Getting to know Sherry
That's because quality Sherry is made by a most unusual process in which - in contrast with the practice for most table wines - the fruits of many vintages are mixed together to age over time, so any given bottle is a blend of many years' harvests, gaining complexity and flavor interest from the contributions of many vintages that range from recently harvested grapes to at least a few drops of much older wines.
The process is called solera, and it is virtually unique to the ancient fortified wines from Jerez ("Sherry") de Frontera in Spain and to some of the wines of Madeira, which share some elements of Sherry's heritage and style.
The solera works like this: Each producer maintains scores or even hundreds of wooden casks containing Sherries from many vintages. Following careful formulas set down by the wine makers, workers over many years blend old wines and new. They will draw out measured amounts of wine from the older barrels for bottling and sale, then replace it with wines from the next-older casks, topping them off in turn from younger casks and so on up the line until they reach the recent wine of the new year.
Traditionally, a solera would often be stacked in a pyramid with the oldest wines on the bottom level ("suelo," or "floor," which yields the word "solera") and younger wines higher up. Nowadays, most commercial wineries simply place the various barrels where there's room, relying on careful record-keeping (or the computer) to keep track of their locations. Some first-rate soleras may extend back a century or more, although most modern commercial Sherries aren't nearly that old.
Sherry is so utterly different from the dry table wines that most of us fancy that some wine lovers have a hard time warming up to it. They come in a variety of styles: Fino is delicate and bone-dry, fermented with an unusual natural wild yeast called flor, and Amontillado is dry but heavier, "fortified" with brandy. (For more on Amontillado, see the Feb. 21, 2000 edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor, A cask of Amontillado.) Olorosos are more full-bodied still, and may be dry but are often sweetened and sold as "Cream" Sherry. Special Sherries made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes are the sweetest and heaviest of all, so syrupy that they can literally be enjoyed over ice cream.
With a legendary history that goes back to the ancient Phoenicians and a modern history with its roots in Elizabethan times (you'll recall that Shakespeare's Falstaff was enamored of "Sherris sack"), Sherry is a wine that deserves more attention ... and, because it's not currently sought-after by collectors, you can still find it at deliciously affordable prices.
For more information about Sherry, I recommend the English-language pages of the wine region's official governing body, the Consejo Regulador of the Denominations of Origin: http://www.sherry.org/envhp01.html.
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Two fine Sherries
Clear, very dark mahogany color, with ripe and full aromas of prunes, walnuts and brown sugar. Intensely sweet in flavor, "stone" fruit with a tart, lemony acidic "grip" to provide structure. This wine is made by an idiosyncratic process (even for Sherry) that the wine maker likens to the sun and heat that casks of Sherry received when transported in casks on shipboard on the old India clippers; the process resembles that for Madeira, and this wine somewhat resembles a sweet Malmsey (Madeira) in its combination of sugary sweetness and piercing acidity. It's an unusual Sherry and a very enjoyable dessert wine. U.S. importer: Europvin USA, Emeryville, Calif. (Aug. 11, 2000)
Alvear's Amontillado Montilla ($8.99)
FOOD MATCH: Sherries aren't often served as dinner wines. Sweet styles like the East India Solera are best enjoyed by themselves after dinner; dryer styles like Amontillado (and Fino) are traditional aperitifs, served for sipping before the meal. That being said, the Alvear's Amontillado went nicely with a light snack of extra-sharp Cheddar cheese and hazelnuts.
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Vol. 2, No. 30, Aug. 14, 2000