In spite of its fame and historical significance, sherry remains a very misunderstood wine, especially in North America. Nobody understands this better than César Saldaña, General Manager of the Office of the Consejo Regulador in Jerez. Here, he discusses the challenges of promoting sherry, some of the unique features of the wine’s style, production and ageing and, most importantly, how best to enjoy this diverse and under-appreciated wine.
First, what challenges do you encounter in your efforts to promote sherry?
It’s a famous wine but still very much understood. What misconceptions do you have to contend with? Certainly lack of understanding of our wines is the biggest challenge for us. Misconceptions about sherry are particularly serious in those markets (such as Canada) where the use of the term sherry is still allowed for products other than those genuinely coming from the Jerez region. People tend to see sherry as either a “cooking wine” or a mere sweet wine. Even for true wine aficionados, sherry is often just simply an aperitif wine; they don’t recognize and enjoy the incredible palate of colours, flavours, aromas and opportunities that sherry brings.
What are the biggest markets for sherry globally?
The UK is number one, Spain number two and Holland number three.
I’ve picked up a bottle labeled “Very Old Fino” but I can’t find any reference to what this designation means.
This demonstrates one of the most urgent issues that we as an industry need to address. We desperately need to put more order and rationality into our labelling, in order to make it easier to understand. Hopefully, the forthcoming publication of a new version of our reglamento will partially solve that. Coming to your question, you must know that finos and manzanillas are wines that cannot be aged for a long time (no more than seven to eight years). After that, the flor becomes too weak in the barrels to keep the wine un-oxidised. In theory, an old fino must be either a fine seven to eight years old or even a fino that, being older than that, has already lost the flor and has started going the amontillado route, becoming a bit oxidised.
I’m having a bit of trouble clarifying exactly what palo cortado is — the “somewhere between an amontillado and oloroso” seems vague.
Palo cortado is a wine aged primarily through oxidative ageing, therefore it somehow belongs to the oloroso family (as opposed to fino and manzanilla which only age through biological ageing or even to amontillado, which has some first years of biological ageing and then it oxidizes). The singularity of palo cortado is that it is an oloroso which is made with extremely fine young wines; so fine, light and pungent that they could have been classified for the making of finos. Instead of that, after the sobretabla period (when the new wines finally enter the solera system) we fortify these wines to 17 to 18 percent alcohol so that they lose the flor and immediately start to oxidize. Because of the very special young wines used, after the prolonged ageing they become ivory fragrant, somewhat in the style of the amontillados, with pungent bouquet; but because of having aged without flor during all of its pre-solera (which is not the case of the amontillado) the resulting wines are round, concentrated and smooth on the palate.
If sherries are solera aged, how do we get ones labelled 20-year-old and 30-year-old? How are ages for Very Old Sherry (VOS) and Very Old Rare Sherry (VORS) authenticated?
Obviously, when we speak about years, it’s always the average age of the wines in the casks at the solera level. VOS and VORS wines are only certified by the consejo after a very demanding system which includes three phases. The first is blind tasting by a special tasting panel. The second, an analysis of specific parameters related to age (particularly carbon 14), and the third, checking the inventory levels of the bodega, so that the stock rotation is enough to justify the claimed age.
What is the best serving temperature for each style of sherry?
All sherries should be served nicely chilled. Even very chilled (out of an ice bucket) if we are enjoying a fino or a manzanilla, the palest and driest of all sherries. The sweet ones can be enjoyed at slightly higher temperatures, say 13°C to 14°C.
How long will a bottle stay fresh once opened?
Again it differs depending on the styles. Finos and manzanillas are the most delicate of all sherries. The bottle should be exhausted within a week and should be stored in the fridge and always closed. More oxidized sherries, such as amontillados or olorosos can be kept in perfect condition for few weeks.
What are some good sherry and food matches (I hear fino works well with sushi)?
Exactly, fino works very nicely with sushi. It is outstanding with Iberian (or simply cured) ham, olives and salty appetizers. It is our preferred wine for tapas menus, as it has an incredible capacity to fit with and enhance the flavours of very different foods and at the same time clean our palate with every sip, so that we can thoroughly appreciate every tapa, without mixing flavours in our mouth. Manzanilla is the sherry for seafood in general and shellfish in particular. Amontillados go extremely well with heavier fish, such as tuna or with smoked eel. Oloroso is a great wine for cured cheese, but is an outstanding pairing for game and other heavy meat dishes too, such as oxtail for example. Sweet sherries such as cream go extremely well with foie gras or with sweet deserts, pastries, fruit cakes … And of course the luxurious pedro ximénez is the sherry for dark chocolate cakes, vanilla ice-cream or even blue cheese…
What are some of the steps being taken by producers and people such as yourself to make sherry a bit easier to understand for consumers?
We definitely need to improve the labelling of sherry to make it more accessible. But it is very important to continue our effort to educate people, particularly among wine aficionados.