Do sherries get better in the bottle?

Been an interesting debate here the last few days about the merits or not of bottle ageing for the wines of el marco, brought about by this interesting piece by Jorge Capel in El Pais.

Where do I come out? Well I have been tracking my own experiences with bottle aged wines and while the results have been mixed, and some wines have surprised me very pleasantly, I have never met an old bottle I wouldn’t have like to meet a few years ago. (And I feel a heel for saying this, because I appreciate that the many times I have tried these wines have been due to the enormous kindness of friends.)

Of course when people get into the bottle aged sherries it isn’t always a case of drinking a wine from today that has spent thirty years in the bottle. There are brands that have disappeared in the last few decades, and famous wines from today that forty years ago were still made in batches of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. (The two phenomena are of course related but not uniformly.) More importantly, there are wines made from the original, lower production, clones in the olden days (but for that your bottle probably has to be from the 60s or before).

On the other hand, just as some of the wines from olden days were better, some were not better. If you think about it, just as the glory days of production in the region were in the 1950s, the glory days of sales were in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you get yourself a wine that is thirty of forty years in the bottle then supply economics indicate that it is likely to have spent less time in the butt one way or another.

But it isn’t a simple better/worse equation. I have found that whatever the overall quality of the wine how it evolves in the bottle will depend on its characteristics, as a general rule: the finer and more aromatic the wine (or the more given to acetaldehides) the more it is prone, in my experience, to degenerate; and the fatter, or more concentrated, or more acidic, or extreme in general the original wine, the more likely it is to improve. (It made me laugh when someone told me their opinion of a 100 year old amontillado (approx) – “could do with 20 years in the bottle”). The wines that tend to stay truest to themselves, again in my experience, are the Sanlúcar wines, while the wines that can benefit most are the Jerez wines, which is probably due to a combination of the above. More generally there are also things that can be learned from drinking the older wines, whether from Jerez or anywhere else. The best ones get finer, and for all that the signal gets weaker and more tenuous, they show their profiles very clearly. And the bad ones, believe me, just become badder.

But I guess the most important thing of all is that these old bottles bring joy to people. Sure, I like the new ones, but a while ago I witnessed the opening of a bottle of a classic fino from the 1970s and the excitement was fantastic, contagious, and worthy of seeking out for its own sake. Was really fun to share in that moment.

So if you come across any old bottles, the email is at the bottom on the left – I owe a few of the lads a few already!

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