A belated reflection on International Sherry Week

So this comes late. International Sherry Week was, well, months ago already and due to unforeseen circumstances, I was cut off during the fourth edition of the #Sherry Twitter Tasting. Nonetheless, the quality was so high that these samples deserve more than 140 characters, so here goes!

Sherry is coming out of a rut. The image of only being drunk by grannies has done its share of damage, and winelovers and wine amateurs alike are moving passed it, rediscovering the enormous versatility and complexity that sherry can deliver. Nowadays it is one of a select number of increasing trends among sommeliers, and rightly so, as the possibilities that the different types of sherries offer in terms of foodpairing fall outside of the traditional spectrum. I for one love sherry, it is one of those wines that I tend to enjoy without having the amount of knowledge on it that I would like.

The marketing body for sherry producers has caught on and actively promotes their work and pride, quite successfully over social media might I add. The International Sherry Week (7-12 November) was held for the fourth year in a row, and one of the highlights is definitely the Twitter Tasting organized by Ruben Luyten, owner of sherrynotes.com.

The concept is simple: Ruben and a couple of sommeliers make a selection of different sherries that have for some reason piqued their interest. Samples are then sent out to a select audience, which gets the opportunity to participate in a crowded twitter tasting. Incidentally, Ruben is definitely one of the must-follow experts, and I would recommend everyone who wants to learn anything about sherry to start with his website. It is clear, in-depth and up-to-date with what is going on in the sherry world, making it an ideal vantage point to start your exploration.

A quick introductory note on sherry

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of sherry: biologically aged and oxidative. Sherry is traditionally aged in wooden barrels in a humid environment, which encourages the development of a ‘flor’ on top of the wine, a layer of yeast cells that will feed on the alcohol, sugar, glycerine and acids in the wine. If a wine spends time under the flor, it is biologically aged. If, however it is exposed to oxygen and there is no flor present during the ageing process, it is categorized as oxidative. 

The ageing system is quite unique; Picture stacked rows of casks, ‘criadera’, filled with wine. The top row contains the youngest wines and the lowest row the oldest wines. Each year you start bottling from the lowest row, referred to as the solera. The volume that you take out will be refilled using the casks in the row above it which will in turn be refilled with the wines in the top row. You can go as extreme with this as you want, from three criadera to twenty, creating an enormously complex blend of different vintages. The solera system is instrumental in creating biologically aged sherries, as the continuous addition of younger wines will deliver new nutrients for the flor to stay alive.

The lineup

First up, ‘La Panesa’ Fino Especial by Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo. Fino, together with its counterpart Manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda, makes up the bulk of sherry produced (around 40%). It can be considered as key representative of biologically aged sherry. Normally a Fino is aged up to seven years before it released on the market. La Panesa however, is on average about fifteen years old, with the solera dating back to 1961!

Enormously aromatic, cooked apples, very ripe quince and an umami element that I would normally associate with Kimoto style sake. On the palate, it does not have the richness I expected based on the aromatic intensity, but it is very focused, linear and with a lovely saline element towards the end.

Gonzalez Byass is by far the biggest producer in the region, mostly known for the Tio Pepe Fino range of sherries. The Las Palmas range is a superselection of the finest Fino barrels, and the selection is often done in cooperation with a wine celebrity. Pedro Ballesteros MW was for instance responsible for this year’s selection. Gérard Basset MW consulted in 2016 and therefore suggested the Fino Tres Palmas 2016, a fino at ten years of age with a flor that is on the verge of dying, giving the sherry a very gradual exposure to oxygen.

Not as pungent in the nose as La Panesa, but just as complex with pommes flambés, animal hide, French toast and a leafy note. Very interesting on the palate, starting soft and almost creamy but with a titillating acidity towards the finish, showing the freshness that is such a key characteristic of fino sherry, which is why I actually prefer this one to La Panesa.

Gianluca di Taranto has been named sommelier of the year by Gault Millau just a short time after Sherry Week, but expectations for his suggestion, El Maestro Sierra’ Palo Cortado were already quite high to begin with. Palo Cortado is the most vaguely defined type of sherry, as the requirements are subjective (it is often described as being Amontillado on the nose, Oloroso on the palate). It is generally the result of a flor that failed to develop properly, creating a delicate balance between characteristics of the two categories described above.

Oxidative tones of walnuts, dried figs, caramel, cinnamon, overall quite round and wintery on the nose. It reminds me of koshu, but in a slightly richer style. It continues with warmth yet there is a hefty element on the palate in the sense that it overtakes, it dominates and persists. Not one for the non-sherry adepts, but a fantastic sherry that you can keep on sipping slowly to discover more nuances.

The Palo Cortado Conde Aldama is probably the rarest bottle in the tasting. Near the end of the 19th century, phylloxera was ravaging vineyards throughout Europe and winegrowers were forced to replant with American grafts. In an effort to protect his ‘authentic’ solera, containing no wines from the newly grafted vines, the Count of Aldama sealed a selection of his best barrels behind a plaster wall. 40 years later, the Aldama’s were broke and they were forced to sell what had been tucked away. In the early 2000’s Francisco Yusta slowly started releasing the 8 remaining barrels, giving the world an opportunity to taste a wine going back 120 years!

Aromatically quite heady and perfumed. Dried figs, wax, salt toffee, candied orange zest, really persisting and taking control. The palate is dry with the salty toffee dominating at first, quite surprisingly mineral actually but still soft and elegant. May not really be qualified as alive, there is something of decaying tension, but delicious.

Finally, a selection by the sherry master himself: Bodegas Romate’s Old & Plus Oloroso VORS. Oloroso is oxidative in style, aged in absence of a flor by fortifying it to such a degree that a flor can never develop. I remember a perfect Bodegas Tradition Oloroso that was simply mindblowing a couple of years ago, which got me hooked on sherry, so I was very curious how this would turn out. The Old & Plus range of Romate was originally only intended for private consumption, but it is slowly being brought on the market. It is based on the stock built up during the family’s long history, and the barrels used are up to 120 years old. This Oloroso VORS is around 30 years old.

Not as easy on the nose, actually comes across a bit closed. With time I get stewed fruit, dates and Mediterranean herbs. The oxidative tones are not as present here, perhaps in the almonds popping up very gently. Bold and rich on the palate, a sherry making its presence known. A lot of coffee, ‘hopjes’, yet quite firm again to the finish, going down on a punchy chocolatey note.

So, this ended up being something of a once in a lifetime thing with a great selection of rare sherries. What really made it shine was the range of complexity that seemingly simple types of sherry can develop over time. These are far beyond the swill an old-fashioned sherry drinker would prefer, but the mental adjustment is well-rewarded. To me, sherry remains one of the most complex drinks in the wine world, and it has definitely earned a spot on my neverending list of things to explore in the future!

2 thoughts on “A belated reflection on International Sherry Week

  1. Very jealous of the Sherries you tasted. I hugely enjoy sherry too. Love Fino and Manzanilla, but often prefer the more aromatic Oloroso and Amontillado.
    Palo Cortado is usually awesome, but also much more expensive.
    Keep up the work, and thank for pointing out the site of Ruben.

  2. I think that Sherry is slowly coming out of the shadows in the UK. I can’t speak for anywhere else. It is slow, but when wine lovers see the quality and variety available, and indeed Sherry’s affinity with food, then interest follows.

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