Suddenly sherry is cool again, and perhaps no one deserves more credit for restoring its reputation than Peter Liem, a wine writer known for his champagne expertise but more recently has taken up the cause of Sherry. Last year he and Jesús Barquín, founder of Equipo Navazos, published Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, one of the most comprehensive books about sherry to hit U.S. bookstores in decades. It was while planning for the book’s launch party that Liem and Rosemary Gray hit on the idea for Sherryfest, a three-day event with dinners, seminars and a Grand Tasting. This year it featured 27 bodegas and more than 160 sherries.
A highlight for me was a masterclass on amontillado, a style of sherry in between a fino and oloroso. Presenting the wines was an all-star line up of producers from Barbadillo and Osborne, along with Beltran Domecq, whose family has been in the sherry business for generations and is the president of the Jerez DO regulatory board. He also just published his own book on sherry. Peter Liem and Carla Rzeszewski, former Wine Director of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and The John Dory Oyster Bar, poured the wines.
The most poignant aspect of this tasting was in seeing how these wines evolve as they age. Life for an amontillado begins as a fino or manzanilla (a fino aged in the township of Sanlucar de Barrameda near the sea). Finos are the lightest of all sherries and are made using the solera system of fractional blending. Newly made dry wine from the Palomino grape is mixed with wine from the previous vintage, which itself is mixed with older vintages, and so on. For finos this process can last from three to eight years, all the while aging under under a layer of flor. This blanket of yeast not only protects the wine from the oxygen but also interacts with it in a way that gives finos and manzanillas their distinctive citrus and toast flavors (not oxidative since it is protected from the air) as well as their refreshing zip (the yeast consume glycerol, which gives wine a fuller mouthfeel).
After a few years of aging some finos or manzanillas may lose their flor. Sometimes this happens naturally, but more often the producer will add a few degrees of alcohol to stop its growth. The sherry is then further aged in barrels where it ages oxidatively. Producers will age them anywhere from 8 to 40 or more years. The longer it spends in barrel the more concentrated the wine becomes. The sherry darkens in color and grows in complexity, developing aromas of toffee, nuts, dried fruits and orange peel to add to the yeast and citrus notes from its life under flor. In the Osborne Amontillado I even detected the scent of grapefruit. The wines may sometimes smell as if they are sweet, however, they remain completely dry.
This process was most clearly demonstrated with three sherries from Barbadillo: Manzanilla en Rama, Amontillado Principe and Amontillado VORS. Barbadillo is one the largest producers in Sanlucar with 17 bodegas housing more than 65,000 casks. Their main manzanilla, Solear, is aged for 7 years under flor. A small portion of this wine is then aged another year before being bottled straight from the barrel without filtering (the en rama part). This is their Manzanilla en Rama and is the wine that is used to make the Amontillado Principe, which is turn is aged to make the Amontillado VORS. Compared to other manzanillas the en rama has a more intense yeasty aroma and is a lot more complex with camomile, citrus and sea spray notes. To become the amontillado it will spend another eight years in barrel without its flor and exposed to a small amount of air. The result is a darker amber color and concentrated aromas of salted caramel, nuts and dried figs, with the underlying yeast and citrus notes still coming through. The aromas suggest that the wine may taste sweet, but it is bone dry. The ultimate expression of this wine is the Amontillado VORS, which is aged a total average of 40 years. Only about 300 bottles are made every year, and it is truly an exceptional wine: full bodied and rich but still lively and precise with notes of caramel and dates that lasted forever. Alongside my tasting note I simply wrote “delicious!”
The VOS and VORS wines are made is very small quantities and much more expensive but are a real treat. VOS stands for Vinum Optimum Signatum (or Very Old Sherry) and VORS for Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (or Very Old Rare Sherry) and have been aged 20 years or more and 30 years or more respectively.
Easier to find and definitely more affordable is the Valdespino Tio Diego Amotillado. Valdespino is a top producer whose fino Inocente is also fantastic. Valdespino is one of the few producers who own their own vineyards. These two wines are made from grapes grown on the Macharnudo Alto vineyard, known for its pure albariza soil. Fermentation takes place in American oak barrels rather than stainless steel tanks, which is more common, and they use indigenous yeasts. The wines are extraordinarily complex and (I’m repeating myself) delicious.
So, a blog about sweet and fortified wines, possibly the most under appreciated and least popular styles of wine in the country. I may be vying for the fewest-readers-of-a-blog-in-history award, but I hope not. Because within these categories are some of the finest, most complex wines made, many with the potential to age for decades (Madeiras and some Sauternes can last for more than a century). They are often painstakingly difficult to make, requiring enormous investment of effort, time and care on the part of the winemaker.
With nearly every wine-producing country in the world making a sweet or fortified wine, each with its own distinctive grape or winemaking method, the list of wines is long: off-dry Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley, fortified port-like Banyuls from the south of France, luscious dessert wines from Tokaji, Hungary, long-lived Madeiras from Portugal, late-harvest Rieslings from Germany and botrytised dessert wines from Sauternes in Bordeaux. That’s just a small sample. It seems a shame then to let these wonderful wines go unappreciated. There is a time and a place for every style of wine and that holds true for sweet and fortified wines as well. My aim here is to explore the possibilities and shine a spotlight on these delicious, finely crafted, artisanal wines. I hope you’ll find ways to incorporate them into your life and seek out this section on the wine list the next time you go to a restaurant. Mostly, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.