The BBC (‘Bring a bottle club’) had a change of format for its late September meeting. Normally the wines are tasted blind but, following our experience with Champagne, where there was not enough variety in the styles brought, we allocated or bid for Sherry styles. And after that, it seemed a bit pointless to try to taste them blind. After a hiccup to start with, this worked well: unaccountably nobody brought a Fino, the commonest and one of the greatest expressions of this unique fortified wine. Two of us also managed to bring identical wines – but that is not entirely surprising as the range of sherry available in the UK is quite limited. This is due to the weakness in demand for premium sherry. As this tasting showed, once you get past the commercial brands, these are some of the most complex wines you can drink and at comparatively low prices – but still, people will not buy them!
As noted, most sherry is in the Fino style. This means it is made from the acidic and relatively flavourless Palomino grape and then mildly fortified to around 15%. It is aged in barrels which are not quite full, which encourages the growth of flor, a sort of natural ‘seal’ of yeast on the surface of the wine. (Here is not the place to attempt to explain the whole solera system.) This style of ageing both creates the distinctive sherry aromas and limits the amount of oxidisation. Manzanilla is very similar to Fino but is made nearer the sea in a moister atmosphere. Pale in colour, mildly nutty, moderately oxidised notes; excellent acidity, some characteristic saltiness. This first wine was good, rather than outstanding – a 2007, it was just too old to be perfect.
Having inadvertently skipped the most common style, we were quickly into Amontillado, which in short is an aged Fino. Having made this basic style, some wines are selected for further ageing without the further addition of young wine. Stripped of the protection of the flor, the developing wine darkens in colour and deepens in aromas. This ageing can go on for seven years or for as long as you like. Here we had a ‘young’ Amontillado … (on the left) and a 30-year old. The ‘del Peurto’ from Lustau, effortlessly combines freshness and ageing notes, excellent depth of flavour and great length. It was balanced and harmonious. By contrast, the Del Duque from Gonzales Byass showed an incredibly lively acidity for a 30-year old wine with pronounced woody and nutty notes. As a drink, rather than just a phenomenon, most preferred the much younger wine. But a lively 30-year-old wine for around £20 is an amazing bargain.
On to the next style: Palo Cortado, a Fino in which the flor has died prematurely which then is aged to become more like an Oloroso (see below). Being made from the free-run juice and first pressings (like all Fino), it has some of that freshness; but then this Jerez Cortado Wellington is a VOS and has had 20 years of ageing in oak. Perceptibly an in-between style in the glass with good freshness, great depth of flavour and complexity.
Why have one example, when you can learn so much more from two? Oloroso as a style comes from juice in the later part of the pressing process as it can cope with some coarser flavours in the juice. After fermentation it is fortified to a higher point (17-18%), thus inhibiting the growth of flor. This means that the ageing is oxidative, leading to the darker colours on the left and the intense nuttiness. Marks and Spencer’s Lustau Oloroso has to be the bargain of the evening at £7.49. Here it was the introduction to the star wine, Anada 1990 Rich Oloroso, also from Lustau, but an unusual single vintage of 20 plus years. A brilliant, rich, nutty texture, both wines are dry and rich, unlike many big brand sherries. And just so long in the mouth …
Sherry aficionados will already know what the final wine is going to be: it has to be Pedro Ximinéz, PX to its friends for obvious reasons. Although it is called Sherry and comes from Jerez, it is really a completely different wine: another grape variety, made by a different technique (the grapes are dried out in the sun before pressing) and more or less black in colour! Our example was a 30-year old smelling of prunes and neutral oak. But the most remarkable thing is the texture – rich from sweetness and alcohol, satiny like old heavy cloth, a structure and weight which makes it feel difficult to move it around in the mouth. A huge 380 grams per litre of residual sugar.
There is no point pleading with people to buy Sherry … but what this tasting showed was that they are among the most interesting and diverse wines in the rich world of wine. There is a style for just about every occasion, to go with almost any dish and they are fantastic value for money. The commercial brands can be very good, the niche bottles outstanding. And you still not going to buy a bottle or two?