The Region of Jerez
In addition to its history, the evolution of viticulture, vinification and ageing according to changes in its surrounding environment, many other factors exist that make Sherry a unique wine in the world.
Geographic Location: The region of Jerez is situated in the province of Cadiz, in the Southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. The influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Guadalquivir, Guadalete and Sierra de Cadiz rivers are key to understanding the uniqueness of our wines.
We must distinguish geographically two concepts: production zone and ageing zone. The former is where vines that bear fruit apt for wine production can be cultivated and they are the following areas: Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chipiona, Chiclana, Puerto Real, Rota and Lebrija (province of Seville). The ageing zone is restricted to the city limits of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Even though vine cultivation is widely extended, the ageing zones are restricted to the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
The orography refers to the relief of the landscape, in this case composed of gentle hills that facilitate the exposition of the vines to the sun and movement of the winds, and to the soil composition, generally high in calcium carbonate content and called albarizas because of its white color. Two other types of soils exist in the region, the arenas, or sands in the costal areas that usually produces good Muscat and the barros or clay, in the valleys which are usually good for grapes that result in wines that are more powerful.
The grapes: All of these factors lead to a series of grape varieties that have best adapted to the environment to give the best fruit. The varieties permitted by the Regulating Council of the Denomination of Origen “Jerez-Xérès-Sherry” and “Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda” are the following: Palomino Fino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez. The first of these, Palomino, is the queen of dry Sherry, while the other are utilized traditionally for sweet wines.
But in addition to the natural factors that we have looked at, there are a series of human factors that make these wines very special, indeed unique in the world. The ageing of Sherry is the key to the difference, the ancestral wisdom of the winemakers to elevate a wine to its maximum expression through the solera system.
THE PRODUCTION OF SHERRY WINES
This section will start focusing on the vines, the base of all good wine. The vines have been taken care of all year long so that the plants have water, are healthy to properly mature the grapes, and are well pruned to give the optimum amount of the best possible fruit. Definitively, the viticulturist has worked hard is about to see the results of his labor.
Towards the end of August or beginning of September the harvest commences, it is a hot period when the grapes are to the point of full maturity and the sugar and acid content is ideal for producing Sherries. After they are picked, the grapes are taken to the lagares or pressing area to be picked-over and pressed. For the grapes that come from the best parcels and that will be destined for the best wines, the mosto de yema or first run must is permitted to drain free, that is to say, obtaining the grape must simply by the pressure from its own weight and not from hydraulic pressure. This is the purest, most elegant and aromatic of all the musts and it will be used for the highest quality wines. After this first phase, a gentle pressing of the grapes will also obtain a very good must that will probably be destined for very fine wines. The majority of the must that results from the later pressings will be destined for Olorosos.
After the fermentation of the must into wine through the transformation of its sugar into alcohol, we have a 12 - 13% alcohol wine (still known in Jerez as “must”) and it will be clarified in a tank. This is called the deslío or the settling of the lees to the bottom of the tank, which normally takes places towards the end of December, after which it will have its first classification. This is where the vital differences with the rest of the world’s wines commence.
In this first classification of the wine in the tank, the winery foreman or capataz, together with the oenologist, will use their olfactory and gustatory skills to decide the type of ageing that each wine needs. If they find that the wine is subtle, elegant and light, it will be designated to be aged as a Fino (or Manzanilla in Sanlúcar). However, if they find that the wine has more body, is more potent and aromatic, it will be destined for ageing as an Oloroso.
Next comes a very important part of the vinification process of Sherry, the fortification. A wine is fortified by adding a wine spirit to raise the alcohol content. The origin of this practice seems to stem from former necessity to stabilize the wines so that they could withstand a long voyage, but in the present it forms a part of the legacy of knowledge that permits the characteristic ageing of Sherry.
For example, those wines that are going to become Fino (or Manzanilla), will be fortified to 15.5% from its original 12-13%, at which point the ideal environment is achieved for the proliferation of the yeast of the velo de flor, or veil of yeast.
What is the velo de flor? It is a colony of various types of yeast that naturally (they reside on the grapes since the vineyard) establish themselves on the surface of the Sherry wines and feed on it, thus transforming the wine and giving it its inimitable character. The flor is responsible for the Sherries of the so-called biological ageing category, the Finos, Manzanillas and Amontillados. Traditionally, the Finos have been produced in El Puerto de Santa María and the Manzanillas in Sanlúcar because they have the temperature and humidity conditions necessary for the yeasts to thrive. These wines have begun to be aged recently in the town of Jerez, though their character is quite different to those aged in the costal areas.
THE FLOR OF THE WINE
Returning to the moment of fortification, if the ageing of an Oloroso is desired, it must be fortified to 17-18% alcohol. There can be no biological activity in the wine at that strength; therefore the ageing will be through oxidation.
Once the fortification process is finished, the first months of ageing begin. This is still considered part of the vinification phase in Jerez, called the sobretablas or on the planks phase, where the wine is put into barrels known as botas, or butts, in Jerez.
The barrels must be mentioned at this point because it is another critical factors in our wines. The most widely used today is the bota bodeguera, which is a 600 liter, American oak butt. Bodegas Tradición uses a 625 liter butt called the bota gorda. Contrary to other wine-making regions, new wood is not used in Sherry. Instead, the barrels must have been filled with wine from the zone for at least three years to extract all of the tannins found in the wood, etc. The older the butts are considered the best; Bodegas Tradición only uses those that are at least 40 years-old.
The sobretablas phase lasts between 6 months and a year, after which a second classification will take place. In the crianza, or ageing phase, which some compare to the raising of a human being, the wines will be directed down one road or another according to their potential and with the goal to bring out their best traits.
Those butts that contain future Finos and that were marked with a single palo (I), or stroke, must continue with their elegant and light character. They should have acquired a mild “sea breeze” aroma and the velo de flor must be completely healthy to go on with the second phase. When this does not occur, a butt that was meant to be a Fino can turn out to have the fine nose but more body on the palate and will then become a possible Palo Cortado (┼). The butt will be separated from the rest and fortified to 18% alcohol. Oxidative ageing will begin and its evolution will be watched.
The butts designated for ageing as Olorosos (o) usually do not show changes and will follow their original path, becoming a part of the solera and criadera system.
Even though the usual practice is to assign the wines to the dynamic ageing process in the soleras and criaderas system, occasionally a butt of Oloroso or a possible Palo Cortado will have distinctive characteristics and thus be considered exceptional. They might be set apart to be aged as a vintage Sherry.
Once the second classification has concluded, the wines will be added to the criadera system when they are between 6 to 12 months-old. The solera and criadera system is defined as a dynamic ageing method, in which the youngest wines will be progressively mixed with the oldest. The younger acquires more character of the older wines, and the older receives the liveliness of the younger wines. Additionally, this system allows for a more homogenous product over time since only a maximum of a third of its capacity is removed and the wine that it is replaced with is chosen specifically to respect its character.
The most basic plan for a system of criaderas and soleras for three year-old wines, the youngest wines permitted to be bottled in Sherry region, is the following:
- 1/3 of the content of the solera (the oldest wine) is bottled
- The solera is refilled, or rociado, with 1/3 of the content of the first criadera
- The first criadera is refilled with 1/3 of the second criadera
- The second criadera is refilled with all of the wine in the sobretablas phase. Normally, instead of doing this once a year using the 1/3 proportion, it is done is lesser proportions to avoid abrupt changes in the wine.
This is the most basic system for three year-old wines, but as we will see further ahead in the allocation system, the older the wine, greater is the number of steps needed for a smaller proportion of wine to be extracted and refilled.
In Bodegas Tradición, we have rescued various vintage butts from different years and different types of Sherry. As previously mentioned, Olorosos and Palo Cortados are the only types of Sherry permitted by the Regulating Council to be classified as vintage. The reason is simple; Finos and Manzanillas cannot be aged without being refreshed by younger wines making it impossible to establish a vintage date. This would also apply to Amontillados since they are a product of Finos or Manzanillas.
In Tradición, there are butts of different vintages that are bottled in very limited series. All of these butts are sealed and controlled by the Regulating Council to assure its authenticity, the drawing off and bottling of the wine is supervised by one of it regulators. We don’t habitually bottle vintages for this reason, preferring instead to inventory a small quantity until the demand obliges us to bottle again. Because of its rarity, scarcity and authenticity, its price is higher than wines that have been through the solera system.
As far as its character, these vintage Olorosos and Palo Cortados may not have the liveliness of the dynamically-aged wines, but they gain in depth, elegance and subtlety.
Sherry Wines with a Qualified Age: Our Specialty and Only Objective
Since the year 2000, the Regulating Council of Jerez wanted to somehow control and guaranty the oldest Sherries. They decided to make two qualifications for very old wines:
- More than 20 years, VOS: “Vinum Optimum Signatum” (wine qualified as good) or, in English, Very Old Sherry. Our brand: Pedro Ximénez Tradición VOS
- More than 30 years, VORS: “Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum” (wine qualified as extraordinarily good) or, in English, Very Old Rare Sherry. Our brands: Amontillado Tradición VORS, Palo Cortado Tradición VORS, Oloroso Tradición VORS
Method of Qualification: The Regulating Council exerts control over each bottling of these types of wine, assuring that the wine that enters the market is of sufficient quality and age to obtain its respective qualification.
The Regulating Council schedules four regular qualification sessions for these wines each year. If one of our wines is to be drawn off and bottled, it is communicated to the Regulating Council to apply for the qualification. Once the application is approved based on the wine’s quality and age, we receive the authorization and the distinctive seals for bottling.
Recommended Reading about Sherry Wines
- La Tierra del Vino de Jerez, Isidro García del Barrio
- La Viticultura del Jerez, Albetro Garcia de Luján
- Jerez.Xérès, Sherry, Manuel María Gonzalez Gordon
- La Formación del Capitalismo en el Marco de Jerez, Javier Maldonado Ross
- El Vino de Jerez, Julian Jeffs
- Diccionario del Vino de Jerez, Julián Pemartín