LONDON: The best-known wines from Spain and Portugal, the nations of the Iberian Peninsula, are sherry from Spain, and port from Portugal. These featured at this year’s Big Fortified Tasting in London, the largest wine fair in the world dedicated to fortified wines.
Sherry got its name because it originated around the town of Jerez, also known as Xerez, on Spain’s southern coast. Indeed, the area around Jerez is the most southerly wine region in continental Europe.
It receives an average of 300 days of sunshine a year. Mild winters with an average minimum of 4 degrees Celsius and hot summers (average maximum 40 degrees Celsius) plus good rainfall make Jerez an excellent region in which to grow grapes.
The soil, known as albariza from the Spanish word “alba” for white, has very high levels of chalk and limestone. This was caused by the sedimentation of tiny marine animals when the area was under the sea millennia ago.
Cesar Salda?a, secretary-general of the group that represents sherry makers (CRDO Jerez), presented a master-class on the maturation effects of flor, the yeast used to make sherry. “Flor is the key to sherry wines,” Saldana said.
Only palamino, pedro ximenez and moscatel grapes can be used to make sherry, yet the range and variety of wines produced is wide and impressive. Sweet sherries are usually made from pedro ximenez and moscatel grapes and these grapes are sometimes dried in the sun to concentrate flavors.
“If anything characterizes sherry it is the diversity,” Saldana said.
Wines are fermented by the end of November each year. Saldana said the magic starts once fermentation has stopped. The flor yeast protects the wine from oxidation and needs precise conditions such as a stable temperature and at least 65 per cent humidity.
Sherries are classified into three types: Vinos generosos, which are dry, vinos dolces naturales (sweet) and vinos generosos de liqueur. The last are blended from the other two and include cream sherry.
The first classification comes in January. Sherries are classified as fino (pale and light) or oloroso (heavier and darker). Fino are delicate and taste nutty and dry. Oloroso are darker with woody notes and promise sweetness but taste dry and smooth.
At various stages in the fermentation process sherries are fortified with pure grape spirit. Different levels of alcohol determine the future ageing inside barrels.
The barrels, known as a bota, allow air into the wine and also let water evaporate. Wines lose 3-4 per cent of total volume each year. “Over 20 years this means the wine loses almost half – 45 percent – of its volume.” It also concentrates flavors intensely. A feature of the sherries presented at the Big Fortified Tasting was their deep flavors.
Some pedro ximenez sherries are almost black in colour and smell like rich and elegant fruitcake laced with chocolate. They are superb at the end of a meal.
Port is another wine that complements the end of a meal.
Winemaker Dirk Niepoort from the Douro region in the north of Portugal gave a masterclass on late-bottled vintage (LBV) port at the same event, describing LBV as one of the wines he “most cared about.”
Niepoort presented eight LBVs – from 1975, 1981, 1982, 1990, 1992, 1996, 2003 and 2009. “LBV is special,” he said. “It is something nice to drink when young but can be kept for many years.” The aim of the workshop was to see what happened as the wines developed.
Dirk Niepoort said 1975 was “maybe the best vintage of 1970s.” “It’s a piece of art,” he said proudly, “not for winning medals but for its durability.” Bottled by Niepoort’s father, this port had surprising brightness and depth. He believes the 1981 vintage was the “best ever [to date]” and noted that people “have to go into the glass to find it.”
Niepoort is a fifth-generation winemaker who thinks about the future. “We live in a fast world, with everyone wanting results in six months. I think in terms of 20 years. Patience is my strength. With port we need to wait for the right moment. I’m not a revolutionary. My approach has always been to respect tradition and try to understand what my grandfather did to make such wonderful wines.”
Niepoort’s approach to winemaking shows in his precise use of language. “To be a great [port] blender one must be a ‘terroir-ist’ to choose the best locations for the best grapes for the blending process. With LBV, blending is the key.”
When asked about alcohol levels, Niepoort said he aimed to make “monsters that do not seem like monsters” because “harmony and balance are vital.”
In Asia’s hot climates port and sherry should be served chilled. They might be less popular than table wines but they will reward your efforts to try them.