Steve Olson is a consultant and spokesperson for the Wines from Spain, a group of Spanish wine producers. We met at B44 on Belden Lane for a Spanish lunch and big sherry tasting with 14 really fine examples.
Sherry is a particularly difficult wine to understand, for reasons explained below. Last year I attended a two-day training at the Sandeman bodega in Jerez, and I learned a huge amount about the terroir, production, legality, and flavor of sherry. They really tried to make it easy for us. But then came the hard part- the tasting.
It's not hard because it's hard to drink; it's hard because of the labels. We learned a ton of new (to me) vocabulary for understanding what type of sherry would be in the bottle, but none of that verbiage is necessarily on the bottle label. Frustrating. But anyway, here are some sherry basics.
Sherry is aged and fortified wine from the region of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. The fortification is to help the wine age (in bodegas now, but in holds of ships long ago). There are two types of aging: biological and oxidative. Biological aging is aging in barrels under flor, a yeast that grows on top of the wine. The yeast forms a barrier to oxygen touching the wine (think of the film on top of soup), and the wine tastes bready and pungent like (but not just like) dry vermouth. Oxidative aging is aging without flor- the wine is exposed to oxygen and turns rusty in color and the flavor becomes sharper and more candied dark-fruit like (but not just like) sweet vermouth.
All sherry starts under flor for the first year or so of its life, then may or may not have oxidative aging. You can keep it under flor for a long expanse of its life, and/or under oxidative aging for more of its life. The types of sherry generally indicate where we are along the path.
- Fino and Manzanilla sherries are aged entirely under flor.
- Manzanilla Pasada sherries have a long time under flor.
- Amontillado sherries do some time under flor, and sometime without it- I believe usually in about equal parts.
- Palo Cortado sherries are between Amontillado and the next category.
- Oloroso sherries spend the majority of their time under oxidative aging.
- Some oloroso sherries will have sweet wines added to them to make them sweeter (in England, these are known as "cream sherries") and this sweet wine is Pedro Ximenez, or PX. PX is also sold on its own.
- Sherry is the driest wine in the world. Why? Because flor eats the sugar in the wine.
- Olson says that manzanilla pasada is "probably the most versatile wine in the world for pairing with food."
- There were tons of different grape varieties in Jerez before Phylloxera. Afterward, everybody planted Palomino.