Andalucía

The ancient lands of southwestern Spain have been planted to vineyards for nearly 3,000 years. But this part of Iberia was the longest to be controlled by the Moors and Islam, and winemaking was discouraged if not outright forbidden here from 711 to 1492.

To most visitors, the Sherry wine–producing parts of Andalucía appear as more moonscape than landscape; hot and arid, rugged and hard, the land conforms to the image many Americans have of Spain in general. But the mountains carry other possibilities. With abrupt shifts in elevation, fascinating dessert wines have been produced within areas in Montilla-Moriles and Málaga.

And Andalucía’s most famous wine area, Jerez (Sherry), receives more rainfall than most other parts of southern Spain. That rain is captured by the special limestone–rich soils of the area; they’re called albariza soils, and they bake in the summer sun into a hard crust, trapping cool moisture for the vines’ needs.

DO Condado de Huelva

Another area looking for a spot of sun in the shade of Jerez, the DO offers dry white wines, fortified wines, and aged, rancio–styled wines from a variety of white grapes, though the vast majority of the plantings are of the Zalema grape. There are more than 10,000 acres of grapes, so while the shipping of wines from Condado to Jerez is less frequent than in years past, all that wine is going somewhere.

For further information, visit DO Condado de Huelva Website.

DO Jerez-Manzanilla

Sherry is associated with the British people, and they have had a passion for the wine since 1587, when the Spanish Armada was crippled, its stores were sacked, and Sir Francis Drake’s fleet made off with the equivalent of 180,000 cases of Sherry. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare’s Falstaff was toasting the wine as “sherris sack.” The region is named for the town of Jerez de la Frontera, the frontier in question being the frontier that, from 1264 to 1492, formed the barrier between the ruling Moors and the rest of Iberia. It must have been an inebriated Englishman, drunker than Falstaff, who mispronounced “Jerez” as “Sherry.”

When trade eventually was reestablished between Spain and England, Sherry barrels made their way to England. As a result, oak aging of these wines had become the standard a couple of centuries before Rioja even considered the idea. Even Bordeaux was not yet focused upon barrels as part of their styles. Today, Spanish Sherry continues to be defined by its time in oak. The new quality categories of VOS and VORS are rekindling the market’s interest in old Sherry. Wines that have sojourned for 12 or 15 years in barrel can state that on the labels.

The Palomino grape accounts for more than 90% of Sherry plantings; the other grapes are Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. More about these later.

Sherry’s multiplicity is a bewildering obstacle for too many people. It’s actually simple: Sherry is fortified wine. It’s fortified after the fermentation so, unlike Port, all Sherry begins its life as a dry wine. Sherry is initially classified as one of two wines: fino or olosoro. A fino is intended to be a light, crisp, delicate wine; surprisingly, it’s also a wine that carries an alcohol content of more than 15 percent. Yet the great finos are indeed delicate. They are aged in barrel underneath a yeast film called a flor (or “flower,” though it looks more like pond scum), and the flor protects the wine from oxygen, adding flavors and aromas as well. Visit DO Sanlucar de Barrameda for more information about the flor.

The other great category of Sherry is Oloroso. These are usually made sweet, although a handful of them are left dry. The term oloroso can be loosely translated into something aromatic (or something smelly?), and the long barrel aging required for great Oloroso certainly gives it aromas, which can smell of toffee, walnuts, prunes, cherries, orange rind, spices, chocolate, and myriad other things edible and perhaps inedible.

Olorosos might appear as Cream Sherry, Pale Cream Sherry, or under a host of proprietary, sweet-sounding names. As noted above, all Sherries begin life as a dry wine; most Olorosos are sweet. They are sweetened by the addition of grape must, grape paste, cooked grape paste—all sorts of products made from the vineyards, the winery, or some of the leftovers from the winemaking process. Palomino grapes can be used for these purposes, but the grapes Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel traditionally have been grown for the purpose of providing sweetening materials, whether in their natural state or as sun–dried raisins.

Aside from barrel aging, Sherry is also defined by its solera process of aging. Once again, there is needless confusion to the solera system. It works like this: Pretend you have a barrel of 1960 wine. You want some old oloroso to sell from that barrel, and by law you are allowed to remove only some of the wine, say, one–half to one–third of it each year. So you take some out to bottle to sell.

That 1960 barrel is now one–third empty. That’s okay, you have many more barrels. You refill the 1960 barrel with some wine from a 1961 barrel. Now that one is missing some wine. So you refill that with wine from a 1962 barrel. Onward you go until you reach the present year (in our example).

An intriguing part of the solera system is that mathematicians and scientists can prove that, while you’ve taken a lot of wine out of the 1960 barrel over the years, it is never completely empty of 1960 vintage wine. There’s always a little bit left, and the blend of wines in the barrel tastes if not older, at least more complex than it ought to. That’s the exciting part of the solera system: it makes the wine more exotic and intense than it has a right to be.

Palo Cortado describes a Sherry that began life as a fino but didn't retain its flor long enough to take on that character in a strong enough manner. Instead, it has been fortified to 18% alcohol and allowed to age like an amontillado. Nonetheless; it has some of the flor notes in it. If this sounds subjective, it is.

Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are now being seen in stand–alone bottlings. They are remarkably sweet, so sweet in fact that almost no fermentation has happened in the must; the yeast can't handle it. Whatever alcohol the wines carry (and they are usually bottled at typical fortified wine levels of 18% to 20%), that alcohol came not from fermentation but from the addition of grape spirit.

Great Finos have the tangy aroma of flor and a distinct almond character. The Finos aged in the bodegas of the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda typically grow a more robust flor and end up with a greater flor character and, in addition, aromas of the ocean; these are not called Finos but Manzanillas. Manzanilla wine is remarkable stuff, with a more nutty, mushroomy, flor character but also a shocking delicacy beyond fino.

Far too many books make a needless mystery of the development of the flor. There’s no mystery to it; if you want to grow the flor on a Sherry, you fortify the Sherry to about 15 percent. That level of alcohol is sufficient to encourage the growth of the flor but discourages the growth of acetobacters and other spoilage organisms. You’ll probably put the Fino into a barrel that has grown the flor in previous years, and you won’t fill up the barrel because you want to leave room for the flor to grow. The Finos will be left to age under the flor until the flor dies out, or until the market is clamoring for more Fino. You'll leave the barrel near the windows of your bodega; you'll probably open them too: the wind from the ocean feeds the flor as well. It’s for this reason that Sanlucar deserves its own DO; greater proximity to the ocean breezes differentiates Sanlucar’s sherries from those of the rest of the region.

Finos that eventually lose their flor will be topped up, fortified to a higher level of alcohol (around 18 percent), and allowed to age into something called Amontillado. Amontillados contain echoes of the character of the Fino from which they grew, but pecans, honey, caramel, toffee, nuts, dried fruits, and many other aromas and flavors begin to take over. In the case of a Manzanilla losing its flor and aging in barrel, it is usually called a Manzanilla Pasada.

Palo Cortado describes a Sherry that began life as a fino but didn't retain its flor long enough to take on that character in a strong enough manner. Instead, it has been fortified to 18% alcohol and allowed to age like an amontillado. Nonetheless; it has some of the flor notes in it. If this sounds subjective, it is.

Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are now being seen in stand–alone bottlings. They are remarkably sweet, so sweet in fact that almost no fermentation has happened in the must; the yeast can't handle it. Whatever alcohol the wines carry (and they are usually bottled at typical fortified wine levels of 18% to 20%), that alcohol came not from fermentation but from the addition of grape spirit.

For further information, visit DO Jerez-Manzanilla Website.

DO Málaga

This is another region of fortified wines, reflecting both the British affection and busy commerce for these wines (they called it simply "Mountain Wine") and the production process that allows wines in a hot climate to retain some of their fruit character, at least in a pre-refrigeration era. Málaga's 3,000 acres of vines hide in the mountains and plateaux along the coast and high above it (sometimes higher than 3,000 feet), on limestone soils with slate protrusions.

The Phoencians started it all around 1100 BC. What they planted is a mystery, but Moscatel de Alejandría has been here for as long as anyone knows. Pedro Ximénez showed up perhaps four centuries ago, and sun–drying grapes became the norm at some point as well. Like Jerez, this region is too humid for ideal sun–drying, so just like Jerez, Málaga is allowed to buy dried grapes from the far less humid DO of Montilla Moriles.

For further information, visit DO Málaga Website. (Only available in Spanish)

DO Montilla-Moriles

Although long eclipsed by its rival, Sherry, Montilla-Moriles still produces fortified wines, however, it has learned to focus upon other styles: light, dry, or solera wines. The region's wines, as in Málaga, may predate Sherry, as does their fame. But nothing tops Sir Francis Drake's theft of Sherry, and, ironically, nothing laid the groundwork for such international attention and British obsession for Sherry like that theft. Málaga and Montilla-Moriles have no such iconography in their PR kit. Both DOs could be forgiven for flying into jealous rages, particularly Montilla, which not only saw its style usurped, but had its name stolen as well. Amontillado, the term for aged Fino Sherry, literally means “in the style of Montilla.” As a result, Montilla is not allowed to call its aged fortified wines Amontillado; that name belongs to the Jerezanos. Maybe they had more money.

Though the area enjoys some of Jerez's albariza soils, Palomino isn't grown here; it's Pedro Ximénez (PX) and a few others that show up in guises from dry to sweet, sun–dried and sweet, and extravagantly aged.

For further information, visit DO Montilla-Moriles Website. (Only available in Spanish)

DO Sierras de Málaga

A new DO of around 500 acres that legislates for a fresher, more modern style of Málaga. Instead of Málaga's required minimum of 15% alcohol (and a lofty maximum of 22%) , Sierras de Málaga white wines only need a minimum of 10% alcohol (and no more than 15%); the roses have a minimum of 11% and the reds a minimum of 12% and a maximum of 15%.

For further information, visit DO Sierras de Málaga Website. (Only available in Spanish)

Win a Case

The winner will be notified on January 15, 2014