An Overview of the World’s Greatest Fortified Wines – Part One
Sherry is one of the ‘big three’ of the fortified wine world, along with Port and Madeira. It is produced in southern Spain in the coastal area around the town of Jerez de la Frontera. Most of the vineyards for Sherry are planted on the chalky albariza soil.
Sherry can be among the most confusing fortified wines due to the wide range of styles; however, all Sherries (except for Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel) start in the same way by producing a dry white wine made from the Palomino grape. Palomino produces a low acid, neutral wine considered ideal for Sherry's maturation. After fermentation, the wines are placed in old 600-liter American oak casks, locally known as butt, where maturation occurs. The butts are only part-filled to provide oxygen to the wine. Soon, on the surface of the base wine, a layer of yeast (known as flor) will form. Fortification (the addition of alcohol to the base wine to increase the final alcohol content) ultimately decides the main style of the wine. Wines that are fortified to about 15% abv become Fino or Manzanilla. This level of fortification allows the flor to develop well, keeping the wine fresh and protecting it from oxidation. The flor adds the typical yeasty and nutty notes (the result of acetaldehyde production) that characterize Fino and Manzanilla Sherries. Maturation under the flor is known as biological maturation. Wines that are fortified to about 18% abv become Oloroso. At this level of fortification, the flor does not grow and ultimately dies. Without flor, the wine loses the protection from oxygen and goes through an oxidative maturation, becoming darker in color and gradually acquiring oxidative aromas of walnuts, toffee, and leather. Another prominent feature of Sherry production is the unique aging system known as solera. The solera is a method of fractional blending that blends younger with older wines to achieve consistency of style.
The Styles of Sherry
Dry Sherries are known as Vinos Generosos and include most of the best and most expensive examples of Sherry.
Fino and Manzanilla undergo biological aging; thus, their profile is shaped by the flor's action, which produces aromas of yeast and bread along with an overall tangy, salty character. They are pale lemon in color, dry, medium-bodied, and show aromas of citrus zest, almond, and herbs. These wines are best served chilled and should be consumed rapidly as they quickly lose freshness after bottling; they are not meant for aging. Note that Manzanilla is produced in the same way as Fino, but it is matured in the area of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. This area's cooler and more humid conditions result in a thicker layer of flor, which provides a more intense salty and tangy character to the wines.
Oloroso goes through oxidative aging in the solera system; thus, its character is strongly defined by the effect of oxygen, resulting in oxidative aromas of walnuts, toffee, spice, tobacco, leather, toasted and savory notes. Oloroso is brown in color, dry, full-bodied, high in alcohol (~18-20% abv), and smooth with a velvety mouthfeel.
Amontillado is made by adding grape spirit to Fino (or Manzanilla). The addition of alcohol kills the flor, and from that moment, the wine is aged oxidatively in the solera system. Because Amontillado goes through biological and oxidative aging, it shows a delightful combination of flor character (yeast, bready, salty notes) mixed with oxidative notes of hazelnuts, toffee, and tobacco. Amontillado Sherries are amber in color, dry, medium-bodied, and high in alcohol (~17.5-19% abv). Compared to Oloroso, Amontillado tends to be more elegant and linear.
Palo Cortado is among the rarest, finest, and most complex examples of dry Sherry. It can be described as a style between Amontillado and Oloroso. It combines the finesse of Amontillado with the weight and richness of Oloroso. Palo Cortado initially goes through biological aging (flor). If specific characteristics are present in the wine, it is classified as potential Palo Cortado, fortified to about 17% abv, and then oxidatively aged in the solera system. Since Palo Cortado shares biological and oxidative notes, distinguishing it from an Amontillado or an Oloroso is often challenging.
Sherries are also produced in sweet style. There are two categories of sweet Sherries, Vinos Generosos de Licor (blended sweetened wines) and Vinos Dulces Naturales (naturally sweet wines). The first category includes three commercially important styles, Pale Cream, Medium, and Cream. Pale Cream is a sweetened Fino that shows some flor character but lacks the depth of Fino. Medium Sherry is an Amontillado-like Sherry that has been sweetened. Cream Sherry is a popular style of sweet Oloroso. It includes both high volume inexpensive brands such as Harvey’s Bristol Cream and premium examples like Lustau’s Old East India.
Vinos Dulces Naturales include Pedro Ximénez (also known as PX) and Moscatel. They are produced from over-ripe or sun-dried grapes, which results in very high levels of sugars. The addition of grape spirit halts fermentation; the wines are then aged oxidatively. PX is lusciously sweet, dark brown in color, with intense aromas of prune, fig, raisin, coffee, and licorice combined with a syrupy palate. Moscatel is similar to PX and shows the typical Muscat varietal character with orange blossom, honey, and dried citrus peel notes.
Fortified Muscat Wines
Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is one of the best-known French Vins Doux Naturels, a large group of fortified wines produced in the south of France. Located in the Southern Rhone, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. It is produced using healthy, ripe grapes (noble rot is not welcome) and avoiding contact with oxygen to preserve the pure aromatic character of the variety. The producer aims to enhance the Muscat grape's classic, primary floral, and fruity aromas. The fortification stops the fermentation early on, achieving high levels of sugar and high alcohol (15% abv) while preserving the intense grape flavors. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is considered among the world’s most elegant Muscat-based fortified wines. It boasts intense perfume with the classic Muscat grapey character and aromas of orange blossom, rose, apricot, exotic fruit, and honey. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise should be consumed as young and fresh as possible and is best served chilled.
Australia has a long tradition of fortified wine production. Among the wines that have achieved the greatest recognition among the fortified wines of the new world is Rutherglen Muscat. Located in the state of Victoria, Rutherglen is produced from Muscat à Petits Grains Rouges (locally known as Brown Muscat), a red-skinned mutation of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. Unlike the delicate, aromatic Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Rutherglen Muscat is opulent, lusciously sweet, and made in an oxidative style. Grapes are picked fully ripe or just slightly raisined to achieve the high sugar levels required for this style. Fermentation only reaches a few degrees of alcohol before being interrupted by the addition of grape spirit to preserve intense sweetness and high alcohol (18% abv). What defines the style of Rutherglen is the long oxidative aging. The wines are aged for an extended period (three to five years and sometimes even longer) in various sizes of old oak casks, often in hot conditions. Heat, oxidation, and evaporation ultimately concentrate the wine, resulting in a darker color, full, rich body, viscous texture, and pronounced oxidative aromas of caramel, toffee, raisin, fig, dried apricot, prune, coffee, and nuts. Rutherglen is ready to drink on release and does not benefit from bottle age as it loses freshness after a couple of years from bottling.