Friday, September 24, 2010

Aged Sherry: Prepare To Be Wowed

How do you hook someone on sherry? How do you get your friends and family to really enjoy sherry? How do you convert wine lovers into sherry lovers as well? What is the best way to introduce someone to this fine Spanish wine?

I previously discussed this issue in general, as it applies to all niche wine. "If you are going to experience those niche wines for the first time, you should taste one of their best, to better evaluate how you feel about such wines. It would be similar to introducing someone new to wine to Cabernet Sauvignon. Would you give them a cheap, average wine to taste, or something that might be a bit more expensive, but is also more complex and delicious? The latter wine would be more likely to turn that newbie into a convert."

Specifically for sherry, I believe the finest introduction, the best way to acquire a new sherry convert, is to let them taste an aged sherry, a VOS, VORS or Añada. They might enjoy a fino or manzanilla sherry, but it is unlikely to be a "Wow" wine for them. Even a basic amontillado or oloroso might be enjoyable but probably still won't sufficiently impress. But if you want their experience to be truly memorable, then give them a taste of an aged sherry. That is more likely to make someone desire to drink more sherry, to seek out its potential.

In the Jerez region, I visited nine sherry bodegas and tasted numerous aged sherries, and they were often very impressive. They were certainly high-quality wines which would make anyone take notice of sherry. I enjoyed their basic sherries too, but it was the aged sherries that wowed me, which were the most sublime. Which is also why I bought a fair number of them to ship home to me, for my own pleasure as well as to share. When I drink some of these aged sherries with my friends, I bet I convert a fair number of them into sherry lovers.

The Aged Sherry classifications are relatively new to the regulations of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry D.O. In July 2000, the regulations added the VOS and VORS classifications. VOS, which stands for Vinum Optimum Signatum (Very Old Sherry), is certified as being an average age of at least 20 years. VORS, which stands for Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (Very Old Rare Sherry), is certified as being an average age of at least 30 years. Some VORS sherries though can have an average age of 40 or 50 years, if not even older. The only type of sherries that can receive these designations are Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado and Pedro Ximenez. Sherries with these designations will possess special seals on their bottles.

A bodega cannot just label their own sherries as a VOS or VORS. Any sherry desirous of obtaining this designation must undergo both an analytical panel tasting and laboratory testing for age. An independent Tasting Committee exists that will taste the sherry and determine whether it meets their high standards of quality, that which is expected of all such aged sherries. Plus, a laboratory will verify the average age of the sherry, to ensure it meets the minimum requirements. So VOS and VORS designations indicate more than the age of the sherry, but also have been certified as being of very high quality.

Sherry is aged in botas, 600 liter American oak barrels, and each year, the amount of ullage (evaporation within the barrel) is about 3-4%. In perspective, it is said that a 30 year old barrel of sherry has completely evaporated at least once. The effect of this evaporation is to concentrate the sherry, making it denser and more powerful, as well as making the finish longer. Plus, the alcohol content increases. This is what helps to make VOS and VORS sherries more compelling. In addition, it makes them more costly to produce as the evaporation destroys a significant portion of the sherry as it ages. Yet many of these aged sherries are still fairly reasonably priced.

Let me recommend some of the aged sherries that I tasted on my visit to the Jerez region. At Bodegas Harveys, their VORS sherries, including Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez, had an average age of 60-80 years and were quite impressive. Only about 125 cases of each, in 500ml bottles, is produced each year. Though Harveys Bristol Cream might be their flagship sherry, it is their VORS sherries which are amazing. Bodegas Tradición is unique as it only produces sherries that are VOS, VORS or Añada. Though all of their sherries were deliciousand excellent, their VORS Palo Cortado was superb, a wine I had to buy. Though Bodegas Sánchez Romate does not label some of their sherries as VOS or VORS, they sell aged sherries which likely would qualify if they sought the designation. Their Old & Plus Amontillado, which has an average age of 30+ years, is fantastic.

Bodegas González Byass produces VOS and VORS sherries and their Amontillado and Palo Cortado both impressed me very much. Bodegas Lustau had some excellent VOS and VORS wines, but what most impressed me was their VORS Pedro Ximemez. For me, many of the PX sherries we tasted at the various bodegas were too sweet and syrupy. They seemed to lack depth. They might be fine poured over ice cream, but it was not something I would prefer to drink. But this VORS PX was amazing, not overly sweet and possessing an array of delightful and complex flavors. Bodegas Hidalgo was the site of maybe my favorite sherry of the entire trip, a VORS Palo Cortado, which was the essence of sublime. This is a transformative wine, a true marvel and one I will always fondly remember.

Another new Aged Sherry designation, and much rarer than even the VOS and VORS sherries, are the Añadas, or vintage sherries. These sherries are not aged through the usual solera system, instead being aged more like a traditional wine. A few bodegas, in certain excellent years, will put aside some sherry to age on its own, and not be blended with other vintages. The Consejo Regulador plays a significant part in this process, to ensure that the sherry is not manipulated, and only is from this single vintage. The botas will be stoppered and sealed to ensure this matter. These may be the most expensive sherries that exist.

Last year, I had my first experience with a vintage sherry, the 1964 Gonzalez Byass Vintage Oloroso Sherry, and it truly was an amazing wine. I have since shared that sherry with others who were also similarly impressed. While in the Jerez region, I found a few other bodegas that produce vintage sherries. At Bodegas Tradición, I was fortunate to try their 1975 Vintage Oloroso, an equally exquisite sherry though it cost 150 Euros. At Bodegas Williams & Humbert, we ate lunch in a room where vintage sherries were stored, some extending back to the 1930s. We did not get to taste those very old wines but it was interesting to know they existed.

Like the VOS and VORS sherries, vintage sherries have issues with ullage, especially as there is much less sherry available to refill the barrels. So, each year, a vintage sherry gets rarer and rarer. Thus, there is a justification for the high costs to purchase such wonderful sherries.

I look forward to sharing my new VOS and VORS sherries with my friends and colleagues, hoping to make them sherry converts. Such amazing wines should wow them, giving them sufficient reason to want to drink more sherry. And once they are hooked, I can introduce them to all of the other types of sherry that exist, from the salty Manzanilla to the aromatic Moscatel. Just think of it as trying to make a good first impression, by putting your best foot forward rather than giving a mediocre effort.

Have you tasted an Aged Sherry? If so, what were your thoughts about it?

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