Sherry: bodega, flor and solera
Sherry is a niche wine that few really know. It was written at length about in a very clear way by Tania Baiocchi in her book: Sherry.
“Ah, yes, Sherry. What exactly is it?”. After thinking a lot about this (enough to fill a book), I decided that the best answer to such a question was: “How much time to you have? A couple of hours?” In reality it would take a lifetime”. This is how Talia Baiocchi begins her book Sherry, published by Readrink, an engrossing tale about a particular wine that many, even many wine experts, quizzed by yours truly, were not able to give a precise definition to nor to describe its basic characteristics. Sherry is a niche wine that enjoyed moments of fame and popularity to then return to obscurity and then come again. It is a wine unlike any other because in its many interpretations it can have the salinity of a Chablis, the body of a Rhone Syrah or the earthiness and floral nature of a Nebbiolo. The white, chalky soil of albariza where the vineyards sink their roots make this wine as elegant as a Champagne, as Hugh Johnson and Jansis Robinson have both observed: “A northern and a southern interpretation of the same equation, a single poem: white grapes from a white soil”.
To look at Sherry from a geographic point of view we must go to its homeland, Spain, and in particular the area of Jerez de la Frontera that, together with the lesser known ones of Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, creates the Sherry Triangle.
Here the vineyards used to make Sherry sink their roots into the white and difficult albariza soil which, being poor in organic material and despite its propensity to retain water, force the roots to grow deeply when young in order to survive the torrid summer heat in the region.
The principle grape used to make sherry is Palomino Fino but there is also the famous Pedro Ximenez, known above all because of the sweet wine of the same name, and to a lesser degree Moscatel, which is above all found in the sandier, so-called arenas soil closer to the sea, in the area of Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Considering the soil, the more or less suitable areas for winegrowing and the climate, Sherry would appear to be a wine like any other. But the further you go in her book, the author reveals and explains with simplicity and passion the three characteristics that make this wine so unique and, at the same time, so different from itself in one version to another.
The bodega, solera and the flor, these are what make Sherry so chameleon-like and fascinating.
The flor is a layer of lees that forms on the surface of the wine and what differentiates the variety of Sherry (except for Oloroso) that sits under its protection through a type of aging called “biological”.
Biological aging is an anaerobic process characterized by the absence of oxygen, which is what flor absorbs to protect the wine below from being oxidized. This oxygen defense barrier is what allows a Fino– one of the types of Sherry – to mature for 10 years and retain its freshness, salinity and color. Oloroso, another type of Sherry, matures without flor and is darker and has more body and is distinguished by darker notes and a brown color that are the product of its contact with oxygen.
The solera method was introduced to this area towards the end of the 18
The bodega is the cellar. In wine, the terroir is a key element, an equation that includes what defines a wine and involves the participation of different elements, from the varietal to the climate, from the subsoil to the latitude and so on. The terroir of Sherry adds a fundamental element to this equation that, while present for the aging of any wine, here become essential for the flor. The architecture of the bodega plays a fundamental role for the development and survival of the flor and for this reason some bodega have cathedral-high ceilings and ventilation ducts that allow in the sea air but are protected from direct sunlight by trees and climbing vines. In every angle of the bodega there is a different microclimate that the cellar master must know in order to positon the barrels in the best way possible.
When Sherry is bottled it is classified according to how long it has matured under the flor. Fino and Manzanilla are the clearest and have spent all their time under the flor. If a Fino or a Manzanilla continues to age even after the flor has begun to die then they become an Amontillado, which combines both biological aging from its initial maturing and the result of oxidation in the later one. The next level is Palo Cortado which has oxidized even more and this is followed by Oloroso, which did not benefit from the protection of the flor and this is the most oxidized of them all.
Experience is the best way to distinguish between the various types of Sherry, in other words tasting them. The second part of the book describes many excellent wineries in the Sherry Triangle as well as a host of cocktails in which Sherry is a prime ingredient.
The Spanish ham jamon, in its various versions, is ideal to pair with Sherry and this is even better inside an old tavern in Andalusia with a view of the sea.
Sherry by Talia Baiocchi - Preface by Danil Nevsky
Edizioni Readrink, 254 pages, 25 euros