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Sherry: An Old Wine for a New Consumer
By Gerald D. Boyd
Sep 6, 2011
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“When you have a glass of Jerez you must not only think that you are enjoying a great wine, but an enological miracle, based on our soil, grape varieties, aging system (unique only to Jerez) and the knowledge that has been passed down through generations dedicated to caring for our wine.”  Those are the passionate words of Antonio Flores, head winemaker for Gonzalez Byass, perhaps the world’s most famous producer of Sherry.

Unfortunately, Flores’ passion for the pleasures of Sherry has mostly escaped American wine consumers.  As a dedicated Sherry fan, I’ve long wondered why one of the world’s great wines never caught on in this country.  So, I put the question to Felipe Gonzalez-Gordon, president of Gonzalez Byass USA:  What do Americans misunderstand about Sherry?  “The flavors are so different from other wines they are used to.  Many people still believe that Sherry is a low quality wine, just for cooking.  Cooking Sherry isn’t Sherry,” he said with finality.  “Labeling these products as ‘Sherry’ does a tremendous injustice to the wines of the appellation Jerez-Xeres-Sherry because the so-called cooking Sherries are of the lowest quality and do not even remotely resemble authentic Sherry.  This misleads the consumer.”

Gonzalez-Gordon maintains that nine out ten bottles of Sherry sold in the United States are domestic.  He added that in American restaurants and bars, Sherry is considered a spirit not a wine and in his travels around the country he has found that prices for Sherry are too high. “Once the consumer has tried the domestic version, they are put off from the authentic Sherry,” he says. 

“In the 1980s Sherry sales in the United States reached one-million cases but in the last 20 years there has been a dramatic decline in sales,” Gonzalez-Gordon points out.  “Now, the number is about 200,000 cases, although the market has been stable for the last couple of years.”  The list of reasons is long, he says, but include the many new wines and wine regions entering the market.  Closer to home, Gonzalez-Gordon believes that a major reason for declining U.S Sherry sales is that, in the 1980s, a number of multi-nationals bought Sherry houses outright, along with their stocks (namely, Sandeman and Domecq), though he notes that “Gonzalez-Byass also sold equity in the company around the same time, but bought back the shares in the early 1990s.”

He explains that once the multi-nationals took control, the Sherry houses stopped advertising and producing promotional materials.  “After the Sherry houses were sold, decisions were made by other people with different views on business… the houses were ‘cash cows’ operating in a big category that was not growing, so the investments were pulled away and dedicated elsewhere.”  Gonzalez-Gordon says that the inherent problem was that multinationals had no “rooted interest” in the appellation beyond quarterly results, so once the category started showing signs of difficulties the multinationals moved on.  “Without advertising and promotion the category continued to decline and further exacerbated the problems of the appellation.” 

A bright spot, though, is that “the new interest in Spanish red wines and Spanish cuisine is helping interest in Sherry,” says Gonzalez-Gordon.  “Growth is slow but progressive, with more interest in dry Sherries, like Fino, dry Amontillado, Oloroso Seco, rather than the sweeter styles such as Bristol Cream.”   He claims that although sales are still strong in the United States for cream Sherries, it does seem like the move is toward drier Sherries.  “And there is new interest for Sherry in Japan, but the rising demand there is hurting more traditional European markets.”

With Sherry, there is something for everyone.  Gonzalez Byass markets two tiers of Sherries, or three if you count Tio Pepe, the famous Fino, as a separate tier.  The five wines in the standard tier, not including a Manzanilla, are priced at about $20.  At one time, Gonzalez Byass did produce a Manzanilla but decided to drop it from the line in favor of Fino.  “We decided to pull out of the Manzanilla business a few years ago because the category is not profitable in the Spanish market.  With many of the co-ops and wineries selling their Manzanillas at rock bottom prices we decided to focus all our efforts on Fino.” 

The driest Sherries, like Fino and Manzanilla, are made solely from the Palomino grape and aged under a spongy bacteria yeast known as “flor,” that often resembles cottage cheese with a dusting of dirt.  Flor blocks oxygen from the maturing Fino allowing the wine to develop a pale color and light texture and flavor.  Palomino makes very good Fino but very ordinary, even bland wine, not unlike the relationship of Folle Blanche to Cognac, odd but fortuitous quirks for those of us who love Sherry and Cognac.

True Finos vary in taste and character depending on where they are from:  Jerez Fino, Puerto Fino or Sanlucar Manzanilla.    Manzanillas are Finos aged in bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a geographical location that may have something to do with the character of Manzanilla.  Some Sherry aficionados attribute the “briny” character of Manzanilla to the bodegas’ location near the sea.  Supposedly, a butt (500 liter oak cask) of Fino taken from a Jerez bodega to a bodega in Sanlucar will become a Manzanilla, but no such transformation takes place when a butt of Manzanilla is taken from Sanlucar to a bodega in Jerez.  One of the most recognizable Finos is Gonzalez Byass’ famous Tio Pepe. 

True Amontillado is a Fino that has lost its flor, allowing the wine to come in contact with oxygen, causing the color to darken from a pale gold to light brown and the aromatics to take on a nutty character.  To keep the cost down, many commercial Amontillados are blends of Fino and Oloroso, sometimes even with a little sweet wine like Pedro- Ximenez, resulting in a medium-dry Amontillado finished at about 16.5% alcohol.  If the alcohol rises above 15% alcohol, flor will disappear, so Amontillados have no flor character.  Try Gonzalez Byass Vina AB Amontillado for its delicate nutty flavors.

The absence of flor and higher alcohol (up to 18%) are the main characteristics of Oloroso, the other major division besides Fino.  Without the flor contact, an Oloroso ages in contact with oxygen.  Olorosos are sold dry or sweet, with sweet-style Olorosos far more popular among American Sherry drinkers than Oloroso Seco.  Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco has deep nut-brown color, spice and dry nutty flavors, whereas the Matusalem Oloroso Dulce is rich and spicy with dried fruit flavors.

Palo Cortado is a “tweener” Sherry in that it has the aromas of an Amontillado and the body of an Oloroso.  Palo Cortados are rare and expensive but a complex treat that should be a must-try for anyone starting a Sherry exploration.  Experience the powerful character of Palo Cortado with Gonzalez Byass Leonor or the “muy viejo” (an average of 30 years in oak) Apostoles Palo Cortado.  Sweeter yet are Cream Sherries, a blend of Oloroso and PX and a straight, concentrated, raisiny PX or an unctuous treacle-like sweet Sherry made from the Moscatel grape.  A step up in depth, complexity and time spent in the solera, are Gonzalez Byass’ Exclusive Solera Sherries, including Matusalem Oloroso Dulce, Noe Pedro Ximenez and Apostoles Palo Cortado, priced between $45 and $50. 

Gonzalez Byass keeps an extensive library of aged, vintage-dated Palo Cortados and Amontillados that are coming into the market and the company is working on a commercial plan for unfiltered Finos out of cask.  According to Gonzalez-Gordon, the concern is that the unfiltered Finos may grow cloudy or hazy, thus these unique Sherries are not yet in the U.S. market because the company “must find the best possible way to take them direct to the consumer.”

Sherry is as much a part of Andalucia as is the dance and music of flamenco.  And it would be hard to overstate the sensual pleasures of Sherry, even with food.  But Sherry remains an underappreciated wine.  George Saintsbury, the early 20th century English gourmand regretted in his famous diary, “Notes on a Cellar Book,” that his fellow countrymen paid little attention to the lighter “Xeres” such as Manzanilla.  “It goes with anything from oysters (with which Chablis, though orthodox, does not please me, while Champagne, though it has Thackeray’s sanction, seems to me a sin without solace) to anything short of ‘sweets.’”  Wise words from a man who knew his wine, to which I would add a glass of fino and a salute!