Authenticity and the wines of the Sherry region

I get asked quite often what my favourite sherries are and find it very hard to narrow it down to less than twenty or so. But in a few words, the wines that interest me most are the wines that are authentic both in the sense of expressing their time, their place, or their upbringing, and, most importantly, in the sense of being what they say they are.

Because, unfortunately, the more you learn about the wines of el marco the harder it can be to keep believing everything you are told.

First, and whether it is biological or oxidative ageing, there is a tendency to exaggerate the amount of the ageing. The Consejo Regulador do a great job with the VOS and VORS classification, but 30 years now seems to have become the minimum age for an old sherry. In fact if your wine isn’t 50 years old (not certified by anyone) you aren’t anyone, and it seems like every year the wines get older. I was told recently that a wine was an average age of 83 years (which seemed suspiciously specific) and there is more than one wine out there the given age of which is a straight-up fairy tale.

A lot of this ties in with the blarney and the poetry that abounds in the region (it can often seem people are more interested in drinking “history” than drinking wine) but it is a bit unedifying when you keep getting told ever higher ages for the same wines. And neither is it a problem that is unique to the old olorosos and amontillados (let’s not get into the “mystery” of the palo cortados). The number of amazingly youthful-tasting 10+ year old finos and manzanilla pasadas is remarkable, and some of them are getting older as we speak. In one particularly egregious example I was given a new bottling taken from a classic solera I know well, and even asked for a glass of the original alongside to appreciate if there were any differences (not that I could tell). Up to there I was quite happy, but then I was told that the first criadera had four more years under flor than the original wine from the solera, which made my head hurt a little bit.

On the other hand, and more recently, as interest in pagos and vineyards begins to take hold there is more and more talk of long-established wines being from X pago or Y pago, in prime terroir and harvested by hand, when only a couple of years ago the same bodegas had told me that the wine had come from a variety of sources or even the cooperative (a cooperative, moreover, that does not source its wine from the afore-mentioned prime terroir). Now in fairness I have also learned that there are bodegas out there – more than you would think – that do source from a single vineyard and have every right to put the name of the pago on the label. I certainly wouldn’t discourage them from doing so or suggest that all new labellings of this kind are misleading, but I worry sometimes that we may end up with more asparagus than Tudela.

And these are only two of the more harmless worries. Under the foggy miasma of blarney and poetry there are whispers of darker deeds: wines being secretly touched up with something sweet to make them a little more amenable on the palate (pedro ximenez or moscatel if you are lucky), or having something very old/concentrated added to make them seem older, or something very dark to make them look as if they have been longer in the barrel. You even hear of wines from bodegas in less fashionable areas of el marco being sold as remnants of cellars with much swankier addresses. The worst of it is that you hear the whispers so often: one very respected maker told me that he believed his to be the only bodega in the region that did not spice up the wines (I don’t believe him, but he seemed to believe it).

And when you think about the recent history of the region it is really not surprising. The fortification, the solera, selection, roceo and cabeceo, all seem designed to correct nature’s variations, while all too scant attention has been paid to the raw materials. It is a philosophy geared more towards manufacturing wines than growing them. One of the more telling comments I have heard recently was the reaction of a very high profile wine maker to the suggestion that single vintage, single vineyard wines were the way forward: “the problem is that you have to be careful right from the being to the end”. The implication, of course, is that you don’t with the solera wines because the solera is much more forgiving (and of course it is).

This isn’t to say that the cellar produced wines cannot be great. Some of my very favourite producers do not own vineyards, buying wine in and doing absolute wonders in the cellar. Neither do I believe for a moment that all these wines are adulterated. But even if they aren’t juiced up, the cellar produced wines can almost be programmed to have certain characteristics: acetaldehide in the biological wines, volatile and other acidity in the oxidated wines, old barrel effects across the board. As one brilliant maker puts it, flor is the oak of the sherry region, and when overdone it becomes the oak chips.

Biological and oxidative ageing can produce wines of stunning beauty and complexity but with the great power that these processes give the winemakers comes great responsibility. And while every wine making region in the world has its issues, and the sherry region is probably no worse than anywhere else, in a region where wines are continually being mixed and processed, it is crucial to be disciplined and transparent in those mixes and processes.

So these days I am less interested in the hay bales or the zing “effects” that once moved me, and although it is great to see new faces, I am increasingly suspicious of the new kid on the block labels with implausibly perfect back stories. (I would really rather that the barrel selectors and new labels, in particular, were up-front about where they sourced their wines from.) I am also put off by the long lost botas of eye wateringly strong liquids that are frequently found and marketed. They can be remarkable wines, but at the moment the marketing seems more imaginative than transparent.

Rather, I am increasingly drawn to wines that express their time and place, whether that be vintage and terroir specific, or the really classic soleras, and rather than effects what I am looking for is the balance and the profile of the wines – more than anything the mark of a quality wine maker. At the very least I like to know what I am drinking and where it came from. And then I really do enjoy drinking it.

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