The fino points: Exploring Spain’s fortified wines

| January 24, 2022 | 0 Comments
Tio Pepe is a widely available sherry and will dispel the myth that all sherry tastes like Harvey’s Bristol Cream. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Tio Pepe is a widely available sherry and will dispel the myth that all sherry tastes like Harvey’s Bristol Cream. (Photo: Remi Theriault)

Sherry often gets a bad rap. Sweet-style Harvey’s Bristol Cream, despite being the world’s best-selling sherry, does little to positively fortify this wine’s reputation.
The southwestern Spanish region of Jerez has been a historic wine region for centuries. Under King Alfonso’s rule in the 1200s, knights were rewarded with vineland in the region. The Valdespino wine company can trace direct lineage to such a knight, while the Palomino grape’s eponym is thought to be linked to another knight of the same time period.
Palomino is dry sherry’s most important varietal, accounting for nearly 98 per cent of the region’s plantings. Low in acid, neutral on the nose with sweet juice, it’s suited for the fortified wines of the region.
Impacted by cool westerly winds from the Atlantic and dry, arid breezes from North Africa, Jerez weather can go from cold to hot in a matter of hours. The plots are grown on chalky white albariza soil. Calcareous and porous, they reflect sunlight back up to the vines while also retaining water during the warmer months.
Sherry production is centred predominantly around the town of Jerez, though nearby Sanlucar de Barrameda produces its own iteration of dry sherry known as Manzanilla. The latter’s proximity to the ocean’s salty sea air creates a unique environment for its wines.
Sherry styles break down into two categories: sweet and dry. Sweet sherries, based on Moscatel or labelled Pedro Ximinez (PX) are treacle-heavy, loaded with dried fruit and occasionally notes of honey. PX sherries can have high levels of residual sugar and are best served with desserts, nuts, cheeses and dried fruit.
Dry sherries can be daunting. Winemaking minutiae and less conventional cellar techniques can cause severe analysis paralysis. At their core, fino, manzanilla, oloroso and amontillado start similarly. Palomino grapes are fermented in neutral vessels before they’re left to mature in barrels. During the maturation process, almancenistas — the region’s wine negociants — taste through barrels to determine quality and the direction in which the sherries will evolve.
While amontillados and olorosos will be fortified to a higher level to help protect and stabilize the wine, finos and manzanillas are less fortified to allow for the development of a yeast veil, known as flor, on the wine’s surface.
The difference between biological aging (flor development) and oxidative aging cannot be understated. The veil atop finos and manzanillas retains the wine’s characteristic citrus, almond and brine notes by preventing oxygen from permeating it, resulting in a pale colour. Olorosos wines, meanwhile, are mahogany-hued, richer in texture and fuller. Without a protective yeast veil, the interplay of oxygen on the aging process impacts the colour. Nutty, coffee and dried fruit notes develop.
Amontillado rides the line between biological and oxidative aging: What started as a wine under a flor will gradually move into oxidative aging, either through refortification or the yeast naturally running its course and dying out. Depending on cellaring techniques, this style varies, though aspects of fino and oloroso will be highlighted in the final wine.
House styles are linked to sherry’s most important process of winemaking: the solera system. At its simplest, the system ensures a consistent wine style. Each house operates slightly differently in these regards, and each wine produced will have its own solera. The solera system involves multiple tiers of barrels, forming different levels in the blend. There can be as few as three tiers and as many as 10.
As the almancenistas taste the sherries, they determine the best time to transfer wines from one tier to the next. To do this, a third of the final tier will be bottled. This will then be topped up with the preceding tier and so on, until the first barrel in the tier is topped up with new wine. This is integral to biological sherries as the introduction of oxygen and new wine will be beneficial to the flor’s development. As such, there will always be a fractional percentage of the initial wine being blended in from when that solera system began, some of which dates back to the 1800s. Given that, exceptional care must be taken to ensure the style is respected; it takes years to right a wronged solera.
The complexity of the sherry’s dry styles is worth celebrating. Robust enough to hold up to most dishes, it makes a great aperitif and digestif wine. Despite the tireless work of almancenistas, these wines are undervalued and overlooked.
The LCBO carries some classic examples— Tio Pepe and Barbadillo — but it’s also worth looking into All the Right Grape’s wine portfolio. It carries the greatest number of sherries in Ontario and always has lovely offerings.

When Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock isn’t pulling corks at Fauna, chances are his nose is either in a glass or in a wine book.

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Category: Delights

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Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock manages the wine lists at Jabberwocky and Union 613.

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