A Short Philosophy of Wine

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Bacchus, by Caravaggio (c. 1595)

Wine lovers know that wine is so much more than a drink, but how to explain the love of wine to those who do not already share it?

When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.

The wine is still changing, still evolving, so much so that no two bottles can ever be quite the same. By now, the stuff has become incredibly complex, almost ethereal. Without seeking to blaspheme, it has become something like the smell and taste of God. This moving mirror, this transdimensional distillate, will send shivers down your spine. It will make you burst into laughter. It will knock you right out of yourself, release you from the abstract and self-absorbed prison of the mind and redeliver you into the magic and mystery of the world as though you had just been reborn. Remarkably, every wine that can do this does it in its own way, meaning that there can be no end to your journey.

To get the most out of wine, you will need to sharpen your senses, and you will need to deepen your knowledge. By wine, we become more aware of our senses, and we begin to develop them, especially the neglected, almost vestigial, senses of smell and taste. By awakening our faculties, we begin to experience the world more intensely. We also begin to experience it in a different way, almost as though we were a different kind of animal. Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.

Wine is also an ideal vehicle for alcoholic intoxication, serving to loosen the mind and dissolve the ego. Wine brings people together, helps them be together, and be inventive together, as in the Greek symposia and Roman convivia, in which measured drinking could lead to expansive elation and creative conversation and the voicing of disruptive ideas and perspectives. Wine also played a central role in the secret rites of Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine—an idea that has survived to this day in the sacramental blood of Christ. Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He was an important god—no doubt, in certain periods and places, the most important—and most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox.

Let me paint a picture of a Dionysian orgy. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’). According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival.

The Dionysian impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual Apollonian order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion—and blind tasting, with its emphasis on reason and deduction, as an attempt to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and attain to the ever receding dream of civilization. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes the Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’ and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

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The Wines of Georgia

 

Georgia consists of some 70,000 square kilometres encased between the Black Sea to the west, the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. To the south, the country borders on Turkey and Armenia, and to the north on mighty Russia. About 40% of the population of 3.7m lives in the capital of Tbilisi.

Although fairly compact, Georgia offers a great diversity of soils and climates. The Greater Caucasus Mountains shelter the country from cold northerlies and, in their lee, can give rise to warm and dry foehn winds. The west is mild and wet, with as much as 2,500mm annual rainfall in Batumi on the Black Sea. The east with its valleys and plateaus is dry and more continental, with a greater diurnal and annual temperature range. Tbilisi, for instance, receives just 500mm annual rainfall. Harvest dates vary according to the local grape varieties and conditions: broadly speaking, the harvest begins in September in Kakheti in the east and wends its way westwards.

The Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, is often regarded as the cradle of wine, which, according to the archeological evidence, was being made in the region some 8,000 years ago. Wine occupies an important place in Georgian culture: it is said that the tendrils of the vine inspired the curly forms of the Georgian script. Still today, Georgians throw elaborate feasts moderated by a tamada or toastmaster, who by his art, and calling upon that of the guests, turns wine drinking into an act of life and death. Our word ‘wine’ may ultimately derive from the Georgian gvino.

In the 19th century, phylloxera ravaged the country’s vineyards. For most of the 20th century, Soviet winemaking emphasized quantity over quality, prioritising high yields and high yielding varieties such as Rkatsiteli. In 1991, the Republic of Georgia declared independence from the USSR. Still, Russia remained the major export market, accounting for some 80% of Georgian wine sales. From 2006 to 2013, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wine imports. With most of domestic demand met by home winemaking, exporters had to turn to more demanding markets and compete on the international stage.

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Rkatsiteli made in tank vs in kvevri

The bulk of Georgian wine exports, though entirely competent, are what the Georgians themselves call ‘factory wines’, while the country’s real reputation rests with its much more rare kvevri wines. UNESCO lists the ancient practice of kvevri winemaking as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A kvevri is a large, turnip-shaped earthenware vessel used for fermenting, ageing, and storing wine. Its interior is lined with beeswax, and its exterior is coated with lime for sanitation. In most places, it is buried or part-buried for insulation. Traditionally, it is topped with a wooden lid and sealed with clay. The harvested grapes are lightly crushed and entered into the qvevri, often along with skins, seeds, and even stems. Fermentation is natural and there is no temperature control: the wines are rich, vivacious, and characterful, but there is considerable unpredictability and variation from vessel to vessel. ‘White’ wines are amber or orange from sustained skin contact, though to call them ‘orange wines’ can lend to confusion. Kvevris entered into the international consciousness in the 1990s when some Italian winemakers discovered and started using them.

There are well over 400 different grape varieties in Georgia, of which 38 are commercially cultivated to make wine. The most popular include Rkatsiteli (‘red stalk’), Mtsvane, and Chinuri for the whites; and Saperavi (‘dye’), Tavkveri, and Chkhaveri for the reds. The most prevalent variety by far is Rkatsiteli, which is often blended with the more aromatic Mtsvane. Though a workhorse grape, Rkatsiteli is versatile and capable of high quality, especially in qvevri. The most prevalent black variety is Saperavi, a teinturier grape that is high in colour, acidity, and tannins. The overwhelming bulk of Georgian wine is made from indigenous varieties, often in a blend; of the international varieties, the most notable is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Georgia counts 45,000ha under vine spread over 10 viticultural regions. There are a total of 18 appellations, of which 7 are for dry white wines (Gurjaani, Kakheti, Manavi, Sviri, Tibaani, Tsinandali, Vazisubani), 4 for dry red whites (Kvareli, Mukuzani, Napareuli, Teliani), 1 for both dry white and dry red wines (Kotekhi), 3 for semisweet red wines (Akhasheni, Khvanchkara, Kindzmarauli), 1 for white semi-sweet wines (Tvishi), 1 for sparkling wine (Ateni), and 1 for fortified wine (Kardenakhi). Most of these appellations are based on Rkatsiteli or Saperavi. Manavi is based on Mtsvane, but can include some Rkatsiteli. Khvanchkara is based on Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli; Sviri is based on Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna; Tvishi on Tsolikouri; Ateni on Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, and Aligoté; and Teliani on Cabernet Sauvignon.

A full 14 of the 18 appellations are in the eastern Kakheti region, which accounts for almost 70% of the country’s vineyard area and 80% of its wine production. Kakheti is located in the valleys of the Alazani and Iori Rivers. Its capital Telavi is a two-hour drive out of Tbilisi, crossing by the scenic Gombori Pass. The region is noted for, among others, its ‘cinnamonic’ soils, sandy clays with a high iron content and reddish colour. The picturesque hill town of Sighnaghi (or Signagi) is home to Pheasant’s Tears, a seminal producer of kvevri wines.

Of the remaining four appellations, Ateni is in Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli), Khvanchkara and Tvishi are in Racha-Lechkhumi, and Sviri is in Imereti. Mountainous Imereti in the west is the second most important wine region after Kakheti. It is especially noted for white wines made from Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna, among others. In Imereti, qvevri are called churi, and the regional tradition is for much less skin contact, leading to lighter, less astringent wines. Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet red wine made from Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli in Racha, is famous/infamous for being the favourite of Stalin, who was born in this land of plenty.

The Wines of Naoussa

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In 1831, the French scholar and diplomat Esprit Marie Cousinery wrote that ‘The wine of Naoussa is to Macedonia what Burgundy wine is to France. I am in a position to say that the wine of Naoussa is the best in the Ottoman Empire.’

Naoussa is a hill town to the west of Thessaloniki, overlooking the plain of central Macedonia. In myth, the area was home to Semele, the mother of Dionysus by Zeus. When Semele perished, Zeus stitched the foetus Dionysus into his thigh, whence the Dionysian epithet dimētōr: ‘of two mothers’, or ‘twice born’.

At the nearby temple of the Nymphs, Aristotle tutored future leaders including Ptolemy, Cassander, and, most famously, Alexander the Great. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the demi-divine Achilles.

The 500ha of Naoussa are the spiritual home of the most noble black grape of Greece, Xinomavro (or Xynomavro, ‘sour black’). Vineyards are interspersed with orchards at altitudes of 150 to 400m on the southeastern slopes of Mount Vermio (2050m). The soils are far from uniform, and include patches of limestone, clay, loam, and sand. Although summers are hot and dry, autumns are rainy and erratic, and winters cold and snowy, leading to considerable vintage variation. Sheltered, sloping, and south-facing sites are favoured to protect against spring frosts and maximise sun exposure.

If the soft and rich Agiorgitiko is a courtesan, then Xinomavro is a hermit, and a very prickly one at that. Yields are capped at 70hl/ha, but ambitious producers might aim for half of that. Like the light coloured Barolo, with which it is often compared, Naoussa is structured and savoury with high acidity and tannins, although, as with Barolo, there is a more modern style that requires less time in cask and bottle. I haven’t tasted a large enough sample of Naoussas, but so far the wines that I have tasted seemed more herbal and more ‘churchy’ than either Barolo or Etna and with a more pronounced tomato note.

The Xinomavro of Naoussa can be compared with that of Amyndaio 20 miles to the west, which, owing to higher altitudes, is typically fresher. Other PDOs that use Xinomavro are Goumenissa to the northeast, in a majority blend with Negoska; and Rapsani on the lower foothills of Mount Olympus, in an equal blend with Stavroto and Krassato.

The Wines of Santorini

Santorini, one of 18 islands in the Cyclades, lies some 70 miles north of Crete, and consists of the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption that took place some 3,500 years ago and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. The centre of the former island collapsed into the volcanic caldera to form a central lagoon.

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To cope with the hot and dry conditions and very strong winds, the vines are widely spaced (<2,500 plants/ha) and trained into an idiosyncratic basket shape (kouloura). Shoots are woven around the canes of previous years; after twenty years or so, the basket is cut off and another one is started from the same plant and root system. The basket traps humidity, and protects flowers and fruit from the sun, wind, and sandblasts. The baskets are able to sit on the ground because the young volcanic soils are inhospitable and there are no weeds or insects to contend with. As the soils do not contain any clay, they are immune to phylloxera: root systems can be centuries old, and vines are propagated by layering. However, yields are very low and all vineyard work must be carried out on hands and knees, making this a very expensive and potentially unsustainable form of viticulture. The nearby island of Paros, which is also buffeted by strong winds, has evolved a comparable training system called aplotaries, with the canes left to crawl on the ground.

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Santorini is reputed for its crisp, dry, and mineral Assyrtico blends made from a minimum 75% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. These ageworthy wines, with their notes of lemon and stone fruits, combine high acidity with high extract and moderately high alcohol, and, on occasion, a touch of oak. A richer, more exotic style called Nykteri is made from overripe grapes, with some skin contact and barrel ageing.

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Most famous, at least historically, is the sweet vinsanto (‘wine from Santorini’, not to be confused with the Italian vin santo) made from a minimum 50% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. Vinsanto must be aged for at least 24 months in oak. It can be made as a vin doux naturel, from late harvested grapes sun-dried for 12-14 days and fermented to a minimum of 9% alcohol; or as a vin doux (vin de liqueur) to a minimum of 15% alcohol. It is amber in colour with notes of dried citrus peel, apricots, raisins, figs, and sweet spice, together with high acidity and a touch of minerality.

Is Wine Blind Tasting a Sport?

 

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Wittgenstein famously claimed that games could not be defined. But in 1978, Bernard Suits more or less successfully defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

In that much, sports resemble games. They also resemble games in that they take place outside of ‘real life’, and in that they have no tangible product: when they do have a tangible product, such as fish in angling, then this is largely incidental, and the fish are returned to the river.

There are games like scrabble or monopoly that are clearly not sports. But are all sports games, as Suits claimed? While many sports like football and golf are also games, some sports like running, skiing, and rock climbing are not so obviously games other than in that they are voluntary and unnecessary. In ordinary language, we speak of ‘playing football’ or ‘playing a round of golf’, but not of ‘playing running’ or ‘playing skiing’. But if we are running from a lion, our running is neither a game nor a sport.

Culture and politics aside, what is it that makes a sport a sport? If scrabble and monopoly are not sports, then this is surely because they do not involve any physical activity, or because physical activity is not their primary purpose and any physical activity incurred is merely secondary or incidental.

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognize bridge as a sport, a decision with consequences since it would deprive bridge from government and lottery funding. The EBU lost their High Court battle on the grounds that bridge does not involve physical activity any more than, as Sport England argued, ‘sitting at home, reading a book’.

But physical activity on its own is not enough. The primary purpose of working out on a cross-trainer is physical activity, but this is classed as exercise rather than sport. What is needed for sport is not physical activity per se, but skill in the exercise of physical activity, with some athletes going so far as to test the limits of human performance.

In 2005, Sport England recognized darts as a sport, presumably because darts involves skill as well as physical activity. By that account, video gaming, although targeted at a representational world rather than the real world, might also make the cut. Chess on the other hand is probably not a sport because, although it involves some physical activity, this physical activity is not particularly skilled, and, in any case, is not the primary purpose of chess. It is perfectly possible to get someone to move our chess pieces for us and still be counted as playing chess: in that much, the physical activity associated with playing chess is not central or even secondary but merely incidental.

If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing for a couple of days, is my skiing exercise or sport? The answer depends on my own attitude, whether I am skiing primarily to keep fit, or for the sheer thrill of pushing myself or simply being in the world: and I think that this potential for thrill, for exaltation, for a certain kind of joy—rather than just panting and sweating—is an important part of what makes a sport a sport.

Well what if I meet a friend and we race each other down the mountainside? Does this competitive dimension make my skiing more of a game and therefore more of a sport? A person who develops a certain skill, whether in skiing or in baking or in any field of human endeavour, naturally wishes to measure that skill in competition with others who also lay claim to that skill. It is this competitive aspect that makes many sports so compelling to watch, although competition is by no means essential to popular spectator sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. What’s more, a sport need not make compelling watching to be counted as a sport: angling, cricket, golf, canoeing, and weight lifting are probably not the most exciting to watch, but are nonetheless sports.

Wine blind tasting is one of my favourite pastimes. Fiercely fought competitions are popping up all around the world, and some of these competitions even have audiences. So can blind tasting be counted as a sport? Scrabble and monopoly are not sports because they do not involve any physical activity, but blind tasting clearly does involve some kind of physical activity, namely, tasting, and, as the name suggests, tasting is its primary purpose and not merely secondary or incidental. Moreover, this physical activity is highly skilled, and, in some cases, can be said to test the limits of the human body.

It might be objected that the physical activity involved in blind tasting is not locomotor but gustatory, involving not the musculoskeletal system in tandem with the cardiovascular system but ‘passive’ senses such as olfaction, taste, and touch. It might further be objected, and this is an argument that I myself have made, that the real limitation in blind tasting is not in the tasting apparatus as such but in the cognitive appraisal of the wine, and thus that blind tasting is more like chess than snooker or darts—although it must be said that snooker and darts also involve an important cognitive element. Finally, it might be added that the thrill or joy in blind tasting lies more with the cognitive aspect than the tasting aspect, although that does depend on the wine.

But unlike with chess, with blind tasting it is not possible to delegate the physical component: you cannot get someone to do the tasting for you and still be counted as blind tasting. In that much, blind tasting is more of a sport than chess, which the International Olympics Committee already recognizes as a sport.

As any athlete will attest, cognition is an important part of any sport: why create arbitrary distinctions between the primarily physical and the primarily mental, or between the musculoskeletal system and the specialized senses? Are the nose and the tongue and the brain not also part of the body? And are they not also trainable, fatiguable, fallible, mortal? Chess, bridge, and maths have their associations, players, teams, training, rules, competitions, professionals, spectators, drama, and tears—everything, in fact, but a skilled, primary physical activity. And blind tasting even has that.

Now pass me a napkin.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Montilla-Moriles: The Most Overlooked Wine Region in the World

The wine region of Montilla-Moriles is a short drive out of Córdoba, once the capital of Moorish Spain and the largest and brightest city in Europe. Montilla-Moriles is notable for its sherry-like wines, and, above all, for its sweet Pedro-Ximénez (PX), but remains largely undiscovered in the shadow of the sherry triangle.

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The DO comprises some forty square kilometres around the small towns of Montilla and Moriles, with some 6,000ha of mostly Pedro-Ximénez, though there is also some Moscatel, Airén, Verdejo, and others. There are two high quality subzones, Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Alto, in which yields are capped at 60hl/ha instead of the usual 80. The best soils consist of chalk-rich albero, the local name for albariza, prized for its reflective and moisture-retaining properties. Relative to Jerez, the climate in Montilla-Moriles is more continental, with hotter and drier summers and greater diurnal temperature variation. Traditional training is bush with no arms to best protect the grapes from the sun and heat. Fermentation used to take place in large earthenware or concrete tinajas, although, by and large, these have been superseded by stainless steel tanks.

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Tinajas at Pérez Barquero. Most of their length is beneath the platform.

The generosos produced in Montilla-Moriles are classified by the same system as sherry: fino, amontillado, and so on. But whether dry or sweet, they are made from Pedro-Ximénez rather than Palomino. The potential alcohol of the grapes is higher than in the sherry triangle, and the finos and amontillados are not generally fortified, which arguably adds to balance and complexity. Also, the flor is weaker and thinner than in Jerez, leaving the wines with more fullness and fruit. Most of the wines are aged in solera, but there is also a significant tradition of vintage or añada wines. For sweet PX, the harvested grapes are placed on mats and left out in the sun for several days. After pressing, rectified wine alcohol is added. Unlike in Jerez, the casks are filled to capacity, resulting in a fresher, less oxidative style.

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Alvear’s PX ‘Solera 1830’

My favourite producers in Montilla include Alvear, which is the fourth oldest company in Spain, Toro Albalá, Pérez Barquero, and the organic Robles. Pérez Barquero is a rich hunting ground for independent bottler Equipo Navazos. While in Montilla, I tasted Alvear’s remarkable PX ‘Solera 1830’, a wine with an average age of ninety years: on top of the usual notes of sultanas and molasses, I found chocolate, blueberry, bitter orange, balsamic, tobacco, violets… Being black or almost black in colour, it is easy to forget that PX is actually a white wine!

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

Sherry Wines

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‘Sherry’ is an English corruption of Jerez (pronounced ‘Hereth’), an Andalusian town on the Atlantic seaboard near the crossing of the seas. The three major centres of the sherry trade, which together form the ‘Sherry Triangle’, are Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Sherry is made in a number of styles, the main ones being fino and oloroso. With the exceptions of Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, all the sherry styles are made from the Palomino Fino grape. Unlike port or madeira, sherry is not fortified by mutage, but only once fermentation has been completed. It is then matured in a solera system, which involves a continuous process of fractional blending across several vintages.

History

According to the 1st century Greek geographer Strabo, the Phoenicians, founders of nearby Cádiz, planted the vine in the region of Xera as far back as 1100 BC. By the time the Romans took over from the Carthaginians in 206 BC, the region that they renamed Ceret had acquired a reputation for winemaking. Under the name of Šeriš (‘Sherish’), it continued to produce wine throughout the Moorish period of 711-1264, with vineyards being maintained for trade, raisins, medicinal purposes, and other pretexts.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Anglo-Hispanic relations deteriorated (think Catherine of Aragon), and exports of sherry (or ‘sack’) to England declined. In 1587, Sir Francis Drake, whom the Spanish still refer to as el pirata (‘the pirate’), captured the harbour of Cádiz together with 2,900 pipes of sherry destined for South America. Drake had the pipes delivered to Elizabeth I, and sherry returned to favour in England. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff say, ‘If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.’ However, sack in those days was unfortified and in other ways quite unlike modern sherry.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and later Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) along with the increasing popularity of port left many sherry merchants with a large excess of stock. This wine sat around in barrels, which the merchants regularly topped up with younger wines. In this proto solera system, the wine began to acquire characteristics of ageing and oxidation under a layer of flor yeast, the growth of which had been stimulated by the repeated addition of younger wines. Emulating their rivals in the Douro, the merchants began experimenting with fortification, which sometimes had the effect of killing off the flor and promoting further oxidation—resulting in yet another style of sherry.

In the latter half of the 19th century, after a second golden age, sherry struggled to compete with poor imitations from France, Germany, and across the seas. At the close of the century, phylloxera took its toll and the vineyards required replanting. Despite the creation of the appellation in 1935 (the first appellation in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe) and subsequent efforts to protect and promote it, sales have struggled to take off, with sherry seemingly unable to shake off its ‘cheap and fusty’ image. However, change, at last, may be afoot.

The lie of the land

The climate in the sherry region is Mediterranean with 300 days of sunshine a year and just 600mm of rainfall concentrated in the winter months. The mean annual temperature is a balmy 18°C. Summer highs often exceed 30°C, and the south-easterly levante, which rises out of Africa, periodically delivers temperatures of around 40°C. At the same time, Atlantic breezes can exert a cooling effect of as much as 10°C on more coastal areas. Differences in temperature and humidity within the sherry triangle are such that flor in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, thrives all year round, whereas that in inland Jerez de la Frontera, with its hotter summers and colder winters, recedes seasonally, partially exposing the wine to oxygen.

During the parched summer months, the vines are supported by the region’s white, reflective albariza soils. Albariza is a unique compact of chalk, clay, and sand that is able to store up moisture during the winter and release it throughout the summer. It is largely derived from organic sea deposits, and most pure or prevalent at higher elevations and on hilltops. There are several subtypes of albariza, including the cement-like Tosca cerrada, the softer lentejuelas, and the stratified barajuelas. The blanduras, very fine dews that form in certain areas of the sherry region, are an additional source of summer moisture.

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Barajuelas, ‘baraja’ meaning a deck of cards

In the wake of phylloxera, the number of varieties cultivated declined from over one hundred to just three: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria), with most outcrops of albariza replanted with Palomino. These albariza outcrops are designated Jerez Superior, and cluster around Jerez de la Frontera with smaller patches around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria, and a number of other centres. The other soil types are barros, which is dark brown with a high ferruginous clay content, and arenas, which is yellowish with a high sand content. Pedro Ximénez, which is harder to cultivate than Palomino, and lower yielding, tends to be planted on lesser albariza and barros. Moscatel tends to be planted on barros and arenas, especially around Chipiona.

Jerez counts ~2,400 growers working severally in vineyard zones called pagos, with the larger ones such as Balbaina and Macharnudo (both sub-divided into alto and bajo) best regarded as entire areas or even sub-regions. Palomino accounts for more than 90% of plantings in the sherry delimited area. It is high-yielding, although DO regulations impose a maximum yield of 80hl/ha. Vines are planted at a density of around 4,000 vines/ha, typically on gently sloping ground, and are either free standing (en vaso or en cabeza, with the head of the vine trained downwards) or, increasingly, wire trained. In either case, the vines are pruned according to the vara y pulgar, or ‘stick and thumb’, method. This is similar to the Guyot system, with a single cane of some seven buds and a short replacement cane of a couple of buds. The Palomino harvest takes place around late August, at which stage the grapes have a potential alcohol of roughly 12%.

Method of production

It is often said that Palomino is fairly neutral, a blank canvas on which the winemaker can express him- or herself. However, if yields are controlled, and the terroir is right, Palomino is capable of considerable interest. The grapes are hand-harvested in September and usually destemmed prior to pressing. The primera yema, that is, the free-run juice together with the first press, accounts for 65% of the maximum extraction of 72.5l/100kg, and tends to go into making finos. Any subsequent presses go into making olorosos, table wines, brandy, or vinegar. The more delicate the must, the more it is likely to go into making finos, with the most delicate must coming from albariza soils in cooler coastal areas. The musts are low in acidity, and tartaric acid is usually added at this stage along with the selected yeast culture.

Fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats, with must destined for finos fermented at a cooler temperature. Fermentation can also take place in traditional American oak butts (600-650l barrels), not to impart oak flavours but to season the butts for later use as maturation vessels—some of which are more than a hundred years old. In either case, the end result is a fairly non-descript pale, dry wine with an alcohol of 11-12%. This añada (young or single vintage) wine is fortified (encabezado) with rectified wine alcohol. The resulting wine, the sobretabla, is placed, unblended, into clean butts, which are filled to about 5/6 to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. After 6-12 months, the cellar master, or capataz, reassesses the wines for style and quality. The presence of a thick, healthy layer of flor, consisting of Saccharomyces beticus and other yeasts, confirms that a wine is able to continue its life as a fino, with the finest casks chalk marked with one raya (/). Otherwise, the wine is sent down the path of an oloroso.

Flor only forms if the alcohol ranges from 14.5 to 16%, for which reason wines destined to become finos are fortified to 15 to 15.5%. Under these conditions, flor metabolizes aerobically, breaking down alcohol and producing acetaldehyde and other compounds that contribute to the characteristic aromas of dry finos. Flor also metabolizes glycerol, accounting for the light body and intense dryness of finos. Dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the butt to form fine leesanother factor, along with chalky soils and blending, that has led to comparisons with champagne. If the alcohol drops below 14.5%, the flor begins to produce acetic acid, turning the wine to vinegar. This can be prevented by entering the wine into a traditional oak butt and then into a solera: the butt allows just enough evaporation to maintain the right level of alcohol, with the solera periodically alimenting the flor with younger wines with more alcohol and nutrients. Temperature and humidity are also important, which is why flor thrives all year round in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda but seasonally recedes in Jerez de la Frontera. To maintain temperatures within the ideal range of 14-20°C, traditional bodegas, or ‘cathedrals’, are built with thick walls and high roofs, with small windows aligned so as to funnel the prevailing Atlantic, or poniente, winds. The windows are draped with esparto grass blinds to keep out sunlight and insects, and the south-facing wall may be screened by vegetation. The ground is covered with albero, the same compound of sand and chalk found in bullrings, which can be irrigated to decrease temperature and increase humidity towards an ideal of around 70%. There is, perhaps, no other wine region in which the cellar conditions are more important to the elaboration of the wine. A cathedral may contain a sacristía for the storage of the most venerable wines, not unlike the sacristy of the cathedral of Toledo with all the mystical El Grecos.

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Wines that are directed or redirected onto the oloroso track are fortified to 17% alcohol or more, making them hostile to flor. In contrast to finos, olorosos are aged in a deliberately oxidative style and may be left in solera for a decade or more. Cellar conditions matter less: in some cases, the butts may even be left outdoors under the hot sun. In time, they brown and develop concentrated aromas of nuts, dried fruits, caramel, and much more. Gentle evaporation during the ageing process results in a high alcohol of up to 24% for older olorosos.

A solera is a fractional blending system consisting of stacked rows of oak butts in which older wines ‘teach’ younger wines to take on their refined character. After having been assessed for style and quality, the sobretabla is poured into the top row, or criadera, of butts, which are filled to about 5/6 of total capacity to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. Wine for bottling is withdrawn (saca) from the lowest criadera, which, confusingly, is also called the solera—solera being cognate with suelo and meaning something like ‘earth’ or ‘ground’. The solera level is refilled (rocio) with wine from the above, or first, criadera, which is in turn refilled with wine from the second (often also the top) criadera. The solera level contains the oldest wine and the weakest flor, and benefits most from the higher humidity and lower temperature at floor level—which helps to explain why soleras tend to be arranged in the way they are. The net effect of operating the solera, or ‘running the scales’, is to blend the wine both vertically across vintages and horizontally across barrels, producing a consistent yet highly complex wine. Although pumps and pipes have been introduced, the process remains very labour intensive. A maximum of one third of the wine in a butt on the solera level may be withdrawn at any one time, and only three times in any given year. This ensures that any sherry inevitably contains a small amount of stuff dating back to the foundation of the solera—in some cases, more than two hundred years ago.

Finos must spend a minimum of two years in cask although top examples tend to spend much longer, typically four to seven years. Finos require a high flow of nutrients to aliment the flor, such that large amounts of wine (often the maximum) need to be withdrawn from the solera level. Thus, fino soleras can have up to 14 criaderas compared to just three or four for olorosos—which, for the finest, may flow by no more than ~5% a year.

Prior to bottling, sherry undergoes cold stabilization to remove tartrate crystals. Finos are also filtered and clarified to remove yeast cells. Finos that undergo minimal filtration and clarification are referred to as en rama (‘on the vine’, ‘raw’). En rama sherry is a recent trend that seeks the best possible compromise between flavour intensity and stability, enabling punters to drink sherry as they might out of a bodega butt. The implement used to transfer sherry from barrel to glass, consisting of a small cylindrical cup at the end of a long flexible shaft, is called a venencia, and its manipulation by a venenciador is in itself an art form, with many adepts in Japan! The venencia minimizes flor disruption, and the long pour from a giddy height serves to aerate the wine. Traditionally, venencias were made from silver and whalebone, except in Sanlúcar, where they are still fashioned from a single piece of reed.

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Styles

Prior to bottling, a true fino spends its entire life under flor. It is pale, elegant, and dry, with a final alcohol of about 15.5%.

A fino that spends some time under flor followed by a period of oxidative ageing is called an amontillado. This style results if the flor dies down, either naturally after a number of years or by deliberate fortification. Such ‘true’ amontillados may be aged in dedicated soleras, and ought to be distinguished from mere blends of fino and oloroso. True amontillados are yellow-brown in colour, with rich nutty notes, yet a lighter, drier body than olorosos. An amontillado that has undergone only a short period of oxidative ageing is sometimes called a fino amontillado. The word ‘amontillado’ may originate from a time when finos were carted down from Montilla, with the hot, bumpy ride disrupting the flor and resulting in a more oxidative style.

After having been assessed for style and quality, a young wine with flor development may be fortified to around 17% and redirected to age oxidatively. This results in a palo cortado, an uncommon style with the body of an oloroso but the aromas and finesse of an amontillado. The boundaries between the various styles are somewhat blurry, and a wine might be called different things at different times and by different people. To recap, the styles are, in increasing order of body or glycerol: fino, fino amontillado, amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso.

Most fino hails from inland Jerez de la Frontera, where it undergoes a small degree of oxidation as the flor recedes in the summer and winter. This is less the case in coastal Puerto de Santa María, and even less so in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which lies at the broad mouth of the Guadalquivir. A fino made in Sanlúcar is called a manzanilla, and can also fall under the DO of Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is typically lighter, drier, and fresher than a fino from Jerez, with notes of citrus fruits and seaspray. Interestingly, grapes for a Manzanilla need not come from Sanlúcar, suggesting that the ‘terroir’ of the bodega is deemed more important than that of the vine itself. Manzanilla pasada, manzanilla amontillada, and manzanilla olorosa are the Sanlúcar counterparts of, respectively, fino amontillado, amontillado, and oloroso (though the terms ‘manzanilla amontillada’ and ‘manzanilla olorosa’ have no legal standing). A fino from Puerto de Santa María is called a Puerto fino, with a character in between that of Jerez fino and manzanilla.

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Manzanilla vs fino, you can tell them apart from the colour alone.

The greatest incarnations of the above styles are all dry, but many commercial styles are sweetened with Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, or concentrated grape must (arrope). The sweetest style, ‘cream’, was created by Harvey’s of Bristol for the British market. ‘Pale cream’ is either cream that has been discoloured by charcoal treatment or a fino that has been sweetened with arrope. Less sweet than cream is ‘medium’, and while most mediums are less than ordinary, there are some very serious standouts.

The naturally sweet dessert wine Pedro Ximénez, or just ‘PX’, is made from 100% Pedro Ximénez. Very little Pedro Ximénez is grown in Jerez DO, and most of the requirement is (legally) imported from hotter and drier Montilla-Moriles DO. The grapes are picked late and left on straw mats for one or two weeks to raisin further. Once fermented, the wine is fortified and entered into a solera for oxidative ageing. The end result is something unique: a dark, syrupy, intensely sweet wine redolent of sultanas and molasses, and just perfect with, or even on, a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Moscatel, though very different in style, is made in a similar way to PX.

While it is impossible to put a precise age on a sherry, the finest specimens can spend several decades ageing in solera or in a lone cask. The designations Vinum Optimum Signatum (Very Old Sherry, VOS) and Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (Very Rare Old Sherry, VORS) designate blends that are, respectively, at least 20 and 30 years old on average. Old sherry, such as the widely available Gonzalez Byass Apostoles, can be mindblowing, and represents very good value for money.

When it comes to food pairings, there is an old Andalusian adage: fino and manzanilla if it swims, amontillado if it flies, and oloroso if it walks. But this, of course, is much too rigid.

The present and the future of sherry

The sherry delimited area counts ~7,000ha of vineyards, of which about half are owned by small growers associated with co-operatives. In 2016, 34.4m litres of sherry were sold, versus 46.5m in 2010. Sweet styles, which are mostly destined for export, accounted for just over half of production. Fino accounted for a fifth of production, and manzanilla for another fifth, while amontillado, oloroso, and palo cortado together made up just 3-4%.

Between 2010 and 2016, exports fell from 33.7 to 22.4m litres, although the higher and drier ends of the market are doing much better than these overall figures might suggest. As of 2016, the largest export markets were the UK (29% of production), the Netherlands (17%), and Germany (7%). These three markets plus Spain (35%) together accounted for over 85% of sales.

Prior to 1996, a bodega had to have a stock of at least 12,500 hectolitres to obtain a shipping licence. In 1996, this was reduced to just 500 hectolitres, enabling boutique bodegas—often former almacenistas, who had been selling on their wines—to enter the fray. Many shippers are diversified with an important, and more profitable, brandy business, which can be used to subsidize their sherry business.

Some favourites among the 44 shippers include former almacenista Gutiérrez Colosía, El Maestro Sierra, Emilio Lustau, Emilio Hidalgo, Hidalgo la Gitana, González Byass, Valdespino, Delgado Zuleta, Rey Fernando de Castilla, Bodegas Tradición, and Williams and Humbert, which is notable for its añada or vintage (non-solera) sherries.

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Luis (Willy) Pérez

Since 2005, independent bottler Equipo Navazos has been hunting down exceptional sherry butts with the aim of revealing the region’s true potential. Over the years, Equipo Navazos has become increasingly involved in different aspects of production, and in different projects such as terroir-driven Palomino, unfortified, naturally fermented in cask, and aged under flor (Florpower, Navazos Niepoort). Luis Pérez specializes in such ‘vinous’ sherries, with the quality of the fruit and expert cellar handling obviating the need for fractional blending or fortification. His friend Ramiro Ibáñez is doing similar work in Sanlúcar, albeit in a fresher, Sanlúcar style. Their wines have a strong sense of vintage and terroir, and, hand in hand with the more standard styles, may point the way to a brighter future for the region.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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