Sherry Wine News

Sherry Worth the Splurge

Deborah Hansen, Chef-Owner of Taberna de Haro, knows Sherry. With 76 Sherry wines (and counting) on the wine list, she tastes and enjoys Sherry daily. Here, she takes a look at some splurge-worthy Sherry to search out.

Manzanilla and Fino are part of my everyday life.  I love the way Tío Pepe Fino elevates my quick cheese snack. La Gitana Manzanilla adds an elucidating splash of sunlight and seaspray to a winter afternoon that engulfed me in darkness by 4:00 PM. The mineral slash of the chalky La Cigarrera Manzanilla invigorates me before an intense Saturday night in my restaurant world, and the saline broodiness of Lustau’s Papirusa Manzanilla puts my tummy right if I overindulge - or plan to. They have a fountain-of-youth effect on my body, they are plentiful, and they are affordable.

Then the miracles of spring start happening. Beyond the crocuses there is the skunk cabbage that pressed up stubbornly and beautifully from the swampy earth in one day of warmth. Early forsythia is better than sunshine, really. Dogs get sweetly muddied paws. You notice with glee that you haven’t enough words to describe all the shades of green around you. Worms get brave and birds get loud. With what shall we toast these favors of Mother Nature? With Rare and Old Sherry, of course.  Heating bills are down and a tax refund may well be on it’s way, so a splurge is in order.

What makes a Sherry rare and old? Simply, the time it spends in solera, the unique system of 600 liter barrels where Sherry is fractionally blended and aged. The longer Sherry rests in her impossibly old barrels, the more life she conveys, much as a wise old person tells tales that whisper vital lessons if you listen closely. Whereas the afore-mentioned Finos and Manzanillas spend 5 to 7 years in solera, the old and rare wines can spend 50 years or more.

Sherry with VOS (Very Old Sherry or Vinum Optimum Signatum) on the label are a minimum of 20 years old, meaning the average age of the wine therein is older and in some cases, much older. VORS Sherry (Very Old Rare Sherry or Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum) is a minimum of 30 years old, often with a significantly greater average age.

To the consternation of some great Sherry houses, there is no designation for even older Sherry wines, so they may eschew the categorization on the label altogether.

The number of years the Sherry spent in the solera system is not to be confused with the age of the solera itself, which could be up to two centuries in the rarest cases. When we speak of a solera that was started in 1830, for example, it refers to the year the first Sherry wines were put into this particular set of barrels. Did the capataz, the head winemaker and blender, envision extreme longevity and greatness for these wines? Or did the Sherry simply become great because of his/her skill and patience plus all the time that elapsed? I say both, as we can assume he or she would be more apt to invest decades of coddling and nurturing in Sherry that showed exceptional qualities early on.

The capataz, who may not live to see the final product, comes to know the solera intimately as he or she tirelessly tastes. Each barrel takes on its own special qualities - both the vessel and its contents - and the slight variations are fascinating.

As each barrel gets refreshed with younger Sherry, the flavor and personality of a barrel quickly imprint on the new Sherry, a process akin to the old taking the young under its wing, with the expectation of some degree of familial conformity in return.

But just as each child brings some irrepressible traits to a family, so does the new Sherry bring special nuances to the whole, and the intrinsic character of the barrel is thus broadened. Imagine the depth of character and the stunning array of complexities a Sherry will take on as it commingles with droplets from each vintage dating back 185 years! Over time, it is this blend of differing, mature wines that make old and rare Sherry so very complex, and unique. As they age, the Sherry wines diminish in quantity due to evaporation and attrition (not all make the grade; some veer off in a different direction as they develop), making them all the more rare.

They are wines to enjoy with both reverence and wanton abandon.

One of my favorite indulgences is the Palo Cortado VORS Capuchino by Osborne, located in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Nurtured in a solera dating back to 1790, Capuchino spreads everlasting layers of black walnut, cocoa nibs, coffee with cajeta, and browned butter across your palate. The retail cost, if you can find it, is about $150. (500 ml.). El Maestro Sierra, located in Jerez de la Frontera, makes a liquid gem called simply Palo Cortado Muy Viejo. It is a fascinating study in contrasts, with firm tea tannins softened by plump fig while dark notes of burnt sugar are brightened by glints of Seville orange acidity. It is nurtured for more than 50 years in solera and worth every penny of its $75 price tag (375 ml.)! Still another Palo Cortado that has my heart is the Peña del Aguila made by Cesar Florido in Chipiona. The aromas of brioche and fine vanilla beans seduce me every time, while the white cherry and dark apricot fruit, melding with toasted pecans and bitter almond cause a bit of drama on the palate. Completely reasonable at about $70 (375 ml). Still another Palo Cortado, Wellington by Hidalgo-La Gitana, has my heart. Her provenance is Manzanilla from Sanlucar de Barrameda (all Manzanillas are from Sanlucar de Barrameda), and the style is lighter, more linear, and utterly riveting. It is both bitter and salty, with a rich note of cherry, a dark one of Demerara sugar, and a piquant ping of dried Persian lime. Dry and perfect at about $100, for 500 ml.

Old Olorosos bring peace to your mind and grace to your palate. Topping my list for old and rare is the Oloroso 200 BC by Osborne. The solera was created in 1864, evolving for exactly 100 years longer than I, and a sight better. The intensity of this Sherry fills your entire being with its seaside mist-enshrouded caramel, burnt orange peel, bitter chocolate, lemon peel, and brisket notes. As it sits, regal notes of varnish emerge, the caramel recedes, and more ocean mystery unfolds. $200 for 500 perfect milliliters. If you long for sweetness, the warm glow of Oloroso Dulce Muy Viejo Matusalém by Gonzalez Byass in Jerez de la Frontera is decadent and sensual. The ripples of dates, cream, bourbon, candied almonds and coffee are lovely for some sultry sipping or some sublime cheese-pairing. ($60, for 375 ml.).

I started with Palos Cortados because they are usually my favorites when it comes to old and rare Sherry, but I leapt right over a category that shimmers amber and important in Sherry discussions: Amontillado. Wildly versatile, Amontillados prime the palate before dining or perfect the digestion afterward. One of my favorites is the Amontillado del Puerto, Almacenista Jose Luis Gonzalez Obregón bottled by Emilio Lustau. Nurtured in El Puerto de Santa Maria (the main bodegas of Emilio Lustau are located in the heart of Jerez de la Frontera), this Amontillado retains its saline Fino roots - just smell the kombu!

On the palate you’ll feel a kiss of salt, with undulating layers of lemon, lightly toasted hazelnut, and a drop of bitter caramel.

Last week I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Amontillado Viejísimo by Bodegas Tradición. The brilliant perfume of cherry, mahogany, chocolate, overripe peach, and rich pecan does not prepare you for the sensation on the palate, which is concentrated, wildly strong, tart with lemon, and audaciously bitter. Sherry can become bitter as it ages extensively, and many houses smooth out this challenge with the sweetness of Pedro Ximénez. Bodegas Tradición lets the inevitable characteristics of age be noble, authentic qualities to savor, rather than masking them. El Maestro Sierra Amontillado 1830 VORS is a sleek and nervy specimen with aromas of smoke, brine, and golden raisins. The solera is close to 200 years old and birthed for us a Sherry that is layered with nutmeats and citrus zest, possessed of a texture that is at once glossy and edgy. Extraordinary, and just about $85 for 375 ml. La Cigarrera Amontillado is a sleek feline of an Amontillado, with its Manzanilla parentage profoundly present - chalk and brine abound. Full-bodied yet fine, it is graceful, long, and pretty. ($90, 375 ml.).

Sherry on the lightest end of the spectrum can also be profound, especially from venerable houses such as Gonzalez Byass. Capataz Manuel Flores understands flor (the unique yeast veil that characterizes Manzanilla and Fino) on an intimate, experiential level, and aims to illustrate the phases of its life cycle in his series of Las Palmas Finos, numbered one to four. ‘Palma’ refers to the identifying symbol chalked onto the cask’s end, as it resembles a palm tree. The recent release of the Las Palmas line into the USA grants us an otherwise impossible opportunity to study the subtleties of flor as it progresses from still-vibrant in the Una Palma up to the frail autumn of its life in the Cuatro Palmas. I love how the Fino Dos Palmas, selected from 3 special casks from the Tío Pepe solera, smells of toasted marcona almonds, ghee, and seaweed from a tako su bowl. This Fino has been under vigorous flor for 8 years, which is already pushing the limit of flor’s natural life. ($50, 500 ml.). Just wait! The Fino Tres Palmas comes from that nameless land between Fino and Amontillado, where only the most vigorous flor cells are alive. Ten years old, this Fino-Amontillado shows oxidative notes, but is still bright gold and full of snapping acidity. Nutty and a little smutty, it was selected from just one cask. ($85, 500 ml.). Finally, the Fino Cuatro Palmas is technically an Amontillado, with the flor in its very death throes after 51 years in the solera. The flor may have only the most tenuous hold on life, but this lively bronze Sherry sings with citrus acidity and sapid umami. An impossible yet brilliant life form, it is a wine to be pondered. ($105, 500 ml.).

Spring has sprung, and our sap has risen. We are moved to celebrate and venture into new fancies that reawaken our senses. Old and rare Sherry is just the thing. Hang the cost.

Written by Deborah Hansen 
Chef-Owner-Sommelier
Taberna de Haro
999 Beacon St
Brookline MA 02446
www.TabernaBoston.com

 

Taberna de Haro offers over 300 wines from Spain, including 76 different Sherry wines. There are always 15 Sherry wines by the glass, including a flight of 4, served with a complimentary order of croquetas de jamón.

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Sherry Wines U.S. @SherryWinesUS
14 April 2016
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