Place or Process?

tasting set up

If you’ve ever been inside a sherry bodega, or wine cellar, the aromas leave a lasting impression unlike any other. It’s a combination of toffee, brown butter and brandy, mixed with rising bread dough and raisins. When I walked into Liner & Elsen Wine Merchants for a rare sherry tasting, I was instantly transported back to Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. I had no idea how many wines we would taste, but I knew I was in for a real treat!

John HouseLocated in northwest Portland, Liner & Elsen has been serving both local and visiting wine lovers since 1990. Members of the staff joined our presenter, John House from Ole Imports, back in May 2015 to visit bodegas in Jerez. As John so eloquently put it, “There’s a feeling that you get when you’re there. When you have something that really is just inimitable, so singular that you’ll never have it again in your life – that’s what happens when you have these wines.”

Fun Fact ~ Sherry can only come from three cities in southern Spain: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. Sherry is mostly made from the must of Palomino Fino grapes sought from the best Albariza soil.

The focus for the evening was place versus process. Once the wines are in the bodega the place is no longer about the vineyard but the position of the cellar and storage of the barrel. They are at the mercy of process, one of artistry more than science. They’re about someone’s name, somebody’s hand or somebody’s perception of what the style is supposed to be at its pinnacle form.

line upThe wines we were about to have, to John’s knowledge, have never been poured in one tasting anywhere within the U.S. Even the three Manzanillas are rarely poured together given their rarity.

Fun Fact ~ Manzanilla can only come from one place near the sea, Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Essentially, Manzanilla is Palomino Fino must that has been fermented around 12% alcohol, then inoculated with a  neutral grain spirit to bring it up to 14.8% – 15.2% alcohol. This is the magical area where flor, a microbial yeast, begins to grow on the entire surface area of this wine. The microclimate in Sanlúcar coupled with the locations of the bodegas create a unique, salty flavor.

OrleansOrleans Borbón Manzanilla is aged for an average of five years in a three-criadera solera, and is bottled only twice a year. The color is a clear, hay yellow because flor kept the wine in a reductive phase beneath its cover. It is a very smooth with refreshing acidity, without feeling too dry. Typical to most Manzanilla characteristics, the flor influence is mild, and salty almond notes shine through.

Fun Fact ~ Don Antonio Orleans, the son of the King of France, founded it in 1849. As the story goes, he moved to Jerez, fell in love and asked his father for money to plant vineyards. One hundred years or so pass, and in 1942 someone started a single vineyard solera for this wine. Currently, the producer Infantes Orleans Borbón belongs to Spanish Royal family. Up until five years ago, you could only be given this as a gift.

MarujaThe Manzanilla Maruja from Juan Piñero lives in butts from eight different criaderas ranging from 40-50 years old. Maruja didn’t exist in the last 70 years because they were selling all of their top quality wines to the bodegas. It has a beautiful bright golden color, good salinity and mellow nuttiness. I was surprised to learn that the deeper color is due to air coming through the staves of the barrels rather than the dying of the flor. It has been aged an average of seven to eight years, when flor typically begins to die off. My thought is perhaps the oxidation is a combination of both.

Fun Fact ~ This wine is 15% alcohol but isn’t heavy on the palette, because flor eats the glycerin that gives texture to alcohol. Don’t be fooled by its textural complexity! It goes down easy especially when chilled. Too much of a good thing will make you snockered!

Sacristia ABThe last of the rare Manzanillas was Sacristía AB, one of the five most rare Manzanillas currently in existence. AB stands for Antonio Barbadillo Mateos, the son of a very famous bodega owner. Antonio decided to become an educator. He’s the person to go to become a sherry expert. He tasted all the wines of the region and found eight truly exceptional barrels. This Manzanilla is from one of those barrels and is aged an average of no younger than ten years. This is a rare gem simply because of the process it takes to keep flor living past eight years. Sacristía AB is dark golden in color. There’s almost an apple note on the nose, and toasted almonds on the palette with a very dry finish.

Amontillado 51-1AThe remaining wines were pure luxury! Produced by Osborne, all of them are from family cellars that are recently being released. We started with Amontillado 51-1A (1830) VORS. Back in 1820, Pedro Domecq started Solera 51 and it began with barrel 1A, thus the name. This Amontillado was first bottled in 1830 as a Fino/Manzanilla, and lived under flor for about 10-14 years. Domecq decided this wine was so special, he let these barrels 51-1A become Amontillado in 1840. It was rarely bottled and designated for the Domecq family.

Fun Fact ~ The only way to sustain the flor is to replenish it with new wine. Otherwise, it will die and sink to the bottom, exposing the wine to oxygen. When the wine is exposed to oxygen, it’s classified as Amontillado.

In 2015, only 137 (3-pack cases) of this Amontillado were bottled, most of which remain in Spain. It is highly aromatic with a finish that can last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes long! The topaz color is brilliantly clear. The butterscotch nose coupled with its salty, orange peel notes left my mouth watering for more. It averages around 60-65 years old.

Fun Fact ~ Oloroso refers to the wine’s beautiful aroma. Before the days of deodorant, men would dip their handkerchiefs in the wine. Sherry is designated as Oloroso when alcohol, typically in the form of brandy, is added to bring the wine up to 17% in order to keep flor from ever growing on the surface area of the wine.

SibaritaBack in 1792 the Sibarita Oloroso (1792) VORS started as an Oloroso by someone else. The wine had tremendous fineness and Pedro Domecq bought the barrels. He felt it had so much fineness; he initially called it a Palo Cortado. Sibarita got so old and tannic in the mother barrels, that they counterbalanced the tannins with 2% Pedro Ximénez (PX) around 1902 to 1908. However, because Sibarita remains dry and not sweet, it is not considered a Cream.

Fun Fact ~ If you add enough PX to Oloroso, it then is classified as a Cream sherry for its sweetness.

Sibarita is dark topaz almost amber in color. It is very dry and tannic with notes of brown butter, dark toffee, rustic bread crust and dark stone fruit. It averages around 50 years old. It is so different from the Amontillado. John referred to it as sybaritic and hedonistic.

CapuchinoTypically, Palo Cortado is placed before Oloroso in a tasting, however Capuchino Palo Cortado (1790) VORS has a fineness and complexity that surpasses the Sibarita, even for being one of the finest Olorosos. This Palo Cortado lived under flor for 8-14 years, became an amontillado, and then designated as Palo Cortado by Capuchin monks. After being heavily bottled in the 1950’s, Beltran Domecq saw how special the wine was and reorganized the solera to let it age longer. The wine now averages around 70-80 years old and only bottled 66 (3-pack) cases in the last year to maintain its rarity.

It is dark topaz/gold, rather than amber, in color. This was really pleasant on the palette. The acidity gives bright lift coupled with savory salted caramel notes and a smooth silky finish.

Fun Fact ~ Palo Cortado is this mysterious thing that happens in the cellar where the wine suddenly gains fineness. John’s belief is that Palo Cortado happens very early on in the wine’s life when the palomino, even after it’s been inoculated with grain spirits, goes through malolactic fermentation, which was pretty much misunderstood or not known at all in the last 100 years.

The next two wines we tasted come from barrels within the Osborne cellar designated only for the family. These are the best barrels in the cellar that do not get topped off with new wine. These are extremely rare, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Oloroso Solera India (1922) only has two criaderas in the solera founded in 1922. The name refers to the barrels in the ballast of the ship going to India and back. It may have been replenished between 1923-24 with 20% of Pedro Ximénez for true nobility. Technically, this could be designated as a Cream style for its sweetness. It is amber in color, with a slightly burnt caramel on the nose and sweet orange peel on the palette. This was the first to leave long legs after each sip.

Fun Fact ~ Legs are called lagrimas or tears. Lagrimas are the streaks that trickle down the side of a wineglass caused by higher alcohol levels.

P∆P Palo Cortado (1911) is a top-of-the-mountain experience! It is one of the rarest in existence. The delta stands for the region, the three cities that make the Sherry Triangle. It was created in 1911 to be the greatest Palo Cortado. It contains 8% PX to lessen the tannins, making it sweeter on the palette balanced with toffee aromas and an orange blossom finish.

The last two wines of the evening were rare Pedro Ximénez styles. Venerable PX (1902) VORS is an average age around 45-50 years old. Osborne produces it from three criaderas founded in 1902. Characteristic to most PX styles, it smells like raisin and dried prunes, felt like the consistency of motor oil on the palette and desperately needed acidity to cut through its tobacco notes. Best to pour this one over vanilla ice cream.

Pedro Ximenez Viejo (1905), also produced by Osborne, and we were sampling from bottle #2! Its three criaderas were founded in 1905. Despite the usual aromatics, it was a bit more like cigar tobacco or tar with a very dry finish. Best to keep this one just for show.

Fun Fact ~ Technically, PX is not a textbook wine in that it is never fermented. Pedro Ximénez grapes are dried in the sun, ground to a pulp and raisin liquid is then extracted and inoculated to 17% alcohol and aged like other sherry styles.

Is sherry about the place? Once you’ve been to the Sherry Triangle, just the smell alone can transport you back. Or are we delighting in someone’s artistic process? These are so far beyond a point scale or a critical review. Each one of them is singular. There’s nothing quite like these in the world. These wines don’t go bad. Even if they’re open for over a year, they hold true. For me, sherry is both place AND process. Sip and escape!

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