Sherry Wine

Posted on Sunday, October 18th, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Jerez de la Frontera, home to a number of sherry producers, is an easy train trip from Seville.  The town, however, is much larger than I imagined.  The tours all start at the same time; it’s only possible to visit a couple if you are going by foot.  Also, many of the smaller producers only have tours in the morning.  By the time I arrived from Seville and figured out tour schedules, it was noon.  In the end, I was able to visit two of the biggest sherry companies, Sandeman and Tio Pepe.  Both are giants of mass production and marketing: not my first preference, but the best I could do.

Sandeman Tio Pepe

Sherry, like port, is a fortified wine.  Sherry is unique in the way it is aged.  Using the “solera” method, barrels of wine are stacked so that the oldest wine is at the bottom and the youngest wine is at the top.  When 1/3 of the wine is taken from those bottom barrels, it is replaced by the same amount of wine from the younger barrel above it.  Similarly, the second-level barrel receives wine from the even younger third level.  Accordingly, the wine is mixed.  There will never be a vintage on a sherry because younger wine is continually mixed with older wine.

Palomino grapes are used for the dry sherries while pedro ximenez grapes are used for the sweet ones.  The grapes for sweet sherries are also dried in the sun to enhance their natural sugars.

As dry sherries age, a layer of yeast called the flor develops on top of the wine.  This yeast protects the wine from oxidation.  The wines are tested after several months; the wines with the best flor will be kept as fino sherries.  Fino sherries maintain their original golden color and fruity taste because of this protective film.  Wines with lesser flors are made into oloroso wines.  More alchohol is added to the wine, which kills the flor, exposing it to air.  As a result, olorosos darken in color and their flavors become more complex than fino sherries.  When a fino sherry is aged to the point that the flor dies, exposing the older wine to oxygen, it develops into yet another type of sherry, an amontillado.

At the start of the Sandeman tour, I paid 4 euros more to upgrade my tasting at the end.  I figured that, as a culinary student, I should take the opportunity to taste the best while I was in Jerez.  Unfortunately, I really don’t think that the sherries I tasted were right.  I wondered how long they have been opened… probably since the last chump ponied up for the more expensive tasting.  The royal esmerelda, an amontillado, tasted like penicillin, actually repulsive to my sense of smell and taste.  The Royal Ambrosante, a 20 year old sweet sherry, tasted faintly of the antibiotic.  I asked my tour guide if the wine was right.  She opened the bottle, poured herself some, smelled it, and tasted it.  Then, she told me that was how it was supposed to taste.  ????   At the end of the Tio Pepe tour, I stuck with the basic tastings, meant for the everyman tourist.  These were simple wines, not overly complex, but not offensive either.

Apparently, it will take more than a trip to Jerez to develop my taste for sherry!

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