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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Great Sherry Tasting

Sherry is one of my favourite wines - not least, perhaps, because it is generally under-appreciated and therefore represents great value.

As a generic name, "sherry" is a bit like "curry" - a foreigner's oversimplification that lumps everything together and hides the potential variety and complexity of everything from a pale fino, to a complex palo cortado and an intensely sweet PX.

For his Masterclass on oxidative ageing at The Great Sherry Tasting, Beltran Domecq drew the distinction between paler sherries aged biologically (that is, under flor), the subject of an earlier Masterclass, and the darker styles aged oxidatively.

Beltran noted that this was the largest sherry tasting in northern Europe and possibly even bigger than ones in Spain and then kicked off with a recap of the key components of sherry-making:

- the region, a triangle between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María
- the chalky albariza soil
- the palomino grape
- the naturally occurring flor that grows atop the paler sherries and gives them their characteristic pungency

What was new for me was the precise conditions need for flor and the description of the local micro-climate determined by the straits of Gibraltar; winds from the west bring cooler, damper air providing favourable conditions for the flor whilst the hot, dry, eastern air from the Sahara provides the opposite.

On entering the tasting room, the aroma of aged, complex sherries had been utterly delicious and I soon discovered the reason - all 10 samples had been pre-poured and, with spaces for 30 attendees, that meant the heady aromas from 300 glasses of dark sherry wafting around the room.

With no overt fruit, the tertiary, evolved aromas of sherry often elude easy description and one tends to fall back on references to roasted walnuts, old leather and so on.

The Palo Cortados

Leonor, Gonzalez Byass (£12.10 Cambridge Wine Merchants and others) a golden topaz colour, this was a delicate and elegant wine, with nutty, raisiny aromas, a touch of muskiness and a firmness on the finish. Good.

Antique, F de Castilla (£29, Noel Young and others) this was much older and had an aged complexity with a touch of saltiness. Greater length, too.

Capuchino, VORS, Osborne (£33.29 The Wine Society) a darker mahogany colour on the nose, this is complex and aged with aromas on the palate of old leather, antique shop and roasted nuts. There is also a fresh acidity, good length and a touch of spice. The finish is balance and persistent. Very good.

The Olorosos

Collecion 12 anos, Williams & Humbert (£7.99 Waitrose) aged not in a solera, but statically (i.e. In a single butt), this is a pale topaz colour. The palate has a fresh acidity and feels elegantly harmonious. It feels vibrant and seems quite youthful after the previous wine.

VORS, Tradicion an amber colour, it seems pale for its 30 years' age, there are toasted walnut aromas on the nose. The palate has fresh acidity and nutty, evolved aromas; it feels balanced, very soft and harmonious.

The Sweet Olorosos

Royal Corregidor VOS, Sandeman (£14.99 Harrods and others) a treacly colour, there are musky aromas and walnuts; the acidity is fresh with a balanced sweetness and an aroma of roasted orange peel. The sweetness comes, incidentally, from early stopping of the fermentation and not the addition of PX.

Rich Old Oloroso VORS, Harveys (£21.10 Gordon & Macphail) a dark mahogany colour with aromas of seasoned oak and concentrated walnut, this has a lower sugar content and feels very fresh - the bitterness, saltiness, sweetness and acidity all feel very balanced. Good.

The PXs
These wines are all made from the Pedro Ximinez grape and are intensely, deliciously sweet.

Cisneros, Sanchez Romate (£17.74 Selfridges, Soho Wine) almost black in the glass, there are raisiny aromas and dried figs. It is mouthfilling with really intense sweetness, burnt aromas and toasty vanilla, but the fresh acidity cuts through.

Don Guido VOS, Williams & Humbert (£15 Harrods and others) older and more complex, this is absolutely black in colour and yet seems less sweet - overall, it is more balanced with a better mix of bitterness, acidity and saltiness. Complex burnt aromas on the finish.

Venerable VORS, Osborne (£33.29 The Wine Society) intense yet complex nose with bitter, toasty, roasted-spice aromas. It is complex, harmonious and elegant with great length and a wonderful finish. Very good indeed.

With residual sugar of 430g/l, it is quite possibly one of the sweetest wines in the world, with the exception only of Tokaji Eszencia which @BorVilag tells me is typically above 450g/l.

Food matches for this were suggested as dark chocolate (especially with sea salt) and blue cheese. For more on sherry and food matching, see this Hidalgo Sherry Dinner at The Punter post.

As a general rule, Beltran suggested that all these darker sherries should be chilled slightly when served with food - around 15C to 17C.

A Note On Pricing

Most wines are produced to be drunk young and proper ageing is an expensive process, not least because it ties up money in the business for years.

So, given that over 99% of all wine sold in the UK is under a tenner, these wines might seem expensive compared to a bottle of supermarket wine or even something more interesting but still current-vintage from an independent merchant.

And whilst a bottle of good, entry-level fino or manzanilla can be had for under a tenner, the mellowness and complexity that comes with ageing measured in decades inevitably costs a bit more.

Recommended Wines

As a long-standing sherry enthusiast, I did not feel I needed any conversion to the cause. However, what did strike about all the wines was how well made they were and also the extraordinary palate length.

So whilst it may seem iniquitous to single out favourites, let it be said that the benchmark here was generally extremely high but some towered above. Inevitably, perhaps, it was the older wines that impressed most:

- Palo Cortado Capuchino VORS, Osborne for its aged complexity
- PX Venerable VORS, Osborne for its intensity, complexity and balance

Here's what The Wine Kat has to say about The Great Sherry Tasting.


The Sherry Institute of Spain - www.sherry.org
Osborne - http://www.osborne.es/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.co.uk/
Noel Young Wines - http://www.nywines.co.uk/
The Wine Society - http://www.thewinesociety.com/

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