domingo, 5 de agosto de 2012

Spanish Sherry and Montilla-Moriles Wines


Sherry takes its name from the town of Jerez, which lies in the south of Spain, in the province of Cádiz in Andaluda. The wine was popular in Britain from Tudor times and the English merchants were well established in the region from that period. By the 1850s, it accounted for 40 per cent of the imports of wine into Britain. While Sherry, like all fortified wines, has lost some of its popularity, the United Kingdom remains the most important export market. After a period of declining sales in Britain, the Sherry market appears to have stabilised. It is dominated by sweet wines. Cream and Pale Cream, selling mainly at Christmas time. However, there is a slow increase in the sales of quality wines including Finos and Manzanillas, as well as the premium age-dated wines. Sales of dry Amontillados, Olorosos and Palo Cortados are minimal.

The worldwide image of the wine suffered seriously in the 1970s and early 1980s with the flooding of the market with low-quality wine as a result of overproduction. Consequently, with the financial support of the EU, a considerable area of vines has been uprooted in order to achieve a better balance of supply and demand. There has also been a move to increase the production of white table wine to mop up further grapes. Three further steps have been taken to raise the image of Sherry. The first is a decree restricting the amount of stock that a company is permitted to sell on the market in any one year. This normally is in the region of one third, effectively meaning that most Sherry is at least a three-year-old wine. Secondly, there was a voluntary move by all Sherry companies to forbid the export of Sherry bulk. The two exceptions to this rule are state monopolies and the food industry, e.g. Sherry used in sauces, chocolates, etc. The third, and Most recent development, is the introduction of age-dated Sherries, which has given a boost to the premium end of the market.


The Sherry trade is dominated by brands owned by the major Sherry ‘houses’. These companies have their bodegas, or ageing warehouses, in Jerez itself, or the two smaller seaside towns of Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. Most own vineyards, but they will also y buy grapes and must from the large number of vineyard owners, many of whom have grouped themselves into cooperative cellars. They might also buy wine from the small group of almacenistas, vineyard owners who make and age their own wines, but who do not bottle or market them themselves. Usually, these almacenista Sherries are used to contribute to the flavour spectrum of blends, but they can also be bottled in their pure form, and are among the most classical and characterful of all sherries.


The soils of the area are divided into three distinct types, albariza, arena and barro, though the reduction in the area under vines has drastically lessened the importance of the last two. Albariza now dominates the vineyards of Jerez. This is a very compact soil with a high chalk content, which gives good drainage, whilst retaining moisture. Muddy and slippery when wet, it dries to a hard crust which inhibits evaporation. There are a number of locally recognised subtypes of this soil, depending on the proportion of limestone, which may be as much as 80 per cent or as little as 30 per cent. In the sunshine, the vineyards are a dazzling white, due to the reflection off the chalk. Albariza is mainly found in the heartland of the Sherry region, in the rolling hills between Jerez and the Guadalquivir River. It is here that the finest grapes are grown. The second soil is arena, or sand (compacted sand accounts for 70 per cent of the composition, with the limestone 10 per cent or less). Arena contains a proportion of iron oxide, which gives it a russet-brown colour; though its subsoil is often chalky. Productive and easy to work, its wines generally lack subtlety. This soil is now mainly planted with Moscatel grapes, and much of what used to be vineyard land here has been given over to the growing of vegetables and flowers in polythene tents.

The third soil type is barro, or dark clay. This is the richest soil, lying on the lower land, mainly in the south-east of the region. It gives high yields of wine with more body but less quality than those of albariza soils. Much of what was vineyard land here now produces wheat.


The climate here may be described as hot Mediterranean, with the mean winter temperature being 10.7° C and summer 23.7° C. The sun shines on almost 300 days in the year. The average rainfall is 650 mm, which is high for Spain, but most of this falls between October and May. During the summer, therefore, water is a precious commodity and must be carefully managed. For this purpose, collection troughs, known as aserpias, are dug between the rows of vines. On the plus side, all this gives a very long ripening season, though drought may be a problem.


Palomino accounts for more than 90 per cent of the area planted. This is one of those varieties that seems to come into its own with just one wine (in this case, Sherry). Elsewhere it seems to be incapable of giving a wine of distinction. The albariza soil of Jerez, where it is planted, must be its lifeblood, for here it is the base of almost every wine. The grape is very thin-skinned and this can lead to the fruit splitting, causing rot in the period leading up to the vintage. There is always a conflict as to when it should be picked: early so as to retain acidity, or late to give alcohol and reduce the need for fortification alcohol on which a higher tax is payable. In either event, it is picked by hand because of its delicate nature and susceptibility to damage, and workers can be seen placing the cut bunches carefully in plastic boxes, containing 15-17 kg of grapes.

Pedro Ximénez (PX) is generally planted on the lower-lying vineyards on arena and barro soils and, after picking, the grapes are generally left to dry in the sun on grass mats. This concentrates the sugar levels. The resultant wine is often used for sweetening purposes. In recent years, the area under Pedro Ximénez has decreased considerably within the Sherry region, and the grapes and wine have been brought in from either Montilla or Málaga. This is permitted by the Sherry DO regulations.


Yields in Jerez, as elsewhere, vary considerably and are directly related to the rainfall during the previous autumn and winter. The average is somewhere around 65 hl/ha, with a maximum of 80 hl/ha permitted in the better vineyards and 100 hl/ha in the more peripheral ones. Soils are fertilised with manure every three to five years in order to maintain, but not increase, the yields.

The traditional planting space in the vineyards is 1.5 m x 1,5 m. Now, however, to enable more effective use of tractors, the vines are planted 1 metre apart, with 2 metres between the rows.

The vines used to be freestanding bush vines with props to support the branches, but wire-training is becoming more common. The training used in Jerez is an adaptation of the single-Guyot system, called vara y pulgar. The main problems in the vineyards are rot and mildew due to early summer rains, and chlorosis due to the high limestone content of the soil.


The vintage normally begins during the first week of September. When the grapes are picked, the pedro Ximenez bunches are laid out in the sun to increase their sugar content. In order to speed up this process, plastic tunnels are now replacing the traditional grass mats. The Palomino grapes, however, are pressed immediately. As the temperature at vintage time can be very high, there is a real danger of oxidation, so press-houses are often established in the vineyards. Pressing is now generally carried out by horizontal (Vaslin or Willmes) presses. The first 70 per cent, mainly free-run, juice is used for Finos and the light Sherry styles, with the next 20 per cent (up to a maximum of 72.5 litres per 100 kg of grapes) for Otorosos and other less fine wines. Anything above this must be sent for distillation.

After pressing, acidification with tartaric acid now generally takes place. The juice is then held with S02 for 24 hours, so that it can clear. It is then normally pumped into stainless steel vats where fermentation takes place under temperature control. Natural yeasts are generally adequate for this. Some traditionalists still ferment their wines in 600-litre oak butts. Generally, the wines are fermented at between 25° and 30° C, much higher than is usually considered suitable for white wines. However, at lower temperatures, the aldehydes and other constituents that give Sherry its particular style do not develop. It is important to realise that all Sherries, with the exception of Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel, are fermented dry. Any sweetness is added later in the production process.

There are two basic styles of Sherry; Fino and Oloroso. The development of these used to owe as much to nature as to the art of the winemaker. However, they now are in a better position to control the future of a wine. The controls that can be applied at the time of fermentation play a major role in this. The future of a wine can be recognised when it is still very young. The first classification takes place soon after the first fermentation has finished. In December or January following the vintage, each tank or cask is tasted and the capataz, or head cellarman, will take samples to determine each wine’s future. The more delicate wines are destined to become Finos, and will be marked with one stroke (una raya, /). Richer; heavier wines will become Olorosos and are marked with two strokes (dos rayas, //). At this early stage, natural yeast, known as flor, will be growing on the surface of a wine. So as not to disturb this layer, the capataz collects the sample, in the ease of lautts. using their traditional and distinctive venencia. (In Sanlucat, the capataz uses a less flexible tool made of bamboo.)

Flor has an important effect on the wines as they age beneath its surface. To exist it feeds on oxygen, alcohol and glycerine and, in the process, reduces the overall acidity of the wine. As it provides a protective blanket on the surface of the wine it also prevents oxidation, which, by contrast, is necessary for Oloroso Sherries. In addition it increases the level of acetaldehyde, which gives Sherry its individual flavour. The optimum alcoholic level for flor is between 14.5% abv and 15.5% abv. The heat of summer and the coldness of winter also affect the action of flor, which works best at temperatures between 15° and 20° C. Therefore, in Jerez it is active in the spring and autumn and quiescent in the summer and winter. In Sanlucar de Barrameda, on the other hand, where the Atlantic gives a more balanced climate, flor is active all the year round. Its sensitivity to ambience is such that the temperature and humidity of individual bodegas will influence the styles of the maturing Sherry. For optimum effect, flor needs to be refreshed periodically and this is achieved naturally by the replenishment of maturing wine in the solera system.

Once the selection of styles has been made, fortification is carried out using mitad y mitad (half and half), a mixture of high-strength alcohol and old wine, with the recipe varying from company to company. Until this fortification, both must and young wines are referred to as mosto.

Finos are fortified to between 14.5 and 15.5%, the optimum strength for the growth of fifor, and Oiorosos to 18%, which prevents its existence.

As Sherry is rarely sold as a vintage wine, but rather as a style and a brand, continuity of style and quality over the years is important. Jerez has developed this by its own form of fractional blending, known as the solera system. Following their initial fortification, the wines are drawn from the tanks into clean butts until the latter are about 5/6th full. For Finos, flor will naturally come with the wine. All wines enter the preliminary stage of the solera unblended, in what is known as the añada (the term is also used to describe the young wine before maturation and blending). After a further six months, the Finos will be split again into potential Finos and the more full-bodied Amontillados. These latter have a less thick flor. Temperature control is important throughout the solera cycle. Bodegas are designed with high roofs to keep the temperature as cool as possible, and will often be aligned to make the most of any prevailing breezes. The soil floors are often watered to increase the humidity. On the other hand, the young Olorosos may be stored outside so that the heat from the sun can naturally increase the oxidation.

Each style of wine will have its individual solera, which comprises a number of different criaderas, or parcels of the same wine at a particular stage in its ageing. The oldest criadera is known as the solera itself. When a quantity of a given wine is required for bottling, an equal amount is drawn from each of the butts in the solera. This is replaced with an equal amount from each butt in the next oldest criadera, and so on, with the youngest being topped up from the añada. This operation is called ‘running the scales’. This was originally done by hand with buckets, but now pumps are generally used. It can be complex and time-consuming, as care must be taken to blend horizontally as well as vertically. That is to say, each butt must not be replenished from just one butt, but from a number of younger butts. In this way, consistency is maintained.

Not more than a third can be drawn out at any one time, and if one draws out the maximum, this can be done only three times in any year. Effectively, for Olorosos and Amontillados, this might happen three times a year, whereas for Finos and Manzanillas, in order to have optimum freshness, less may be drawn out, more frequently. This all means that in any one solera there should remain an amount, albeit perpetually diminishing of the original wine. In the older Sherry houses, the original soleras may well have been laid down more than 200 years ago. Because of this system fractional blending, very few sherries are vintage dated, though a number are dated from the laying down of the solera.

Once the wine has finished ageing in the son an average of three to five years for a quality Fino, up to ten years for Amontillados and Olorosos, and 25 years or more for the finest wines, it will undergo a variety of treatments to prepare it to bottling and sale, Traditionally, much wine was fortified once more just before shipment. This was largely because each market expected its Sherries at different strengths. Now, particularly within the EU, it is becoming the norm to ship wines at the solera strength. Thus, for Britain most Finos and Manzanillas are now being shipped at 15%, giving duty benefits. It is also at this stage that wine may be sweetened or coloured, though the latter process has now all but disappeared with the decline in demand for ‘Brown' Sherries. For Cream Sherries and Sweet Olorosos, the sweetening is generally achieved with Pedro Ximénez wine; for Pale Cream Sherries, concentrated grape juice is added. Sherry naturally has a high tartrate content and is liable to throw crystalline deposits. To minimise the risk of this almost all Sherries are now chilled in bulk to —8° C and kept at that temperature for eight days in order to precipitate the tartrates. They are then normally fined and filtered to leave the wine star-bright, Finos and Manzanillas will generally undergo microfiltration in order to remove any traces of flor that might lurk in the wine.


Over the years, a broad range of Sherries has been made available to the trade. These have evolved from the two basic styles, Fino and Oloroso, plus the in-between Palo Cortado.

Finos are pale in colour and should be light, dry and clean on the palate. They are, for a Sherry, low in alcohol and should be consumed young, since they tend to lose their freshness once bottled. The essential influence on the style is the presence of flor in all layers of the solera. A Fino that has been aged in a bodega in the seaside town of Sanlúcar is known as a Manzanilla. Because of the cooler climate, the flor remains active throughout the year; this gives the wine an individual character, generally with a delicate, salty tang. In Spain, this is the most fashionable Sherry to drink, with sales far surpassing those of Fino. When young it is known as Manzanilla Fina. Manzanilla now has a separate DO (Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda).

A true Amontillado is an aged Fino or Manzanilla from which the flor has died away. This happens naturally after a period of about seven years of ageing as a Fino, since by this stage all the nutrients needed to support the flor culture will have been consumed. Amontillados are fortified to be slightly higher in alcohol than a classic Fino. They are browny-yellow in colour and dry, with intense nutty flavours from the oxidative ageing that follows the period under flor. The name comes from the neighbouring vineyard area of Montilla; literally suggesting that the wine has been ‘Montilla-ised’. Because of the laborious double-ageing process, true Amontillados are never cheap. Commercial Amontillados are generally a blend of pure Amontillados, with some components of younger Finos and/or Olorosos, and are sweetened to become medium or medium-dry. This latter style is most common on the British market.

Palo Cortado is a very rare style of Sherry and occurs when an elegant wine, that has been selected to become a Fino fails to sustain its culture of flor. The resulting wine has similar aromas and flavours to an Amontillado, but, on the palate, has the full body of a dry Oloroso.

A pure Oloroso (literally ‘fragrant’) is a full-bodied, russet-coloured dry wine, which has oxidised from the beginning. It will have robust aromas and flavours that can be very savoury, meaty and nutty. Many Olorosos are sweetened with an element of PX, which even in tiny quantities can add detectable notes of raisin and prune. Some Olorosos that are sweetened with PX (or other sweetening agents such as mixes of grape juice and grape spirit) are labelled Cream. Some Cream Sherries may also have components of Fino, Manzanilla and/or Amontillado Sherries in the blend.

Pedro Ximenez (PX) is the finest dessert wine of Jerez, produced from sun-dried grapes. It has a concentrated flavour of grapes, raisins and dried figs. Very dark, almost black, and extremely sweet, it can achieve a sugar content as high as 400 g/1.

With the exceptions of Fino, Manzanilla and PX Sherries, all of these wines may be sweetened with a small amount of PX in order, it is said, to improve the balance of what are otherwise extremely dry wines. This sweetening may not be mentioned on the label, but the very powerful influence of PX can be felt on the nose and the palate. The latest addition to the Sherry family is a Fino that has been sweetened by the addition of concentrated grape juice, known as Pale Cream. These commercially very successful wines are light in colour and medium-bodied, with sweet, grapey flavours.


As a non-vintage product, in the past it was difficult to indicate the difference between the very old, complex Sherries, and those that are blended to create a certain style at the lowest possible price. To help consumers recognise the difference, the categories VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum/ Very Old Sherry) and VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum/ Very Old Rare Sherry) were created to indicate solera wines where the bottled product has a minimum average age of 20 years and 30 years respectively. More recently, age-dated categories for 15-year-old and 12-year- old wines were created. These apply to Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso and PX styles.


In Spain, liqueur wines are known as vinos generosos and some are produced in regions other than Jerez. These include neighbouring Huelva, Gandia in Valencia and Rueda near Valladolid.

As far as international markets are concerned, however, the only one of any importance is Montilla, in the Province of Cordoba, to the north-east of the Sherry-producing area. Indeed, Montilla for a long time was considered part of the Sherry region and is still the major supplier of PX to the Sherry houses. In addition, it gave rise to the word Amontillado. Commercially, Montilla found its niche on the shelves of British supermarkets, because the wines fell into the duty band of wines not exceeding 15% alcohol. This, therefore, gave them a price advantage over Sherry; an advantage that has now been partly lost with Sherry Finos and Manzanillas now being shipped at 15%. A regrettable side-effect of this is that the wines of Montilla have come to be looked upon as nothing more than cheap substitutes for sherry, when, in fact, many of them can claim greatness in their own right.

Many of the larger bodegas are in the town of Montilla, which lies at the centre of the vineyard region. Being inland, the climate has more extreme than that of Jerez, with summer temperatures frequently exceeding 40° C. Rainfall is rather higher, though it falls mainly during the winter. The soils are of two types: chalky alberos, similar to the albarizas of Jerez, and the reddish, compact loam ruedos, which are found more to the centre and the west of the region.

At the vintage, there are three qualities of juice: the free-run juice is reserved for Finos, the first pressing is used for Olorosos and second pressing is distilled. Fermentation generally takes place in the traditional concrete tinajas. Subsequently flor occurs in some casks and Fino-style wines will be produced. Oloroso styles are kept in butts with no ulkge to prevent the growth of flor. Ageing is as in the Sherry region in butts in bodegas, following the solera system. As far as their production is concerned the main difference is that the wines naturally achieve higher degrees of alcohol than Sherry, so fortification is the exception rather than the rule. Here most of the same styles as Sherry are found: Finos, Amontillados and Olorosos. Laws concerning minimum alcohol levels restrict use of these terms: 15% for Fino and 16% for Amontillados and Olorosos. Because of this, the British market rarely sees these terms on Montilla labels, but rather the blander terms such as dry, medium and cream. The most prestigious wines are the exceptionally fine PXs. These are made in the same way as the PX wines of the Jerez, but the hot, dry summer conditions in Montilla-Moriles are particularly favourable to this thin-skinned variety, and it is there that it finds its most glorious expression.

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