Carl Kanowsky: Spain and Sherry – A Discovery


As you’ll remember from my last column, Terry and I just returned from Europe, visiting two of our sons who live there.  We started in London, where I wrote about a memorable meal there.

Then it’s onto Andalucía, Spain.

Spain – a beautiful country, delightful people, and unique wines.

We were invited to celebrate the wedding of Domenico Bencivenga, one of Virginia’s brothers (you remember her – Scott’s girlfriend), to Natalia Perez in charming Cordoba.

Virginia and her family are from Italy; Natalia was born and raised in Cordoba.  So, quite the international affair.

Being in southern Spain presented an opportunity to delve deeply into Spain’s signature fortified wine, Sherry.  Frankly, my previous exposure to Sherry was as a sweet dessert wine, an alternative to Port (which, as you all know, comes from Portugal).

But actually the majority of Sherry is bone dry.  Most of Europe enjoys it as a wine to have with dinner

Terry Kanowsky and Simon Leth-Nissen, International Brand Manager for Gonzalez Byass, on tour of Sherry winery in Jerez, Spain.

(particularly fish), while most Americans, if they have Sherry at all, it’s after dinner.

So, I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to learn more about Sherry, to sample it, and to see if I liked it.  And being near Jerez, the capital of Sherry, provided the means to meet these goals.

Simon Leth-Nissen, International Brand Manager for Gonzalez Byass (producer of Tio Pepe, among others), gave Terry and I an in-depth introduction in the world of Sherry.

The vast majority of Sherry comes from the Palomino grape.  After harvest, the grapes are fermented, just like any other wine.  But the next step is where Sherry goes its own path.

There are numerous styles of Sherry.  Some light and dry, others are more complex but still dry while still others can be sweet enough to grace ice cream.

Fino, likely the most common type of Sherry, comes from the Palomino grape.  After harvest, the grapes are crushed but not pressed.  The resulting free run juice then fully ferments.  After that some neutral spirits are added to increase the alcohol level to between 15-16%.  The wine is then stored in American oak barrels that have a capacity of 600 liters.  But the barrels are filled only to 500 liters.

This provides the setting for a quite unique development.  As the wine sits in the barrels, it becomes covered with a blanket of yeast known as flor.  This yeast barrier prevents oxidization of the wine.  The Fino can age anywhere from four to eight years.

Amontillados are another style of Sherry.  Amontillados begin life as Finos but after four years additional spirits are added to the Amontillado barrels, killing the flor.  They then age an additional eight or more years.

Finally, taking a different approach, Sherry bodegas create a style known as Oloroso.  The grapes are both crushed and likely pressed, creating a more intense wine.  Then, after fermentation is complete, the winemaker adds enough neutral spirits to achieve an alcohol content of 17 to 19%.  This prevents the development of flor.  The wine is then aged in American casks for several years, at least eight.

There are many other styles of Sherry but in the USA, these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter.

In my next column, I’ll describe the labor-intensive method of blending sherry (called the solera method) and review nine sherries.

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