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The Wines of Jerez

The land that makes the wine

The area called Marco de Jerez is located in the northwest of the province of Cadiz, in turn located in the southwest of Spain’s autonomous region of Andalusia. Its location is privileged, as it benefits from both the Atlantic coast and the rivers Guadalquivir and Guadalete. To the north, lies the river Guadalquivir and its marismas (marshlands); in the south, the vineyards mixed with salinas, or natural salt mines, and pine forests; and inland, the rolling hills that become steeper as they approach the Sierra de Cádiz, or mountain region.

Jerez de la Frontera is the wine capital of this region and Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria are the two towns that complete the triangle where production is concentrated. Most of the area, called "Jerez Superior" for its excellence in growing vineyards, is characterized by a flat or rolling land, with soils predominantly formed by albariza, a typical light, almost white soil, with a blend of limestone, clay and sand, that provides the traditional landscape of the vineyards of Jerez. It is an easy land to cultivate, with good capacity for retaining moisture. Vineyards are also cultivated, although to a lesser extent, in other nearby lands, called barros (mud lands), darker in color, and arenas (sands) of golden color. They are lower quality soils found closer to the coast, the first very clayey and the second very sandy.

History is the wine; the wine is History

Few wines have cultural and historical roots as deep and wide as the wines of Jerez, known as Sherry wines. For over 3,000 years, there has been an ongoing exchange between the development and history of the region, on one hand, giving identity to these wines, and the wine itself, on the other. The universe of Sherry includes its origin, processing method, marketing, and cultural aspects in consumption. It can be considered a determining factor of development in the region, its history and culture.

Already in the 1st century BC, a Greek geographer named Strabo wrote that the vines of Jerez arrived in the region with the Phoenicians, around 1,100 BC. There are archaeological remains of Phoenician origin that discover ancient lagares (presses) for wine making, confirming that it was this civilization that taught us the art of cultivating the vine and making wine, imported from present day Lebanon. This land produced a wine that was soon successfully marketed throughout the Mediterranean, thus acquiring the epithet of "traveling wine."

Even in times of Arab rule, where religious doctrine forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages, Jerez was still a leading production center. As an "excuse" to save the industry, the production of raisins served as food, and alcohol was used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. Moreover, it seems clear that in stages of lesser religious fundamentalism, the wine was well appreciated as such, and in fact consumed in the most distinguished circles of high society of the time.

Later, with the discovery of America began a new era of business expansion in the Sherry industry. With the nearby port of Seville as the control point for managing all trade to and from the New World, Sherry was very favored indeed; so much so that the wines from Jerez became an essential part of supplies on the vessels bound for America.

This commercial success eventually attracted many investors and traders from various countries, including Italy and, especially, England. The case of England is curious, as pirate attacks on ships actually contributed greatly to Sherry being sold in London. It is said that the most important loot, one from the fleet of Sir Francis Drake, brought Sherry to the English Court and made it fashionable there. The popularity was such that it is even reflected in the works of the famous English playwright, William Shakespeare.

The most significant development of the industry took place in the final third of the 18th century and the first of the 19th century, and consisted in the transformation of traditional winemaking in the area into the wine agribusiness we know today. This is due, largely, to the fact that the growing demand of Jerez favored the coming into play - to ensure provision by establishing their own businesses - of distinguished English names like Gordon or Garvey, in a first stage, or later, Wisdom, Warter, Williams, Humbert and Sandeman.

However, trade at the time was dominated by the so-called Gremio de la Vinatería (Winery Guild), which, in attempting to maintain the privileges of local growers, represented a trade-restrictive element. They restricted the possibilities of aging wines, sending young wines onto the market that were not very in line with the actual demand. Over time, the abolition of trade associations was achieved, and the production and trade of Sherry wines was gradually freed.

This proved to be an essential step for the final shaping of the identity of the wines of Jerez. The tendency to store and keep a variety of vintages and the need to supply the market with a stable quality, resulted in an aging system known as the criaderas and solera method. This is also the time when many of the large aging cellars were built, with an architecture style reflecting the attempt to reconcile an ideal preparation for the aging of the wines with the neoclassical tastes of the moment.

Wines with Designation of Origin

Moreover, with the prolonged permanence of wine in the aging casks, fortification became common practice. The fortification of wines, or encabezamiento, as it is termed locally, is the adding of wine spirits to increase alcohol content. Originally it was done with the sole purpose of stabilizing the wines meant to travel, though, no doubt, this practice played a decisive role in the emergence of the so-called velo de flor of the wines in this area. This is a fascinating oenological phenomenon of biological aging. Its appearance in the wineries of Jerez, more than two centuries ago, marked the birth of a range of emblematic wines - the manzanillas, amontillados, and finos. In wines subjected to aging, a thin layer of yeast and moulds (autochthonous of the area) is formed on the surface of the wine inside the cask, protecting and transforming it during its period of aging. These organisms play a crucial role in defining the character of the wines of Jerez, conferring their positive traits and sensory fullness. The addition of spirits in different proportions gave rise, also, to the broad typology of Sherry wines we know today.

The subsequent years were times of expansion and prosperity, although that was when the industry began to suffer the impact of what might be called the usurpation of the identity of Sherry, or, in other words, imitations of these wines, coming from other wine-making countries. However, History and a tradition so deeply rooted, coupled with the efforts of the winemakers in Jerez, finally proved Jerez right. The wines were provided with official protection under a Designation of Origin and in January, 1935, the first Regulations of the Sherry Designation of Origin were finally published, and its Regulatory Board was the first to be legally constituted in our country.

At present, the "Jerez-Xérès-Sherry" and "Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda" PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) encompasses the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Trebujena, Chipiona, Rota, Puerto Real, Chiclana de la Frontera and Lebrija (the latter in the province of Seville).

The average production in the last three years amounts to about 600,000 hectoliters of wine, of which approximately 74% is exported, with the main destinations, within the European Union, being the United Kingdom, Holland and Germany.

Elaboration: Criaderas and Solera System

The young wine of each year is fortified, or encabezado (literally, topped) with wine spirits in order to increase its natural alcohol graduation from 12 to 15% by volume, in the case of wines that will be aged with velo de flor yeasts, or to 18% by volume for those that will undergo oxidative or physical-chemical aging. The fortified wine is introduced in oak casks (called botas), 500 l capacity, always made of old wood where the tannins are exhausted, so that their astringency does not affect the Sherry wines, white wines.

There are therefore two types of aging in Sherry wines. The biological aging under the velo de flor, which was referred to earlier, and the envejecimiento, or oxidative aging. This second type causes the appearance of radically different characteristics in the wine, having a higher alcohol content and being in direct contact with oxygen in the air, causing a gradual darkening of the wine, as well as developing a more complex taste.

According to the Regulations of the Designation of Origin, the aging of the wines should continue for a minimum period of three years, so that the wines may achieve the characteristic features of each type. Traditionally, the aging of the wines of Jerez is carried out with a dynamic system, called criaderas and solera.

This system works with several rows of overlapping casks (the criaderas), resting on a row that, in turn, rests on the floor (the solera). Each year, a small portion of wine is drawn from the solera casks, to bottle and send the market; but the wine is never fully removed. Instead, the gap left by the amount removed is filled with an equivalent amount of wine from another cask in the row immediately above, which in turn is filled with wine from another cask in the row immediately above, and so on, up to the first criadera. Finally, each year, the top row is filled with new wine.

This way, what is done is a shifting of wines, very different from the traditional static aging of most well-known wines. This system also ensures a perfect homogenization of the wine, composing a mixture of successive vintages, maintaining consistent quality, year after year. So when we speak of a “solera from the year X”, it does not mean that all wine contained in the solera cask is from that particular year in question, but rather, that the cask contains a mixture of all vintages from that year until the last.
The wine of diversity

As mentioned above, the decision of the winemaker to encabezar, or fortify the wines, either up to 15% or above 17%, will be what determines the type of aging and, consequently, the wine that will be obtained.

Another key differentiating factor for the type of wine to be produced is the kind of fermentation, or process by which the grapes are transformed into young wines. This factor is closely related to the grape variety used. The Palomino variety is undoubtedly the most widespread in the Jerez region, but there are also the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel varieties. Dry wines - called Vinos Generosos - come from the total fermentation of the must obtained from fresh grapes, usually of the Palomino type. The so-called Dulces Naturales (Natural Sweet Wines) come from grapes of the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel varieties, with high sugar content and a higher natural alcohol content, subjected to the process of soleo, or sun drying. The mixture of these two types of fermentations produces wines with different levels of sweetness - called Vinos Generosos de Licor (Generoso Liqueur Wines).

Classification of the Wines

1. Generosos (Dry WInes)

They are dry wines, with a process that includes a complete fermentation of the musts – usually from the Palomino grape - at the end of which, the velo de flor (layer of yeasts, described earlier) appears over the base wine. There are different types:

1.1. Fino: Palomino grape wine, biological aging under velo de flor. Brilliant straw yellow to pale golden color. Sharp and delicate aromas, with almond notes and a touch of fresh bread dough and fresh herbs. Dry on the palate, delicate and light. The almond returns in the aftertaste, with a pleasant final sensation of freshness.

1.2. Amontillado: Unique wine, from the fusion of two types of aging, biological and oxidative, making Amontillados extraordinarily complex and interesting wines. Topaz to amber color, subtle and delicate aroma with a base of nuts (hazelnuts), and vegetables, with notes of herbs and black tobacco; gentle on the palate and balanced acidity, with complex development , and dry, prolonged finish and aftertaste, once again with notes of nuts and wood.

1.3. Oloroso: Wines from complete fermentation of Palomino grapes, subjected to oxidative aging, and fortified to exceed 17%. Amber to mahogany in color, darker the longer the aging. Warm and round flavors of nuts (walnuts), toasted notes, vegetable and balsamic, reminiscent of fine wood, blonde tobacco and dry leaves; also spicy notes of truffle and leather. Tasty and well structured in the mouth, powerful, round and full-bodied.

1.4. Palo Cortado: Very complex wine that combines the aromatic delicacy of Amontillado and the corpulence on the palate of Oloroso. Mahogany to brown color. Aroma of many nuances, with hints of Amontillado and Oloroso mixed with citrus notes (bitter orange) and lactic notes (fermented butter). Round palate, deep and voluminous, with gently expressed mild aftertaste, and a lasting pleasurable finish.

2. Generosos de licor (Generoso Liqueur Wines)

Obtained by the traditional practice of cabeceos, or combinations of Generosos with Natural Sweet Wines, or in certain cases, with must concentrate. They have varying degrees of sweetness, depending on the Generoso wine used as a base, and on the final levels of sweetness of the blending.

2.1. Pale Cream: Generoso Liqueur Wine made from biologically aged wine - Fino or Manzanilla - to which rectified concentrated must has been added in order to give a touch of sweetness. Straw yellow to pale golden color. Stinging sensation to the nose, with hints of hazel and bakery notes. Light and fresh on the palate, but with a delicate sweetness that makes it very friendly to the palate.

2.2. Medium: Generoso Liqueur Wine made from a mixture or cabeceo of a Generoso wine with a Natural Sweet Wine, or with rectified concentrated must. Amber to dark brown color. Liqueur aromas with Amontillado-like notes and mildly sugary notes of cakes, quince paste and baked apple. Slightly dry entry in the mouth, evolving to a vaporous and mild aftertaste.

2.3. Cream: Generoso Liqueur Wine elaborated by mixing or cabeceo of oxidative aging Generoso wines - primarily Olorosos - with a significant amount of Natural Sweet Wine or rectified concentrated must. Dark brown to mahogany color, with an oily appearance. Marked Oloroso nose, combining sweet notes (nuts) and toasted notes (nougat and caramel). Sweet in the mouth, velvety texture, with balanced sweetness, elegant passage and long aftertaste linking the sensation of sweetness with the typical notes of Oloroso.

3. Dulces naturales (Natural Sweet Wines)

Obtained from grape must made from very ripe and sun-dried grapes, usually of the Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel varieties. The musts, with a wealth of sugars from the drying process, are fermented only partially, in order to preserve most of the original sweetness. For this purpose, wine alcohol is added after the start of fermentation. The wines then age in direct contact with oxygen in the air, which causes them to acquire an intense mahogany color and a dense aspect. Depending on the grape varieties used, there are two types:

3.1. Pedro Ximénez: Wine obtained from grapes of the same name, subjected to the traditional process of soleo (sun drying), until an intense dehydrated fruit is achieved. The aging is exclusively oxidative. More or less intense ebony color with shiny iodized tints, with pronounced tear, and syrupy aspect. Extremely rich aromas, with a predominance of sweet notes of dried fruit (raisins, figs and dates), accompanied by aromas of honey, arrope (must syrup) jam and candied fruit. The aging time accentuates the licorice and toasted tones (coffee, chocolate and cocoa). Velvety and unctuous palate with an acid touch that mitigates the extreme sweetness and the warmth of the alcohol; very long and tasty finish.

3.2. Moscatel: Made from the Moscatel grape, subjected to the traditional soleo process, its aging process is exclusively oxidative. Chestnut to intense mahogany in color, with dense appearance and pronounced tear. The nose shows characteristic notes of Moscatel grapes and aromas of jasmine, orange blossom and honeysuckle flower, as well as citrus notes (lime, grapefruit), together with sweet notes. The palate has a sober sweetness, emphasizing varietal and floral flavors, with a slightly dry and bitter finish.

4. Manzanilla

The Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda PDO is geographically located within the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry PDO and both share the production area as well as the tutelage of the same Regulatory Board. Both the grapes and the procedures used in elaboration are the same as those of Jerez as well.

What confers identity to these wines is the aging process under the velo de flor in the special microclimate of the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, divided between its Barrio Bajo (Low District), at sea level, and the Barrio Alto (High District), above sea-level. This microclimate is determined, in turn, by three elements: the Guadalquivir River, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Marismas (marshlands). This set of elements is conducive to milder temperatures and a relative humidity that is higher than that of the rest of the production area of the Marco de Jerez. Thus, the velo de flor from Sanlúcar is special and different from the one created in other locations, so that it also determines the specific organoleptic characteristics of biological aging wines made in the local wine cellars.

5. Vinos especiales (Special Wines)

Apart from the previously defined key factors in the differentiation of the various types of Sherry - aging (biological or oxidative) and vinification (total or partial) - time itself also plays a crucial role in determining the quality of the wines.

Prolonged aging intensifies the typical characteristics of some wines, or confers new nuances and sensations, rounding them out. Biological aging, by its very nature, may not be extended excessively. Depending on the microclimatic conditions of the winery, the velo de flor lasts a maximum of seven or eight years on average, so when we talk about Special Wines we will always be referring to wines that have been subjected to oxidative or physical- chemical aging , totally or at least partially.

The Regulatory Board certifies three special categories based on the peculiarities of the aging of the wines:

5.1. Wines of Certified Age, 20 to 30 years old.

5.2. Wines with Indication of Age, 12 to 15 years old.

5.3. Vintage Wines.

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