second pressing, the segunda yema will be used for Oloroso. The product of additional pressings is used for lesser wines, distillation and vinegar. The must is then fermented in stainless steel vats until the end of November, producing a dry white wine with 11-12% alcohol content.

The Solera System

The fortified wine is stored in 500-litre casks that are made of North American oak, which is less porous than French or Spanish oak. The casks, or butts, are filled 5/6 full, leaving “the space of two fists” empty at the top to allow flor to develop on top of the wine. Sherry is then aged in the solera system where new wine is put into wine barrels at the beginning of a series of 3 to 9 barrels. Periodically, a portion of the wine in a barrel is moved into the next barrel down, using tools called the canoa (canoe) and rociador (sprinkler) to move the wine gently and avoid damaging the layer of flor in each barrel. At the end of the series only a portion of the final barrel is bottled and sold. Depending on the type of wine, the portion moved may be between 5% and 30% of each barrel. This process is called “running the scales” because each barrel in the series is called a scale. Thus, the age of the youngest wine going in the bottle is determined by the number of barrels in the series, and every bottle also contains some much older wine than is stated. Sherry is aged in the solera for a minimum of 3 years. Old sherry butts are sold to the Scotch whiskey industry for use in aging whisky.

Biological Maturation of Sherry

Fino Sherry develops its unique taste from the accumulation of acetaldehyde created by flor. Flor (Spanish and Portuguese for flower) is film of yeast on the surface of wine which is important in the manufacture of certain styles of sherry. 

The flor is formed naturally under certain winemaking conditions, from indigenous yeasts found in the region of Andalucía in southern Spain. Normally in winemaking, it is essential to keep young wines away from exposure to air by sealing them in airtight barrels, to avoid contamination by bacteria and yeasts that tend to spoil it. However, in the manufacture of sherries, the slightly porous oak barrels are deliberately filled only about 5/6 full with the young wine, leaving “the space of two fists” empty to allow the flor yeast to take form and the bung is not completely sealed. The flor favors cooler climates and higher humidity, so the sherries produced in the coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María have a thicker cap of flor than those produced inland in Jerez. The yeast gives the resulting sherry its distinctive fresh taste, with residual flavors of fresh bread. Depending on the development of the wine, it may be aged entirely under the veil of flor to produce a fino or manzanilla sherry, or it may be fortified to limit the growth of flor and undergo oxidative aging to produce an amontillado or oloroso sherry. During the fermentation phase of sherry production the flor yeast work anaerobically, converting sugar into ethanol. When all the sugar has been consumed, the physiology of the yeast change to where they begin an aerobic process of breaking down and converting the acids into other compounds such as acetaldehyde. A waxy coating appears on the cells' exterior, causing the yeast to float to the surface and form a protective “blanket” thick enough to shield the wine from oxygen. This process drastically lowers the acidity of the wine and makes Sherries one of the most aldehydic wines in the world. Studies have shown that for the flor to survive and thrive the wine must stay between the narrow alcohol range of 14.5 to 16% abv. Below 14.5%, the yeast do not form their protective waxy cap and the wine oxidizes to the point of becoming vinegar. Above 16% and the flor cannot survive, the wine essentially becoming an oloroso.

Oxidative Maturation of Sherry

Olorosso, Amontillado, PX and some Muscat Sherries are aged oxidatively. The impact of oxygen on the wine is greatly enhanced by the air present in the partially filled butts. In these solera systems the introduction of young wine helps to retain the character of the Sherry which would otherwise become more and more oxidized. For most Olorosso and PXs, sobre tabla wine is fed into the system with younger wines to feed into another with older wines of the same type. sIn the production of Amontillado a fully mature Fino is refortified to 17% abv in order to kill the flor and fed into an Amontillado solera system. Amontillados therefore have the aroma character of a Fino mixed with oxidative aromas. However, the Fino character fades over time and very old Amontillados can taste similar to very old Olorosso.

Classification and Fortification of Sherry

Immediately after fermentation, the wine is sampled and the first classification is performed. The casks are marked with the following symbols according to the potential of the wine:

I - A single stroke indicates a wine with the finest flavor and aroma, suitable for Fino or Amontillado. These wines are fortified to about 15% alcohol to allow the growth of flor. 

I. - A single stroke with a dot indicates a heavier, more full-bodied wine. These wines are fortified to about 17.5% alcohol to prevent the growth of flor, and the wines are aged oxidatively to produce Oloroso

II - A double stroke indicates a wine which will be allowed to develop further before determining whether to use the wine for Amontillado or Oloroso. These wines are fortified to about 15% alcohol. 

III - A triple stroke indicates a wine that has developed poorly, and will be distilled. The Sherry is fortified using destilado, made by distilling wine, usually from La Mancha. The distilled spirit is first mixed with mature Sherry to make a 50/50 blend known as mitad y mitad (half and half), and then the mitad y mitad is mixed with the younger Sherry to the proper proportions. This two-stage procedure is performed so the strong alcohol will not shock the young Sherry and spoil it.

Styles of Sherry

Vinos Generosos are wines are bottled directly from a solera system and are officially known as. Apart from Fino none of these wines sell in large volumes. They are often sold at premium prices.

Finos are pale lemon wines that have pronounced aromas of almonds, herbs and dough. Finos do not improve in bottle and should be consumed as fresh as possible.

Olorossos are deep brown wines dominated by oxidative aromas such as coffee, leather, spice and walnut. Very old Olorossos can develop very intense savory notes and an astringent texture that is balanced by a small amount of sweetness from added PX, even in wines labeled as dry. The PX also adds flavors of dried fruit. The level of alcohol in the oldest wines can reach 22% abv.

Amontillados are amber or brown wines that combine yeast derived aromas with oxidative aromas. Although the yeast aromas slowly fade the older the wine becomes. Amontillados can be matured for as long as Oloroso and they can reach similar levels are considered.

Palo Cortados are rare and considered to be among the finest sherries made. They are described in the regulations as having finesse and flor character of an Amontillado and the weight of an Oloroso. On the palate Palo Cortado can be very difficult to tell apart from both Amontillados and Oloroso which have similar characteristics. Nevertheless they are nearly always wines of the very highest quality and sell for super premium prices.

Manzanilla are wines that are matured in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Marrameda qualify as Manzanilla de Sanlucar de Marrameda, which is a separate DO to Sherry. The wines are made in the exact same way as Sherry but the cooler more humid conditions guarantees a thick layer of flor throughout the year. This results in wines that have a more intensely tangy aroma.

Naturally Sweet Sherry

PX wines are deep brown and intensely sweet, often reaching 500 g/l residual sugar. They have pronounced aromas of dried fruit, coffee and licorice.

Muscat wines take on similar characteristics to PX although they retain a certain varietal dried citrus peel character.

Blended Sherries
Blended Sherries are a very diverse group of wines officially known as Vinos Generosos de Licor. They range from rare and expensive premium Amontillado and Olorosso wines to inexpensive high volume wine that constitute the vast majority of the global sherry market. The categories highlighted by the Consejo Regulador are listed below:
Pale Cream Sherry
A style that was invented in the 1970s and it became a runaway success. It is typically a Fino sweetened with Rectified Concentrated Grape Must (RCGM).

Medium Sherry
Typically blends based on Amontillado and naturally sweet Sherries. At times it comes from a blend of Fino and Olorosso. Many larger volume Sherries are labeled Medium.
Cream Sherry
Typically blends based on Olorosso and naturally sweet Sherries. At best they bring together different elements into a well-balanced and complex wine.

Age Indication and Vintage Sherries

Prior to the introduction of age indicated Sherries the consumer could not tell from the label the age or pedigree of the wine as words like Viejo (old) had no legal definition. Four categories of age indicated Sherries were introduced to overcome this problem. The VOS and VORS classifications of sherry were introduced by the Consejo Regulador of the Denomination of Origin Jerez-Xérès-Sherry in July 2000 for particularly fine, aged Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado and PX wines. VOS, standing for Vinum Optimum Signatum in Latin and Very Old Sherry in English, must be at least 20 years old while VORS, Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum or Very Old Rare Sherry, must be at least 30 years old. Vintage Sherries that can show a vintage date on their labels are known as Añada. These are not only rare but they also are not aged in a solera system. They are instead aged statically, never moving from their original butt. Because flor cannot be sustained without additional new wines Añada Sherries have an oxidative character.

Learning Objectives of Unit 5 – Day 3: Sherry

At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to a list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 5 - Day 3 along with the answers are as follows.

By the end of class, students should be able to answer the following questions:

(1) State the rough geographic location of Sherry.

Answer: Southwest of Spain in Andalucia.

(2) Describe the climate of Sherry

Answer: Significant amount of sun (300 days per year) very humid, Mediterranean climate with low seasonal rainfall, mild winters, extremely hot summers.

(3) Name the principal towns of Sherry.

Answer: Jerez de La Frontera, Sanlucar de Barameda, El Puerto de Santa Maria

(4) Name grapes of Sherry.

Answer: Palomino (95%), Pedro Ximénez (PX), Moscatel

(5) State the character of Albariza soil.

Answer: Chalky with a high degree of calcium and limestone.

(6) Describe the solera system and the role it plays.

Answer: A new wine is put into wine barrels at the beginning of a series of 3 to 9 barrels. Periodically, a portion of the wine in a barrel is moved into the next barrel down, and at the end of the series only a portion of the final barrel is bottled and sold.

(7) Name the styles and flavors of the different styles of Sherry.

Answer: Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, Almacenistas.

(8) Describe what flor is and the role it plays.

Answer: Flor is yeast that acts as a seal that eats acid and work anaerobically, converting sugar into ethanol and gives Sherry its unique taste from the accumulation of acetaldehyde.

(9) Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today

Answer: See below

The Wines

On the second day of Unit 5 we tasted the following wines from Sherry:

1. Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa

This is a clear white wine, straw in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with intense earthy aromas of wet sand, crushed seashell, dried herbs and salty sea breeze. On the palate the nose is repeated with additional notes of white pepper and a salty minerality. It has no tannin, very high alcohol, high acidity and a long finish. This wine is made from 100% Palomino, it was fermented in stainless steel and spent over 5 years in a Solera in Sanlucar de Barrameda. This wine retails for about $10 per 375 ml bottle.

2. Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Palomino Fino

This is a clear white wine, straw in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of yeasty bread, dried apple, with hints of iodine and a lingering nutty character. It has no tannin, very high alcohol, high acidity and a long finish.  This wine is made from 100% Palomino. This wine retails for about $17 per 375 ml bottle.

3. Valdespino Contrabandista Amontillado

This is a clear wine, dark amber in color at the core to orange at the rim, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of pancake syrup, caramel, toffee, autumn leaves and hazelnuts. It is off-dry with just a touch of sweetness, no tannin, very high alcohol, high acidity and a long finish. This wine is made from 95% Palomino Fino, 5% Pedro Ximenez. This was my favorite in the line-up as I think it has the highest value-price ratio. This wine retails for about $30 per 750 ml bottle.

4. Valdespino Palo Cortado Viejo C.P.

This is a clear wine, dark amber to mahogany in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it has pronounced aromas of dried fruits, golden raisins, hazelnuts, walnuts, smoke, citrus and clove. It has no tannin, very high alcohol, high acidity and a long finish with lingering notes of vanilla, dried fruits and a touch of tobacco. This wine is made from 100% Palomino Fino. This wine retails for about $45 per 750 ml bottle.

5. Gonzales Byass, Apostoles, Palo Cortado

This is a clear wine, dark amber in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of fresh figs, roasted almonds, marmalade, honey, sweet pipe tobacco, damp earth, orange oil, sea salt and walnuts. It has very low tannin, very high alcohol, high acidity and a long finish with lingering notes of briny sea. This wine is made from about 95% Palomino Fino and 5% Pedro Ximenez. It was then aged for 30 years. The solera for this wine was created in 1862 in honor of her Majesty Queen Isabel II. This was my second favorite wine in the line-up but if cost were not an issue it would have been #1. This wine retails for about $60 per 750 ml bottle.

6. Gonzalez Byass, Alfaonzo Oloroso Seco

This is a clear wine, dark amber in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of toffee, rum, raisin, caramel, coffee, toasted almonds and dried plums. On the palate it has intense flavors of caramel, coffee, toasted almonds and prunes. It is dry with a medium acidity, high alcohol, full bodied with a medium+ nutty finish. This wine retails for about $16 per 750 ml bottle.

7. Valdespino Ideal Pale Cream Sherry

This is a clear wine, pale straw in color, day bright with medium+ viscosity. On the nose it has subtle aromas of peanut butter, short bread and raisins. On the palate it is flavors of overripe grapefruit, tangerine and mandarin oranges and white flowers. It is very sweet, it has no tannin, medium acidity, high alcohol, it is full bodied with a medium+ length finish. This wine is made from 100% Palomino Fino. This wine retails for about $16 to $20 per 750 ml bottle.

8. Tierras de Mollina Carpe Diem Malaga Añejo U.V.

This is a clear wine, dark amber in color, day bright with HIGH viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of coffee liqueur, raisins, maple syrup, honey, and roasted walnuts. On the palate is sweet with a silky-oily texture but it is not too syrupy, it is full bodied, it has medium acidity, high alcohol and a very long finish. This wine is made from 100% Pedro Ximenez. This wine retails for about $22 per 750 ml bottle, if you can find it!


In general I am not a big fan of wines that derive most of their character from the production method rather than the grapes and terroir. This include sparkling wines, sherries, ports etc. So, I have had very little experience with sherry as most of the ones I had previously tasted were either in a WSET course on a class I took while studying enology in college. I have never purchased a bottle of Sherry nor ever dined with anyone who does so on a regular basis. There was at least one Sherry-a-holic in the class who raves about these wines and drinks them on a regular basis, but I can’t pretend to have any expertise on them. There were a few in in the line-up that I found intriguing and worth purchasing so I’ll have to explore these wines more in the futue.

No comments:

Post a Comment