What is a chilly winter day without a mature Oloroso to accompany the venison or an aromatic Amontillado to augment the wild mushroom soup? Spanish sherries are so much more than ‘granny sherry’, something the Spanish always have known. And now, the rest of the wine-loving world is starting to appreciate these genuine and authentic sherry varieties that even William Shakespeare praised in his literary works.
To learn more about the relatively unknown sherries with mellifluous names Amontillado and Oloroso, I went to Jerez to speak to Jan Pettersen whose bodega makes the world’s best Oloroso. Yes, you got that right, the best in the world! This 80-year-old champion has been sold out for some time, but I get to taste and hear all about these sophisticated, aromatic, and bone-dry sherries from the Jerez Golden Sherry Triangle.
Bodega Fernando de Castilla which is located in Jerez de la Frontera’s historic centre, is neither open for bus tours nor guided groups, but it is always buzzing with activity. The day before I arrived, they had a group of 70 Norwegian sherry-enthusiasts for dinner, and a couple of days after, the bodega was host for the final of the annual competition Copa Jerez with international teams of chefs and sommeliers, where the bodega’s Oloroso was part of the winning menu of the Danish team.
Jan himself could not be present, as he had a meeting in Argentina, one of the approximately 50 countries that imports the bodegas products.
When one talks about sherry, it is a world that is split in two, tells the Norwegian sherry specialist who has worked with the products for over 40 years. The first part is the semi-sweet, blended, cheaper sherries which are still quite popular in Northern Europe, especially with the older population who like to drink it as an aperitif. “Many do not even know that it is a Spanish product which comes from grapes. The production of sherries like Medium or Pale Cream is made by blending simple dry sherries with concentrated grape juice to make them semi-sweet or sweet. We have never made these types of sherries and we never will, but Pale Cream is still the top-selling sherry in the UK.»
The other part of the sherry world is what Jan calls genuine sherry, which counts for almost 100 % of what is consumed in Spain. “Sophisticated clients from other countries have now also discovered genuine sherries, which are very popular amongst sommeliers and Michelin restaurants. I have noticed a strong movement in the region which wishes to demonstrate that a well-made sherry is a fantastic food wine.»
In contrast to semisweet sherries, the consumers of genuine dry sherries are usually between 30 and 50 years of age and have knowledge of and interest in the combination of wine and food.
«We make exclusively authentic sherries, and while the sale of the cheaper sherries is steadily declining and is what we call a ‘dying market’, the consumption and demand for authentic Fino, Manzanilla, Palo Cortado, Amontillado and Oloroso are going up.” As an example, the Norwegian wine monopoly now imports nearly the entire spectre of Fernando de Castilla’s sherries, although the bodega’s famous Brandy is the top seller with 90 % of the market for Spanish brandy in Norway.
Amontillado and Oloroso are far from new wines, as sherry has been on the market for more than 500 years. «Since Fino is more delicate and has a lower alcohol content, it wasn’t suited for sea transport in barrels, which is how wine was transported far into the 20. Century. Therefore, we can conclude that what was consumed outside of the production area were Amontillado and Oloroso-type sherries. They can therefore be considered as the historic sherry-types.»
Sherry was considered the finest wine in the world already in the time of William Shakespeare, and the writer refers to Sherry in no less than 27 places in his works.
The fictive Bon Vivant Falstaff who appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays, told his friends in Henry IV (part 2):
If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack!
(Sack was synonymous with sherry in those days)
It all starts with Fino
All dry sherries come from a base wine with Palomino Fino, the local grape variety in the sherry district. For Fino which is the driest of the sherries, the grapes are pressed with the lightest of pressure to end up with the lightest grape must. Fino is fortified from 12 to 15 % alcohol with a small amount of grape spirit and consequently stored in 500-litre oak barrels. The wine is still ‘alive’ as the alcohol is not enough to kill the yeast and the bacteria in the must. These create a layer of flor on top of the liquid that gives a lot of taste and aroma to a good quality Fino (By definition, a Manzanilla is simply a Fino that has been stored a minimum of a year in the bodegas by the sea in Sanlúcar de Barrameda).
Amontillado – long name and long traditions
An Amontillado starts as a Fino and is usually matured for five to six years under flor to achieve the delicate Fino character. The yeast is then filtered out before the wine is fortified with grape spirits from 15 to 18 % alcohol to go through an oxidative maturing transforming the wine from a soft yellow to an amber colour. «Amontillado is the ultimate sherry for many connoisseurs because it has a starting point as a Fino, while the oxidation creates a complex but also very dry sherry. A genuine Amontillado is a bit fastidious. It is bone dry but simultaneously packed with aroma and taste. Therefore, one cannot just drink it ‘as is’. You really need something to nibble on with an Amontillado.»
Amontillado means Montilla-style and refers to the wine region Montilla-Moriles near Córdoba. «The district has a long tradition of making a wine that is a bit like sherry, but the Amontillado name goes back hundreds of years in Jerez, and I do not know if they made this type of wine in Montilla 300 years ago. We make two Amontillados in our bodega: a ten-year-old with five years under flor and five years with oxidative storage and a 20-year-old Antique Amontillado.»
When one makes Oloroso, which simply means fragrant, the grapes are pressed with a bit more force to get a small amount of juice from the grape skins, making the wine base a bit stronger. This base wine is fortified with grape spirits from 12 to 18 % alcohol. The alcohol kills all microbiological activity, so it is almost like a spirit. Oloroso is also aged on oak casks which are filled up 70 %. The air chamber on top lets the wine oxidize and makes it darker over time. While Finos usually are bottled after three to five years, Oloroso is aged for a minimum of six years. Bodega Fernando de Castilla makes three Olorosos: an eight years old, a 20-year-old and an exceptional vintage that is over 80 years old. In July of 2023, the last sherry won the prize as the number one fortified wine in the world during the International Wine Challenge in London, an event that is considered the world’s most important wine competition.
Olorosos are milder and rounder sherries because they keep the original residual sugar. When wine is kept under flor, the yeast will consume the sugar and dry out the wines, so Fino and Amontillado have less than one gram of residual sugar per litre, while an old Oloroso can have up to eight grams. «Some feel that Oloroso lacks the complexity of an Amontillado, but it has a round and sweet character which makes it fabulous with food».
There is still another lesser known, dry ‘in-between’ sherry called Palo Cortado, which is often said to only happen “by accident”. As Amontillado, this sherry comes from a Fino base after the first light pressing. However, it is only stored under flor for about a year before it is fortified to 18 %, so the wine develops more while it oxidizes. «Palo Cortado is a bit milder than a regular Amontillado, but at the same time complex. It is used like Amontillado or Oloroso, as it has a bit of both in it.»
Common for the three sherries is that they are stored on oak casks over a longer period. Due to the evaporation from the wine’s surface and loss of moisture through the wood of the oak barrels, the alcohol content will increase. Even if the sherries aren’t fortified to more than 17,5 or 18 %, a very old dry sherry can therefore contain up to 22 % alcohol.
Always with something to nibble
While people in Northern Europe often drink wine on its own, the bodega owner insists that a good wine, and especially a good sherry, always should be enjoyed with something to eat. “A Fino will taste so much better if you have a bit of Iberian ham, some olives, or a few roasted almonds. I believe this is the same for all wines. You need something to nibble on with a good sherry.»
Our experienced host and bodegeuro suggests Amontillado for soups, white meat, and vegetable dishes. «It can be enjoyed with artichokes and asperges, vegetables that otherwise are difficult to combine with a normal wine. And Amontillado is fantastic with anything that has mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms.»
When it comes to Oloroso, it can be an excellent alternative to red wine. «An aged Oloroso is magnificent to Iberian pork, sauces, red meats, game, pâtes, and mature cheeses. While Fino and Amontillado are consumed cold, Oloroso ought to be more tempered to 14-16 degrees, just like a red wine.»