Jerez: The Soul of an Enigma – Part I

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Church in JerezThe Imam calls for prayer, staccato syncopation, a glass of manzanilla – these are the pulses and memories of a land where Muslims, Christians and Jews once lived in harmony, even if only for a brief yet profound speck of time. Al-Andalus, now Andalusia, is one of the most interesting places in Europe. Jerez, or Sherry in English, situated in the heart of Andalusia, is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, with a history dating to the Moorish Caliphate in the 8th century, and perhaps even the Phoenecians.

After tasting through over a hundred wines while travelling across Spain made with grapes from every corner of the country, it was while I was sitting in Madrid listening to some mind-blowing Flamenco that I finally came to the conclusion that Sherry is the only wine that is wholly and fully Spanish. But, just like Spain, Sherry can sometimes get lost in its own excesses or in its complacency with its own history, and its simple, direct, ‘thereness’ – the basic fact that it has been where it is for centuries. However, this belies that what it is has been ever in flux. In essence, Sherry, as Spain, is a paradox.

Indeed, at one point in time Jerez/Xeres/Sherry used to be the foremost wine in the world. So much so that many other regions mimicked its fortified style, including Rueda and the Canary Islands. But Jerez’ history extends back further than that – it was a wine producing region in the first Caliphate of the Moors, one that was somehow left to survive when a later generation of much stricter anti-alcohol Moors from North Africa took control. Jerez was a great prize for the Christian reconquerors of the 15th century, and much later Jerez was much loved by the upper crust in the British Empire – England becoming Sherry’s biggest market. In fact, some Brits loved Sherry so much they set up shop in town with their own Bodegas.

Since then Sherry’s popularity began to decline as the world took a liking to more classic dry and red whites, which of course was aided much by the improvement in wine-making techniques that allowed non-fortified wines to actually taste good after a few days and with the introduction of modern bottling with corks, which allowed fine unfortified wines to be shipped across the ocean without fear. The producers of Jerez felt the depression in demand significantly as bodegas began to fail in the mid 20th century until recently. The late 1990s and early 2000s began to see a resurgence in international interest in Sherry and this is often where the story ends in most books and articles. However, Sherry’s newfound success pales in comparison to what it once was. And, it also elides some of the more important trends and developments that are going on in Sherry right now.

In the two days I spent in Jerez, a nearly unnoticeable industrial town a short train ride from such wonders as the Alhambra and the Mesquita, I met with five producers and tasted upwards of 60 Sherries. In all that time I got access to the true stories of Jerez and the struggles and debates that are changing the face of Sherry as much as they derive from its deep and complex history. From passion to industry, tradition to innovation, and boutique specialists to commercial mega-powers, Jerez is a land of contradictions, but also of truth and expression. And, somehow, despite and because of its struggles, its paradoxes and its utterly singular way of making wine, Jerez fashions a style of wine that I believe is the greatest in all of Spain.

This multi-part series will explore the wine-making, traditions, debates and producers of Jerez, and will attempt to tell what is one of the most utterly compelling but also frustratingly complex stories in the world of wine. But one thing is sure, the only place to start such a story is with what those form Jerez call the Solera.

The Solera: The Heart of Sherry

Solera at Bodega LustauThere are some things in life whose origins remain so obscured that any real speculation is rendered meaningless. It is from such mysterious beginnings that the Solera system of aging Sherry emerged. Out of all the producers I talked to and all the personalities in Jerez, no one seemed to know how or why the Solera developed. And yet, none failed to express that without the Solera there is no Sherry.

From a basic explanatory viewpoint, the Solera is a system of several barrels that range from oldest to youngest stacked one on top of the other. It is, in fact, only the oldest barrel at the bottom that is called the Solera, with the younger ones on top being relegated to the crib with the name Criadera (or cradle). The idea is that wine for bottling is drawn from the Solera and then replenished with wine from the Criadera directly above it, which itself is then replenished with wine from the youngest Criadera.

Understanding the basic structure of this ‘system’ is one thing, but seeing these ancient, almost geological, barrels in the flesh is another: they recall those fantastical earth and stone bound creatures that mythologies have been using for centuries to symbolize the irrepressible forces of earth and time. In many ways the Solera approximates the slow forces of geological time, but on a human scale – pulling from the young to deplete the old over vast stretches of time. Yet, the true beauty of the Solera is that the oldest contain small percentages of wine dating back to the very beginning of the Solera – in some cases this can be upwards of 100 years. In the greatest Sherries it is not a stretch to take pause and reflect on the fact that part of what you are drinking is truly ancient.

Of course, with such techniques new oak is anathema. Instead, producers use all old barrels, with mostly American and Spanish oak. In fact, these barrels are so treasured that some Bodegas even have on-site coopers to make sure the scaffolding of the entire Solera system – the barrels – is given the greatest lease on life.

But the Solera is nothing without the aging that it precipitates, which comes in two forms.

Organic vs. Oxidative Aging

Fino and Manzanilla: The Myths Dispelled

Contrary to popular opinion, not all sherries are oxidized. In fact, the famous styles Fino and Manzanilla are aged organically rather than oxidatively. These two styles of sherries develop under a coating of spontaneously formed ‘flor’ (yeast) that protects the wines from oxidation.

The traditional distinction between Fino and Manzanilla is that Fino comes from Jerez and Manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barameda. The traditional take is that Manzanillas are covered by flor for the entire year and Fino for 2/3 of the year, due to climactic differences. However, in my time in Jerez I discovered that this belief is a total myth. In any proper cellar in Jerez, the humidity is sufficient to maintain the flor for the entire year, meaning that Fino is protected from oxidation as much as Manzanilla. The climatic difference can account for a thicker layer of flor in Manzanilla, but it does not produce a fundamentally different style. In the end, these two styles are one and the same, but also distinct. They are united by their organic aging, and separated by the veracity of the flor that grows on them and the choice of techniques that vary from producer to producer.

And, as one important tidbit for those who don’t live anywhere near Jerez, these styles lose their vivacity and complexity as they sit in the bottle, so keep in mind that ½ bottles go off more quickly in these styles than full bottles.

Amontillado

Amontillado is a style of sherry created when the flor on the fino dies. The flor dies either when the fino is fortified or simply when it dies naturally and Amontillado is the result of subsequent oxidative aging. Thus, Amontillado is an aged Fino. Cheap ‘Amontillados’ are made in a blended style and sweetened and do not represent what is traditionally very dry and nutty.

Oloroso

Oloroso is the style of Sherry that never sees organic aging. These wines are fortified so as to prevent the growth of the flor and allow for full oxidative aging. As a result, Olorosos tend to be considered the most ageable sherries around. Again, this style is traditionally completely dry, although most of the ones on the market are sweetened and blended. Avoid those commercial styles as they do not represent what Sherry is all about. Oloroso is darker and fuller in body than Amontillado.

Palo Cortado

This style is a strange and unintended hybrid style. Palo Cortados are made with wine originally selected to be a Fino due to its greater finesse. For whatever reason, the flor on such wines fails to develop and they undergo fully oxidative aging. These wines therefore sit somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso in flavour and body and because they occur spontaneously, these are the rarest sherries of all. This style also happens to be my personal favourite.

Pedro Ximenez

Whereas all of the previous styles of sherry are made with the Palomino grape, Pedro Ximenez (or PX) is its own grape and is prone to very high sugar content. This results in some extremely sweet dessert wines, the worst of which can be cloying and undrinkable. However, the best Pedro Ximenez (most of which tends to be older) can hold up to 300+ grams of sugar per litre and still have freshness and lively fruit. In fact, Pedro Ximenez, in my opinion, produces some of the best dessert wine in the world, and all for a mere fraction of the cost of wines such as Sauternes or Port. If you’ve ever tried vanilla icecream with a top notch PX, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you owe it to yourself to start.

Blended Styles

Often labeled as ‘cream’ sherries, these styles are blended and sweetened. While there are many commercial uninteresting cream sherries out there, a few producers are making interesting Sherries in this style, which was traditionally created for the export market. For my money, though, these are completely boring and uninteresting wines compared to the traditional dry styles.

Innovation and Quality

One of Sherry’s marketing difficulties is surely the complexity of its methods and styles, which are hard for consumers who know nothing about traditional wine making to appreciate. This perceived marketing gap led the regulator (led by a number of business savvy bodegas) to create the recent Very Old Sherry (VOS) and Very Old Rare Sherry (VORS) designations, which indicate that the Sherries are 20 and 30 years old respectively.

However, what few know is that these designations have not been accepted by all. To understand why it is first important to know that the ‘20’ and ‘30’ year old designations are based on an average age, since the very nature of the Solera system means that Sherry is made with a blend of wine of different ages. Second, the VOS and VORS designations are given to sherries not based on the meticulous notes of the bodegas as to the average age of a given Solera, but rather based on the decision of a tasting panel (who purport to also use carbon dating, but given what I learned the veracity of this is questionable).

To some of the staunchest traditionally-minded producers, the use of VOS and VORS dating systems undermines the very nature of the Solera, instead trying to approximate the vintage dating system used for most other styles of wine. To some, any marketing move should and must maintain the heart of what makes Sherry what it is. To pretend or approximate otherwise is to mislead the consumer and undersell what makes Sherry so special.

To take this debate even further, some producers have been aging and bottling vintage dated sherries – that is, sherries made with wine all from the same vintage. This, of course, is fully experimental and does not use the traditional Solera system at all. While some see this as offering another opportunity for the consumer to taste a different side of Sherry, for others it is more of an attempt to create rare prestige bottles for auctions than it is to produce anything distinctive. The staunch traditionalists maintain, with fervor, that Sherry is the Solera.

On the other end of the spectrum, many producers have eschewed the traditional manner of aging Fino sherry for longer periods of time in favour of a lower alcohol and fresher style. In fact, this ‘new’ style of Fino is so prevalent that almost nobody is producing the traditional style at all any more, which is richer, darker and more complex than most Fino. One producer I talked to bemoaned the industry’s forsaking of this fabulous style that has led to its near extinction. By paying too much attention to market demands, he argued, they lost a style of wine that was truly special.

In the end, it’s hard to tell who is right. Each side represents different visions of innovation and its relation to tradition. My personal and romantic predilections tend to side with the traditionalists, but I can understand the push to make Sherry a more marketable product since it still remains one of the great misunderstood wines of the world. In the end, what is important is for as many people as possible to taste the classically dry styled wines of Jerez in their full range and across as many producers as possible. It is only then that one will discover, as I did, the true breadth and complexity of the most neglected great wine in the world.

Consolidation and the Future of Sherry

The debate about the meaning of tradition and innovation does not end with labeling and wine-making, but as with most things enters the realm of big business in Jerez. The current trend in Jerez, and one that is not reported on much in North America, is towards consolidation. Huge holding companies and conglomerates are buying up all the small bodegas they can. This trend has been so severe that the number of bodegas in Jerez has dwindled in the last couple of decades, slipping from over 200 to a mere 30 today.

I met both with producers trying to buck this trend and with the behemoths who were making it happen. I discovered an industry that is in danger of losing the diversity that is necessary to keep any industry spry and adaptable. If consolidation goes any further, which it is almost inevitably going to do, then Sherry is in danger of losing its enigmatic soul and becoming a monolithic expression.

Old Abandoned Tio Pepe Factory

What needs to happen is for the independent producers that are still left to band together and start promoting tourism more aggressively. Right now, you could pull up to Jerez’ train station and not even know there was a wine industry in town. Many bodegas are only open by appointment and are incredibly awkward to get to and don’t have visitors tasting rooms. As an example, my attempts to visit one producer resulted in them changing schedules on me 3 times within the course of a single day, resulting in me being unable to visit the Bodega. I would add that the town itself is uninviting to most tourists and doesn’t seem to even realize that they exist.

What this attitude is doing is giving all the cards to the giant tour-friendly operators – namely Gonzalez Byass (and its mammoth Fino brand Tio Pepe), which is pretty much the only Bodega open on weekends with tourist friendly tours and tastings. My enquiries about this situation across town led to answers that blamed the general lackadaisical attitude towards business in Andalusia.

How can somewhere produce one of the greatest wines in the world and yet not seem to realize the potential this has? How can abandoned factories and buildings sit next to some of the most exciting wine making in Spain, if not the world? And most of all, how can hundreds of years of history culminate in such a frustrating and yet wonderful experience? These are the enigmas not only of Jerez, but also of Spain, a land where frustration and beauty waltz together with regularity. That this enigma can manifest sensually in a small glass of wine is what makes Sherry one of the most mysterious and yet profound beverages on the planet.

In the remainder of this series I will focus on the producers that I visited, their philosophies and their wines, all with the hope of connecting the disparate stars of Jerez into the constellation that is Sherry.

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