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WINE

A Lighter Shade of Pale

Sherries May Be on the Brink of a New Season in the Sun

September 26, 1996|JOEL BUTLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's summer in Sherry country. Blazing sun reflects off blindingly white chalky soil; rows of vines stretch almost to the horizon, heat waves shimmer in the air. Yet inside the whitewashed bodegas of Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria in southwestern Spain, thousands of barrels of pale green-gold wine lie aging in cool, cathedral-like repose, time and the skill of man creating one of the greatest wines in the world.

The otherwise undistinguished white wine made from the Palomino de Jerez grape, when aged and carefully fortified with grape brandy, becomes Sherry, one of the most refreshing and nuanced, yet intensely flavored, wines anywhere. Alas, many Americans stubbornly think of Sherry as a heavy, syrupy wine drunk by our grandparents or winos; this has mostly to do with horrible "sherries" concocted by large California wineries decades ago to satisfy demand for cheap, highly alcoholic wine.

Sherry is created by a system of fractional blending called the solera, which allows incoming young wine to enliven the older wine in the stock while the more mature wine lends depth and intensity of flavor to the younger.

These soleras may be composed of thousands of barrels, with the original wine centuries old. As a portion of the mature wine is drawn off for bottling from the last row of barrels (technically speaking, the last row is the solera), it is replenished with younger wine from the row before, and so forth.

The earlier rows are called criaderas ("nurseries"), and the blending process is called "running the scales." A fine fino solera may have more than 20 scales contributing to its perfection, while a commercial oloroso solera destined for cream Sherry production may only have four or five scales. Either way, the result is a consistent blend that enables a producer to market a branded wine with a recognizable style year after year.

If conditions are right, a unique and wonderful yeast called flor develops in a barrel of Sherry as it ages. The flor yeast grows on top of the wine in the barrel, forming a creamy cap. It protects the wine underneath from rapid and dangerous oxidation and adds its own pungent, salty tang. Especially in the bodegas at Sanlucar and El Puerto, which are nearer to water, the damper and cooler sea air nourishes the flor, and it can survive over many years in the barrel.

With experience, one can distinguish three distinct styles of fino: the delicate Manzanilla of Sanlucar; the finos of Jerez, where the conditions are the warmest and the wines the fullest and nuttiest; and the finos of El Puerto, which fall between the Manzanilla and Jerez styles.

The mysterious and wonderful thing is that if you take a fino aging in Jerez and move it to Sanlucar, its flor will become thicker and the wine will shortly take on the characteristics of a Manzanilla. The reverse is also true.

Wines that the cellar masters believe will develop flor better are destined for fino soleras. Wines that show little flor or seem to have greater weight or color will be steered toward a solera producing the heavier, nuttier and rich oloroso style. It will be fortified with more additional alcohol than a fino (about 18% as opposed to fino's 15% to 15 1/2%) to prohibit the growth of the flor that gives fino its distinctive bouquet and taste.

Fine sweet Sherry is a treat, and wonderful examples are still made, but Sherry in its natural state is totally dry. The greatest Sherries, with some noted exceptions, are dry wines. The logic of this is that a fine wine should stand on its own, with no added sweetening to mask its faults or excuse its lack of intensity.

Cream, or amoroso, Sherries are produced by taking oloroso Sherry and adding a measure of sweetening wine generally made from the other classic grape of the region, Pedro Ximenez. The quality of a cream Sherry depends on the oloroso used. Most Sherries that sell for less than $7 or so a bottle tend to use lesser quality oloroso. The flavor impression is sweetness rather than richness, and the wine may even have an unpleasant "cooked" character.

A fine chilled fino or Manzanilla, with its distinctive salty, nutty-tangy flavors that are at once rich yet crisp and cleansing, should be the aperitif of the '90s, especially here in Mediterranean-like California. Surely God, with the help of the Andalusians, had cold copitas of light and refreshing fino Sherry in mind to drink with tapas, those wonderful little plates of seafood, olives and other finger foods that Andalusia creates in bewildering and appetizing variety.

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