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The kiss of the dove

Palomino is a rather humble grape by appearance and taste, native of Andalucia in the southwestern Spain. But, by all means, there couldn’t be a higher gap between the average-looking white grape, and the wine it produces. Why? beacuse it is the grape variety used to make Sherry, and occupies almost 95 percent of the total vineyard area in Jerez. The variety has also made its way to the Canary Islands (where it is known as Listan Blanco), to South Africa (Fransdruif), and even to California (Missiones).

There are two distinct sub-varieties of Palomino: Palomino Fino and Palomino Basto (also known as Palomino de Jerez). The former is the more highly regarded of the two. Although most of Sherries (or Jerez, or Xeres) wines are made from Palomino, it shares this very exclusive club with another two compadres -Pedro Ximenez and Moscatelo.

The grape Palomino is said to be named after Fernan Ibanez Palomino – a military officer who led the Castillian troops in battle during the Reconquista wars fought to take Andalucia back from the Moorish invaders. Not a very romantic and inspiring provenance, but this grape is indeed a fighter, being much more than its appearance. Struggling with the chalky and limey soils of the rugged coast around the estuary of Guadalquivir river, just downstream from Sevilla and all the way to Cadiz, with the harsh sun of the Spanish summers, and the relentless winds from the Atlantic, this grape, in the hands of the right people, produces wines that can age for a lifetime, and possibly even more.

The harvest of the Palomino grape normally takes place around the end of August or early September. After harvesting the grapes are taken to the bodega for the extraction of must; then this is conditioned and filtered to improve the aroma and to avoid cloudiness. After this process the fermentation begins, resulting in a white wine with 11 – 12.5% alcohol. This wine is very dry and delicate, slightly fruity and with little acidity and provides the base for the final wine. From this moment the wine will follow different paths according to the final result: Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado or Palo Cortado.

For this particular wine -the Oloroso 15 years–  the basic Palomino grape must is fortified up to 18% of alcohol. From this moment it will start ageing in 500 litre American oak butts through a process of oxidation. Throughout the ageing, the wine will constantly be exposed to the air and the slow action of the oxygen in the system of criaderas (level of barrels in a solera) and soleras (system of blending wines from rows of barrels, each topped up yearly with young wine). The slow evaporation of water from the wine during the 15 years of ageing will aid a process of concentration. This will encourage the wine to acquire the typical structure and complexity of the Oloroso.

sherry label

sherry label

In 1832 the master carpenter José Antonio Sierra founded the winery El Maestro Sierra. As one of the top coopers in the area, he was the person who made the barrels for all of the big Sherry houses. After years of making barrels for everyone else he desired to produce Sherries that were better than what the big Sherry houses he was working for, so he went about opening up his own little winery.

This little up-start Sherry producer was not welcomed in world of nobility-owned Sherry houses and so the local gentry did everything they could to stop him. Fortunately the quality of his sherry prevailed over their efforts and José Antonio Sierra became one of the top almacenistas (cellar holders) of high quality Sherry.

Oloroso 15 years

Oloroso 15 years

As a not-so-subtle irony at his quarrels with the envious rivals,the label of the bottle depicts an allegorical fox hunt, with the nobles hunting El Maestro Sierra’s fox. The wine is 100% Palomino, harvested from the chalky soils on the heights overlooking the Atlantic, and aged for 15 years in the solera, in American oak barrels.

It is a terrible understatement to say that this wine displays incredible complexity, finesse, subtle nuances and elegance. Medium tan orange color, with hints of dark amber; deep and intense nose that starts with roasted almonds and walnuts, roasted coffee, then picks up some cappuccino and nougat. The level of oxidation is balanced by incredible acidity and roundness, and liquor traces, although the wine is completely dry. The texture is medium to full bodied, reminding of heavy silk drapes, lush and rich, with surprising freshness towards the end, bringing up orange peel flavors and candied pomegranates, reminding of Cointreau.

Sherry 15 years old

Sherry 15 years old

And this is one of the entry-level sherries from El Maestro Sierra, since they treasure in their criaderas wines close to 100 years old (even that legislation allows labeling wines up to 30 years old -a mere glimpse in the ageing process of a truly great Sherry).

What most strikes me about this wine, and about sherries generally, is that they display the human touch, over several generations, perhaps more than any style of wine.  In Bourgogne, the winemaker is the slave of the terroir, at the mere hand of the nature and the climat, a Premier Cru will never be a Grand Cru, no matter the efforts of the winemaker. In Bordeaux, blending is everything, to cover up an average year, or to highlight a particularly good year. In Rioja, oak is the name of the game, the more and longer you have it, the better.

With Sherry is a different story: it is not the particularities of one year, it is not even the terroir, it is not the winemaker, or the ageing, or the oak, that influences most the wine. It is the persistence, the dedication and hard work of several generations of cellar owners, that will be visible after at least a lifetime since the founder has passed away. A Sherry maker will work and struggle so that his nephews will bottle, sell and enjoy a great wine.

The cellar master must plan not only for the accurate filling of the barrels in the  criaderas, but also must ensure the passing of knowledge at least two generations ahead. Making Sherry is, at the foremost, a matter of education, of family, of tradition, honor and respect. Respect for the nature, for the grape, and for the generations ahead.


2 comentarii la “The kiss of the dove

  1. slowaholic
    16 mai 2014

    Excellent post, in excellent English! Beautiful story. 🙂

    • Mihai Oprea
      17 mai 2014

      Always happy to receive this kind of comments 🙂

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