Every year, when January’s winds hit, and the temperatures settle down to numbers that are far too low for my liking, my thoughts wander to exotic places. I see sun-drenched vistas in my mind’s eye, I watch spaghetti Westerns to warm up, and I hibernate with something inspiring to sip: like a delightful Oloroso Sherry from the windy, sun-soaked southern coast of Spain.
Sherry, both the region and the wine, takes its name from the Arabic word “sherish” – from which the name of the town “Jerez” is derived. The towns of Sherry, namely Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María, sit on the Atlantic-facing side of a large, protected bay on the southernmost tip of Spain, where the ocean breeze works to moderate the dry, hot winds that blow down from the Meseta Central. An incredibly deep root structure in the chalk-laden soil which allows the vines to tap into moisture from deep underground springs (ah, chalk! a fantastic soil type and worthy of a conversation all its own), means the grapes achieve optimal ripeness from such hot days, while retaining high levels of acidity as the temperature drops at night. These towns, with their perfect position at the entry to the Mediterranean, have long been important shipping ports, and particularly for the shipping of wine – since the times of the Phoenicians. Logically, Sherry makers set up their facilities, known as bodegas, in these port towns, where they could age, store, bottle, and then ship the wines with ease.
Palomino, a hearty but otherwise unremarkable grape, is used for the majority of Sherry production (Pedro Ximénez and Muscatel are utilized for a small percentage of sweet style Sherries). The grapes are first made into a dry wine that begins its transformation into Sherry when it enters the top of the solera, a unique system by which a series of old barrels are used to age wines by fractional blending. Young wines enter the solera on the top-level, and as older wine is poured off and bottled from the bottom level, the young wine systematically works its way downward, or through the solera, for further ageing. A small amount of the older wine remains in each tier of the system as they are topped off into each level. This fractional blending was one of the original boons of this aging system, because it eliminates vintage to vintage variation. (There are some rare instances when Sherries are bottled as single vintages, but only in specific, and much less common circumstances.)
After the wine has been vinified, and before it begins its journey through the system, the winemaker will first judge the wines to determine their quality, and so, which path they will take. The most delicate, aromatic, and balanced of the wines will be categorized as Finos. These wines are fortified to 14% and start off in the top set of barrels – the “nurseries” as they are called. It is in these barrels that the magic of Sherry takes place. Perhaps it is something carried in on the cooling Atlantic breezes – or maybe it comes in on the backs of the grapes themselves, but in the barrels a unique yeast, called “flor” ( flower) will proliferate on the top of the wines, thus sealing and protecting them from the air. This living yeast is the secret of Fino Sherries. The Finos are the most delicate of Sherries: they are saline and fresh and should be served chilled like any other white wine. Within the category of “Fino” there are also the delightful Manzanilla Sherries from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, and the more robust, age-worthy Amontillados that tend to spend the most time moving through the solera. (For more information on Amontillados, please read Julie’s post about El Maestro Sierra Amontillado and its unique story here).
Now, taking one step back to the point at which the winemaker is placing his new, young, completely fermented wine into barrel. The wines that are not deemed Fino level will instead be made into Oloroso Sherries. Oloroso Sherries start off by being fortified to a higher level than the Finos – to 18% – and that increased alcohol level will prevent the growth of flor once in barrel. Instead, with the protection of fortification and gradual influx of oxygen from longer periods in the barrels of the solera, Olorosos will develop oxidative aromas and flavors, becoming darker and nuttier in style, and can age very well.
Here is a helpful diagram:
The true value of a Solera is its age. As I am sure you can understand, the precise age of a wine aged this way cannot be truly measured – much as with balsamico tradizionale or genuine balsamic vinegar. Instead, you must factor the time that each portion of wine spends in each level of the system, and take into account the percentage that is left behind at every interval as the wine moves down to top off the lower, older set of barrels. In other words, the amount of wine that is taken out each year is only a small fraction compared to the amount of wine that enters the top of the system. Some soleras, like those used to make Fino Sherries, move more quickly, and wine can be pulled off faster, but in the case of slower soleras, the fraction drawn from the oldest barrels each year is typically only 5-10% of the contents.
By now you might be ready to dive into a bottle of Oloroso (I know I am)! Right now, I would recommend a bottle from the Bodega of Gutierrez Colosia. This particular bodega is located in the town of El Puerto de Santa María (what a romantic name!), right at the mouth of the Bay of Cádiz, where it has been in operation since 1838. Their Oloroso is named for a local cooper who produced barrels and aged his own Oloroso. He would share his Sherry with his butcher neighbors, thus gaining the name “Sangre y Trabajadero” – “Blood and the Worker.” It spends about 12 years in the solera system. It is deeply amber-colored with slightly sweet, nutty notes on the nose, yet full and dry on the palate, with a subtle saline tang that gives a nod to the nearby sea. This is Sherry that is rich enough to enjoy with protein-centered tapas, like a bacon wrapped date or a thin slice of duck breast. I like to enjoy it after dinner with the classic Spanish trio of sheep milk cheese, Marcona almonds, and dulce de membrillo.
Related reading: click here to read about Tim’s culinary expedition through the Extremadura region of southwestern Spain.
Jessica Smith is the Wine Buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.