I knew a very small bit about Sherry wines before I came to Jerez. Now I know a little bit more. Before I get into a series of posts about specific Bodegas and other experiences, I figure that I'll share the things that I know, and also some of the outstanding questions that I still have.
When I think of most of the wines that I love, be it Burgundy, Loire Valley wines, Beaujolais, and even Champagne, I think of those wines as representing a specific place. And I don't mean Burgundy as a place, for example. I mean a specific village and vineyard. For me, there is a difference between the wines of Chinon and Saumur-Champigny, for example. and more specifically, a difference between the wines of Les Picasses and Clos Guillot in Chinon. There is also a difference between Olga Raffault's Chinon Picasses and Pierre Breton's Chinon Picasses. And there is a difference between Olga Raffault's 1989 Chinon Picasses and 1990 Chinon Picasses. I can talk about those two wines in a finite way - they each have a certain character that is based on the place, the vintage, and the producer. There are better and worse bottles of 1989 Olga Raffault Chinon Picasses, and it tasted one way when it was young, and another now, but I can talk about the wine as a concrete thing.
That is the way I understand wine - it is made in a specific place, from a certain grape(s), in a specific vintage, by a specific producer. It has a life in the bottle, and I can enjoy it at various points in that life. You can too, and we can talk about the wine. I might say "I prefer a good bottle of the 1989 Raffault Picasses to a good bottle of the 1990, I think it is more expressive and harmonious." You might say "Well I prefer the 1990, the fruit is still present today and I think that makes the wine more complete."
What I'm just beginning to understand is that all of this kind of thinking should be thrown out of the window when trying to understand Sherry wines. Right now, I am trying to understand Sherry by thinking about primarily the Bodega - the place where the wine ages in barrel, and the cellar master - the person in charge of selecting individual barrels for blending, bottling or continued aging. This feels quite foreign to me, and it is a whole new set of challenges.
Did you know that Manzanilla and Fino wines are not defined by the location of the vineyards that produced the grapes? Grapes grown in a Jerez vineyard can be made into base wines, and if those wines are aged in a Bodega in the town of Sanlucar de Barremada, the resulting wine is Manzanilla. And wine made from the Miraflores vineyard in Sanlucar, if aged in a Bodega in Jerez, will create a Fino. It is the place that the wine ages that determines the primary classification of the resulting wine.
When you visit a Bodega, this begins to make a lot of sense. First of all, there are no underground cellars, no steps to walk down, no moldy walls and frigid caves. You walk into a Bodega and the barrels are there at ground level, stacked, quiet. Wind, humidity, temperature, and ventilation are major variables and their interaction with the barrels is what largely determines, over time, the character of the resulting wine.
I'm not saying that grape material doesn't matter, it does. Excellent raw material is a big part of the recipe for making excellent Sherry. But in Chambolle-Musigny, for example, an undistinguished wine maker could most likely make very good wine if given great raw materials - a rot-free and ripe set of grapes from Les Amoureuses. In Jerez or Sanlucar, great raw materials are important, but it seems to me that 95% of the quality of Sherry is determined by things that happen long after the grapes are grown and the base wines made.
This is as good a time as any to describe the basic system of Sherry wine making:
Barrels at Bodegas Emilio Hidalgo, Jerez.
After 7-9 years, flor cannot survive in Fino or Manzanilla barrels. If the cellar master saves the wines from some such barrels without immediately bottling them, the wine will continue to age, but without flor - the wine will no longer be protected from oxygen. These wines are on their way to becoming Amontillados. They can be bottled as young Amontillado, and have a certain character that is highly influenced by flor, or can be aged for many many years, and these older Amontillados show more oxidative character. There are some Sherry wines that are never aged under flor, and these wines are called Olorosos - they are aged in contact with oxygen from the beginning. Young Olorosos smell and taste different from old Olorosos. Amontillados made from Manzanilla wines smell and taste different from Amontillados made from Fino. At every step, the decisions of the cellar master define the wine - which barrels are best for Fino, which are best for Amontillado? Then there is Palo Cortado, a kind of Sherry that no one seems to be able to concretely define - more on that later.
This is a bit jumbled, I know, but I am o'erbrimming with information right now and I want to share with you while the "iron is hot," if you will.