I hope you’ve been heeding my encouragement to explore Spain’s new generation of wines coming to the New World. In the past two columns I’ve been focusing on an overview of Spanish wines and history, including a virtual tour from 35,000 feet.
This week’s column, part three of my reprised, multi-focus virtual tour of Spain’s primary wine-producing regions, begins to focus on specific geographic regions.
I’ve segregated Spain into six wine regions – from south to north. Loosely defined, they are the South, the Mediterranean Coast, the Meseta Central, the Ebro River Valley, the Duero River Valley and Green Spain. As we move from the dry, desert-like region in the south to the opposite extreme of wet and cool in the northwest, so too the wines change from region to region. From light whites to rosé to medium-bodied reds to heavy, alcoholic reds, there is a style and a particular wine that will satisfy the most discriminating palate.
Let’s begin our tour in the South. There is not much to tantalize us here. Yes, the desert is surprising to see in a land that we consider lush and highly developed, but its proximity to Africa and its seclusion created by the surrounding mountains, make for very little land suitable for agriculture. Except if you like fortified wine.
In the southwest corner, near the port city of Jerez, is a small pocket of land mildly suitable for agriculture. But the enterprising Spaniards have adapted well to their environment. They have been refining a unique process for centuries and have influenced history with the wine from this region: Sherry.
The final product sold in wine shops is the result of a laborious, time-consuming method that is painstakingly watched over. Sherry has been revered for centuries, from the 15th century Spanish explorers who brought this fortified (and therefore long-lasting) wine on all of their expeditions, to the English, who considered Sherry to be medicinal.
Let’s take a look at the wine-making process: cultivated white grapes are spread out in the sun to dry, like raisins, intensifying the sugar content. After fermentation, the wine juice is exposed to air, allowing a yeast layer to grow on top of the barrel of wine, which interacts with the natural alcohol in the barrels.
Next comes the first of two unique steps. A type of brandy is added to fortify the wine to an alcohol level of 15 to 17 percent. When sufficiently mature, the wine goes through a second unique step: a blending process called the solera system. A portion of the wine from the current vintage, from 5 percent to 30 percent, is transferred from its original barrel to a barrel of a previous vintage. The displaced wine from that barrel is then transferred to the next oldest barrel, and so on for up to nine or more barrels.
At the end of the line, the (first) sherry removed from the oldest blended barrel is bottled. This blending allows the winemaker to produce a consistent wine that has marvelous components each year.
There are two basic styles of Sherries produced and multiple subsets of these. Fino Sherries are lighter, typically served cold with tapas and are a bit austere, with bright acidity and a sharp, light salty nut flavor. Olorosos are served at room temperature with dessert or cheese. They are robust and rich flavored, with a vanilla and caramel aroma and a hazelnut bouquet.
The best Sherries will hold their own against any other aperitif or dessert wine, including moscato, port, ice wine and Sauternes.
One of my favorites was described by a friend who is Sherry-obsessed: “It can be enjoyed on its own, but it pairs so well with desserts, especially chocolate and cheese. It has an intense flavor of raisins, figs and spices with a syrupy texture that complements the dessert at hand.”
Experimentation will reward you with a new wine in your repertoire of favorite wines. Sherry should be an addition to your wine-consuming bucket list.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.