Readers will remember that last month this column expressed a wish for a sherry tasting in Ireland. Well, not only did that piece trigger one of the biggest reader feedbacks we’ve ever had for a feature, our wish came true. At the recent Dublin Spanish wine fair, a special sherry tasting was conducted by Cesar Saldana, director of DO Jerez, Manzanilla and Brandy of Jerez. Expertly pitched to appeal to enthusiasts and novices alike, the session had only one fault – we would have been happy to taste some more! And given the reaction of trade readers to last month’s item, it doesn’t seem over indulgent to return to sherry and a report on the event.
Jerez DO(Sherry) is the oldest in Spain and also Europe’s most southerly wine region. Although it’s hot, rainfall, according to Cesar Saldana, is not as light as we would imagine. Jerez gets around 600mm of rain annually, compared with 450mm in Rioja; the trouble is it tends to fall over a very short period. Salvation lies in the particular water retaining properties of the local albariza soil, a light coloured clay which tends to form a firm, almost crust-like texture on the surface, allowing moisture to be retained beneath.
The palomino grape
A most important grape is the palomino, used for almost all sherry styles. The exceptions are the rich dessert wines of the region, based on pedro ximenez (PX). This grape is also used to make sweetening wines for blending with palomino wines to create off dry styles such as cream sherries and semi sweet olorosos. Fino and manzanilla are the driest wines, fortified to around 15% before continuing maturation under a layer of locally occuring yeast called flor. The darker oloroso is fortifed to a few degrees higher and matures without flor, in an oxidative manner. Amontillado is essentially an aged fino from which flor has been allowed to die off, thus finishing the wine in an oxidative way. Sherries are aged in a solera, with barrels arranged according to age; every year up to one third of the wine is drawn off from older barrels and this is then replenished with younger wines. There are separate soleras for the different categories.
Cesar Saldana showed wine from most of the important categories. Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino (Barry & Fitzwilliam) was first up and it was lovely to taste from a bottle just freshly opened. The clean notes of dry citrus and nuts and decent length only emphasised how often this wine is served from bottles that are too long open; the ready availability of half bottles through independents should ensure that off-licence customers, at least, can drink the wine as it ought to be drunk. The same applies to La Goya Manzanilla (Vinostito). Like most manzanillas it hadn’t any really discernible fruit character; flavours were of nuts with a touch of white chocolate.
A wonderful hint of old socks!
Moving to more full bodied styles, we tried Rey Fernando de Castilla Oloroso (not in Ireland). Here were nut and dry orange skin aromas and flavours with just a hint of old socks – yes, I know that sounds awful but it’s an undoubted element of oloroso and tastes a lot better than it sounds. In fact, speaking for myself, I prefer oloroso to amontillado, which is generally softer and fruitier but, for me, sometimes occupies a slightly limp place between the elegance of fino and the heartiness and structure of oloroso. But that’s a personal thing and a lot of sherry fans would not agree. There was a chance to put it to the test, anyway, in the form of Tio Diego Amontillado (Classic Drinks); this was appealing stuff, with hints of orange chocolate and light, nutty character to the finish.
Next in line was the well known Williams & Humbert Dry Sack Medium (Findlaters). This is a blend of palomino with some pedro ximenez, to produce a slightly sweetened oloroso. There are toffee aromas with walnut and hints of orange syrup on the palate. It feels less compex than the dry oloroso and amontillado above but it would be a good stepping stone for someone seeking to move out of the comfort zone of cream sherry and experience some of the other styles.
Traditional festive favourites
Then there was Harveys Bristol Cream (Barry & Fitzwilliam) and with the run-up to Christmas approaching it was the ideal time to reassess this traditional festive standby. The blending of around 30 finos, amontillados and olorosos, with a well judged addition of pedro ximenez, creates a wine that is just about sweet enough and doesn’t cloy. Soft raisined fruit is underpinned with fresher orangey flavours and, in fact, it’s very enjoyable served very slightly chilled in a larger glass, with an orange slice on top.
We finished with a sample of the luscious Lustau San Emilio PX, full of tasty raisin and prune flavours. It’s amazing that a wine carrying 450 grams per litre of sugar should actually feel so balanced on the palate; it’s great with ice cream and perfect with rich cakes and festive pudding.
Other sherries were on offer around the fair with importers really enthused about their offerings. The task, as we’ve said before, is to convey this to the consumer, and surely sherry’s sheer value for money has to be a starting point. Among the best were Valdivia Oloroso Seco and Fino (Febvre) and Hidalgo Gobernador Oloroso (Celtic Whiskey Shop). The sherries of Rey Fernando de Castillo are not available in Ireland but someone should take them up for they are excellent. They have conspicuous length and one hardly feels the alcohol, indicating fine concentration in the base wines. The oloroso is exceptionally elegant with a fine mid palate of walnut and dried fruits and there’s a top class fino.