Hello friends. On October 26, 2010, my life was forever changed. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I, along with a dozen fellow wine dorks, sat in the basement of the Harvest Vine (please go eat there if you haven’t already) and tasted through twenty sherries from the incomparable cellars of Emilio Lustau.
I was transfixed. The complexity of the region, of the production, of the wines themselves; it was all magic. An idea burrowed into my brain that day: “someday we’re going to offer these wines.”
Today is that day. (And a warning; this is a looooooooong offering. Sherry is just too complicated to simplify into a few paragraphs.)
I was reminded of the saline beauty of sherry during the studying that led up to my March WSET Level 4 Diploma Unit 6 Fortified Wines exam (an exam I passed, as I learned last week; many thanks to Pat and Matt for drilling me with blind wines, and to the importers and distributors who provided those bottles; we’ll celebrate with a nice vintage Port on Thursday, so folks picking up will get an extra treat), a step on the ladder towards a Master of Wine qualification. They were extra beautiful in the blind tasting portion of the studying, because of the three major categories covered (port, madeira, sherry), they’re the only wines with versions that drink completely dry (making them easier to identify).
And that’s where we’re going to focus today. Rather than look at sweetened sherries (whose reputations have been destroyed for a generation thanks to ad campaigns like this; “Smooth. Mature. Sociable.” There’s a slogan to lure in the kids.), we’re going to focus on dry sherry. (Another bonus reason to love dry sherry is that it’s a stellar cooking ingredient; more on that later.)
Real sherry only comes from Jerez, here in southern Spain, closer to Morocco than it is to France or Portugal. The dry versions only come from the Palomino grape, whose insipid neutrality makes exceptionally dull white wine and is precisely perfect as a blank canvas for the two types of aging influences that take place in Jerez: biological and oxidative.
Although there are myriad shades of grey in between, those are the two main camps of dry sherry: biologically-aged (which leads to fino styles) and oxidatively-aged (which leads to oloroso styles). Today we’re going to focus on the biologically-aged, flor-influenced, fino styles of dry sherry (we’ll save olorosos for another occasion; this is complicated enough already). We have two wines, and each will provide an opportunity for education. We’ll offer both wines in 375ml half-bottle formats and at low tariffs, to keep the commitment levels low and to encourage experimentation. These wines are not for everybody. I’d say of every ten people I pour dry sherry for, five hate it, two can take it or leave it, and three become life-long converts.
NV Emilio Lustau Sherry Manzanilla “Papirusa” (375ml)
We start with Palomino, and it comes almost entirely from the famous chalky “albariza” soils of the region. They’re famous because they’re blindingly white in the sunshine, a result of high proportions of limestone. Most of the finos (known for delicacy) come from this soil (the olorosos come from heavier clay and sand soils).
So we harvest our delicate Palomino, press it, and ferment it to dryness. At this point, it’s between 11% and 12% alc. I’m going to skip the marking of casks with symbols, because while it’s romantic, it’s also a little mythical and a lot complicated, and really, isn’t this confusing enough?! Now we fortify, and because we want the flor to grow, we only fortify to between 14.5% and 16% alcohol, and we only fill our barrels to 5/6 full. Why? Because flor likes that range of alc (anything above 16% kills it; anything below 14.5% and we’ll get vinegar) and that amount of oxygen.
What is flor, you ask? It is a benevolent film-forming yeast that appears only under the right conditions (usually during the spring after fermentation). Here’s a picture of what it looks like. Weird, eh? Then those flor-filled barrels go into a solera, where they happily age until the bottom row of the solera is drawn off into bottles.
Now, there’s flor and then there’s flor. Of the three major centers for sherry aging (Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria), the latter two are right on the coast, so they’re cooler and see more maritime influence. The flor likes proximity to the sea, and so finos from those two place get special names because of their bad-ass flor influence: Puerto Fino for Puerto de Santa Maria, and Manzanilla for Sanlucar de Barrameda
My favorite finos are manzanillas, because if I’m going to drink a flor-influenced sherry, I want to taste the flor, and here in the salty town of Sanlucar (location here), the flor runs wild. This Manzanilla Papirusa is a textbook introduction to the category. Saline and flinty, with loads of flor tang and mineral, it is bone-dry, meant to be lightly chilled, and is an incredible pairing with an appetizer plate of marcona almonds, hard cheeses like manchego, and cured meats (jamon iberico). There is a bit of fruit here (citrus, apple), but it’s the brine and mineral that rule the day. It drinks without question like something made near the sea.
Wine Advocate (Robert Parker): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 92pts.”
Wine & Spirits Magazine (Patricio Tapia): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 91pts.”
NV Emilio Lustau Sherry Amontillado “Los Arcos” (375ml)
If you keep replenishing the solera with young wine and nutrients, the flor will go on and on. But. Left to its own devices in the solera, the flor will eventually die off, exposing the sherry to oxygen. Now we have a hybrid: a sherry that has experienced both biological and oxidative aging.
Also known as an Amontillado.
For many of us sherry lovers, Amontillados are the pinnacle, because they combine the delicacy of fino with the complexity that oxygen imparts. Amontillado is where salty meets nutty. People who like peanut butter should like Amontillado.
And while we’re on food, I want to mention that Amontillado is an incredible pantry item for those of us who love to cook. A simple recipe: sauté a bunch of small cremini mushrooms (whole, with salt) on high heat until they give up their juice; add a couple handfuls of chopped garlic and parsley and a knob of butter; when the butter is melted and the garlic is getting aromatic (one or two minutes), add a cup of Amontillado to deglaze; let it boil down until it reaches a consistency that coats the shrooms; remove from heat, pour a small glass of Amontillado to accompany, and serve!
That’s just one example, but sherry adds a nutty complexity to all manner of dishes. Many a soup (seafood bisques especially) is improved by subbing sherry when dry white wine is called for.
Cocktails made with sherry can be transformative as well, but mixology is not my area of expertise, and this offering is like 1500 words long, so, moving along, all I’m trying to say is, sherry: it’s not just for sipping anymore! (this message sponsored by the Consejo Regulador de las DD.O. Jerez-Xeres-Sherry, Manzanilla de Sanlucar y Vinagre de Jerez. [just kidding, it’s not, but I wish it was, especially if that included a trip, or free sherry, or even free sherry vinegar, which is also very good and has multiple uses and WAIT; I said we’re moving along!)
So what does it taste like? A bowlful of salted nuts (cashew, pecan), overlain with layers of marzipan and light lemony citrus. You get to taste the influence of both the biological (saline yeasty flor notes) and the oxidative (salt caramel) aging here, and the balance is sublime.
Wine Advocate (Robert Parker): “[REVIEW TEXT WITHHELD]. 93pts.”
If you made it all the way through this offering, then wow, you must really be interested in sherry, or else you must really not want to do whatever you’re supposed to be doing right now. Regardless, I applaud the dogged persistence; allow me to reward you with a bonus Old England Sherry ad.
First come first served up to 6 bottles total (mix and match as you like), and the wines should arrive in about a week, at which point they will be available for pickup or shipping during the spring shipping window.