Sherry Wine – 5 Dry Types You Should Taste
Marsala, Madeira, Porto, and Sherry Wine are all synonyms for fortified wines, each with its own history and tradition. It’s an entirely different world of wine that deserves a dedicated approach.
Fortified wine is one that has spirits added to it. That’s the key difference between fortified and all other wines. Yet, this definition explains little about why somebody would fortify their wine. It also tells nothing about all the different styles and expressions of Marsala, Madeira, Porto, or Sherry.
The generally accepted view states that the main reason for fortifying wine was to preserve it. Alcohol can save wine from spoiling, true. However, all the differences in the process of using the spirit simply to preserve wine are too elaborate. It’s obviously the way you do it that counts.
One of the most demanding procedures where hard labor is rewarded with a delicate touch is the making of Sherry wines. The majority of Sherry wines are dry. The reason why mostly all are dry is that Sherry wine is fortified after the fermentation is completed.
Sherry is produced in the so called “Sherry triangle”, between the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barammeda and El Puerto de Santa Maria in southern Spain. There are many styles, but the starting point for almost all Sherries is a simple dry base wine made from Palomino, a local white grape variety. Once the fermentation is complete, alcohol is added to fortify the wine before it enters the solera system. A solera is a system of old oak casks containing wines of different ages. The wines are continually blended together as they age, ensuring a consistent and complex style of mature wine. It is in the solera that Sherry develops its various distinctive flavors.
For the purpose of discovering an entirely different world of wine, we have tasted different types of Sherry. Yes, it is an impossible task. How could we cover such a complex topic with a line-up of different wine types? And we can’t. But, we can share our impressions of one of the finest Sherry wine producers, Valdespino.
Valdespino is one of the oldest bodegas in Jerez, with a history of Sherry production going back six centuries. Back in 1264, Alfonso Valdespino was one of 24 knights who fought against the Arabs for the city of Jerez with King Alfonso X. As a reward for his efforts he was given land that formed the basis of the bodega. Today Valdespino belongs to the Estevez family, who purchased the bodega in 1999.
They own 750 hectares of their own vineyards in Jerez, which is extremely rare in this region and allows them close control over the grape quality. They are the only bodega to make single vineyard Sherries and are also renowned for their VOS (Very Old Sherry) with over 20 years of aging, and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) with over 30 years of aging. The Oloroso Solera 1842 VOS, for example, is produced from a solera that was established in the mid-19th century.
Manzanilla Sherry Wine
We tasted both Deliciosa and En Rama labels. Manzanilla is the gentlest expression of Sherry. Valdespina Deliciosa carried potpourri and candied fruit on the nose, grated apple, and a hint of clay. The taste was almost moldy, think of noble mold such as the white mold used on sausages casings, but very delicate and surprisingly persistent on the palate with progression into salinity.
En Rama was wilder but still delicate. This corresponds well with the winemaker’s intention to make Manzanilla Sherry as it is in the barrel, before clarification and filtering. It is a bit heavier, more honeyed or pollen-driven, on the nose. It is also more intense on the palate, with nutty fruits. In comparison, noticeably more “edged” and raw, and perhaps more similar to Fino.
Fino Sherry Wine
Valdespino Inocente is gentle and soft, with slightly lower acids at first, but then it feels as if its freshness is only well spread and deeper. A hard vinous presence lingers after the first and the last sip equally long. Both powerful and elegant, it will leave you in a complex play between salty almonds, chalk, and dried hay sensations.
Fino Sherry ages under a thick (thicker than in the case of Manzanilla) layer of yeast known as flor. This method of aging is also known as biological aging. The base wine is fortified to around 15% abv before it enters the solera. The flor forms on the surface of the wine and protects it from oxygen but it also adds some unique flavors to the finished wine. Barrels are only ever five-sixths full to allow the growth of the flor. In order to thrive, the flor needs precise levels of alcohol, humidity, and temperature. The finished Fino ‘Inocente’ has an average age of 10 years, making it considerably older and more complex than average Fino.
Amontillado Sherry Wine
Now, there are already rum notes on the nose, dried grapes, caramel, and nuts… Valdespino Tio Diego is a somewhat atypical Amontillado. The biological notes of old flor are not “lessened” by fortification.
The Amontillado Sherry is somewhere between a Fino and an Oloroso Sherry. It ages under the flor for a period of time before it is refortified to around 17% abv. This kills the flor and allows the wine to age oxidatively until it is bottled. Amontillado Sherries are notably deeper in color than Finos and develop flavors both from the flor and from the oxidative aging. Tio Diego Amontillado spends eight to ten years aging biologically, during which time around 50% of the flor dies. The wine evolves naturally into oxidative aging as the flor dies off (there is no extra fortification to 18% as part of the specific house style of Valdespino). It achieves a higher strength by concentration and evaporation up to 18%. The average age of the final Sherry is over 20 years at the time of bottling.
Palo Cortado Sherry Wine
Palo Cortado is arguably an “off-topic” typicity of a Sherry, but it is hugely important. Palo Cortados are especially rare and are considered to be among the finest Sherries made. They are described in the regulations as having the finesse and flor character of an Amontillado and the weight and power of an Oloroso. On the palate, Palo Cortado can be very difficult to tell apart from both Amontillado and Oloroso, with which it shares similar characteristics. Nevertheless, they are nearly always wines of the highest quality. The Palo Cortado Viejo C.P. is made from selected, very young Criaderas of both Inocente and Tio Diego, which failed to sustain their layer of flor. The wine is then fortified further to 17% and allowed to continue aging oxidatively. It has an average age of over 25 years when it is bottled.
A captivating fruit freshness and complexity… By far the most pronounced transformation in the glass. Think of apple syrup, only sugar-free.
Oloroso Sherry Wine
Valdespino Solera 1842 is a type of Oloroso. Immediately, butterscotch notes burst out, as well as dates, cocoa, marzipan, rooibos tea… all supported by a beautiful freshness. The alcohol is blended incredibly, and an oxidative character is built to perfection. It reveals its age gradually, layer after layer.
Oloroso Sherry does not involve flor. Instead, the dry base wine is fortified to around 17% abv – a level at which the flor cannot survive. Without the flor’s protection, the wine ages in contact with oxygen. Over time, the wine becomes brown in color and develops flavors of dried fruits and notes of deliberate oxidation. Valdespino Oloroso Don Gonzalo is fortified to 18% and allowed to age 100% oxidatively. It is aged and fractionally blended in a solera system, where the wine increases in strength through a process of concentration and evaporation. The finished wine has an average age of more than 20 years.
Instead of an impossible conclusion
Generally, with a Sherry done meticulously right, the added alcohol doesn’t change the true character of the wine. This is not the case with many sweetened Sherries sold at supermarkets 🙂 As a rule, these are exceptions from the Sherry tradition and the desired quality.
And the tradition is so unique it deserves its status as a true cultural heritage.