Last night I visited the fortified wine section at Martin Bros. twice. First, a woman wanted a bottle of Madeira. Joking, I recommended the 1907 Malvazia, for $535, but her cool reaction told me she was not amused, so I led her from the top shelf to three bottles side by side, in order of sweetness, Sercial, Bual and Malmsey, each priced at about $65.
“I’m not spending that kind of money,” she huffed. In the end, she bought a bottle of Rainwater for under $10. Reflecting on the transaction, I realized that not everyone grasped the concept of Fun with Wine.
My second visit involved Sherry, and lots of it. A woman was having a party at work at which tapas was to be served. She figured she needed at least 6 bottles of sherry, and was filling her basket with Fino.
Sherry’s popularity, like the other fortified wines on the shelf, owes much to the English. Ever since Sir Francis Drake brought home 2900 barrels of the stuff from his raid on Cadiz in 1587, “sherris sack”, or later just “sack”, became part of the English culture. The name derives from Jerez (or Xérès) de la Frontera, a provincial capital in Andalusia, north of Gibralter on the Atlantic.
Most sherry is made from the white Palomino grape, which produces a rustic fruity base wine with 12-13% alcohol. After a few months in oak, the wine is inspected; the best is fortified to 14.5% and moved to Sherry casks, or butts. The rest is fortified to 16.5% and set aside for blending or sold off in bulk.
At this point the magic of Sherry begins, with Nature the magician and Man her assistant. Nature provides a strain of wild yeast called flor, which covers the surface with a dense frothy, crunchy scum, protecting the wine from oxidation. If the flor thrives, the wine is refortified to 15.5%. Thus is born Fino, pale, delicate and dry. If the flor does not thrive, the wine is refortified to 17.5% and is classified as Oloroso, dark and heavy due to exposure to air. These wines are the añadas, or yearlings.
Man takes over from here, with the ingenious solera system: a network of 130-gallon barrels, each two-thirds full, piled in as many as 19 tiers, or as few as 5, a smaller number being more typical. At the bottom is the oldest, at the top the yearlings. When a producer gets an order, he bottles up to one third of the wine from the bottom tier. Any more is illegal. He then replenishes each tier with wine from above, the top tier from the butts. In this way the sherry-maker achieves a consistent product. If there is any indication of age on the bottle, the solera system insures it will be that of the youngest, not oldest wine, since there could be molecules of wine in there since the solera was begun a century or more ago.
Fino is 5-10 years old.
Manzanilla is a fino from a different town, where the flor never fails, resulting in the driest of the basic sherries.
Amontillado is darker, a little nutty (cf. Poe), and the tiniest bit sweet. At 15 years old, the flor has died, and the alcohol level has risen to 18%.
Oloroso never saw flor. At 20%, it has a long dry finish.
Palo Cortado is rare and wonderful, I’m told. It starts as Fino, but then something goes wrong, the flor dies, resulting in an oloroso with the nutty aromas of amontillado.
Cream sherry is an oloroso adulterated with sweet additives, some of which might be wine. If so, that wine would be made from two other sherry varietals, Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel, which are dried in the sun to concentrate the sugars, like Tuscany’s Vin Santo and many other dessert wines.
Lastly, sherry made exclusively from PX. Dark brown, very sweet and viscous; try it on your pancakes.
The woman buying Fino and I chatted for a while. Feeling a bit glum about the Madeira lady, I kept most of my sherry knowledge to myself. It did please me, however, to see the Sherry lady exchange a few Finos for some Manzanilla and an Amontillado. After all, not everyone likes the same thing.