Monday, 5 October 2015

Types of Sherry: En Rama Wines

En Rama wines are an absolute joy. The term means that a wine has been subjected to less “stabilisation” than usual, and thus is a closer representation of the wine as it was in barrel in the bodega: in its most natural state. It translates as "on the branch" i.e. still raw, and tends to be applied to Finos and Manzanillas – though not exclusively - which require the removal of flor yeast and any tartrate crystals before bottling as they can appear undesirable in the glass, and there is a (slight) risk of flor growing again in bottle, as well as potential bottle variability.

Barbadillo were probably the first to launch en rama wines back in 1999, and after trying to bottle direct from the butt they encountered flor problems, so now they fine with egg white and use a gentle filtration so as remove the absolute minimum. This is the general practice now, and most producers recommend the wine be drunk within a few months to be sure it is at its best. This certainly ensures it is as close as possible to how it left the butt, but ignores the fact that Sherry, like all wines, can develop spectacularly in bottle, particularly Fino and Manzanilla. It is always best to buy two or more en rama wines so you can drink one and compare the others with another saca: If one has developed a bit in bottle, so much the better. Many Sherry aficionados keep them for quite a long time.

Many finos and Manzanillas were, until some 30 years ago sold not only older and – at least for export - often fortified to 17% (not the current 15%) but also stabilised less intensely. The higher strength ensured there would be no risk of bottle fermentation caused by any yeast. Times have changed, however, and to extend shelf life and accommodate the (unfathomable) fashion for lighter styles, further cleaning up of the wines was deemed necessary. Some well-known Manzanilla brands, for example, used to be sold as Manzanilla Pasada, but are now called Manzanilla Fina, being not only younger but more stabilised, and less intense than their former selves.

So what is “stabilisation”, and how is it done? Wines are “cleaned” in two ways: fining and filtration. Fining involves the addition of certain substances which spread out over the wine’s surface and slowly settle at the bottom having collected any colloids on the way. The clean wine is then separated off. These fining agents are many and harmless, and include bentonite (a fine clay), casein (a form of milk protein), gelatin, egg white, isinglass (derived from sturgeon swim bladders, but now synthesised) or silica. Their effect is largely to do with the positive to negative charge and their weight versus that of the colloids, and different agents do different jobs depending on the type of colloids. Fining is almost as old as wine itself and it is also widely used in beer.

Filtration is a physical barrier to colloids over a certain size: the sieve effect. It is not only quicker, but more thorough – depending on the circumstances. Nowadays most filters are small sheets made from cellulose which, depending on specification (say 0.45 microns), can remove yeast, bacteria and even the colour of a wine. They do have a tendency to clog, however, and now the newer and more easily cleaned cross-flow filtration equipment is often employed. One micron is normal for en rama. Sometimes activated charcoal is used, which again can even remove colour.

Another widely used modern technique is chill filtration or cold stabilisation. The temperature of a large tank containing the wine in question is dropped to around 6-7C and held there till the tartaric acid starts to crystallise and precipitate, and the wine is then run off. This acid is natural in grapes and is perfectly harmless, but if consumers see it in a bottle they think it is glass. Both filtration and fining are almost universal practice, and a positive thing - with judicious use. The Consejo Regulador has been trying to get agreement among the bodegas for a precise definition of en rama wines, but so far without success.

However a wine is “stabilised” a certain amount of character is inevitably removed, so over the last 15 years or so Sherry producers have been looking at minimal stabilisation to increase flavour. A cynic might say that they are merely giving us back the wines they took away years ago, now re-named “en rama”. The filtered wines were a marketing success, and so now are the en ramas. Two for the price of one! But then there are still the age differences: the en ramas are still generally younger than the pasadas of the past which are now sold in limited quantities at higher prices. In fairness they were responding, like everyone else, to the market which can be very fickle.

The en rama wines are generally bottled in the spring and autumn when the flor is at its thickest and less likely to be damaged. It is worth remembering that many wines bottled en rama are not exactly the same as their filtered counterparts. They are often special sacas chosen to be more interesting. Many oxidatively aged wines are also bottled with minimal filtration and in the cooler seasons which allow natural decantation to take place in the barrel but they rarely say so on the label: it is less important as there is no flor concerned. So look out for the en rama wines, they are full of character, extremely expressive and utterly delicious!

Bodegas or bottlers which produce en rama wines:

Alexander Jules: All wines are en rama
Antonio Barbadillo Mateos: Manzanilla Sacrisitia AB, varies, about 2 sacas a year
Barbadillo: Manzanilla Solear, 4 sacas each year, spring summer autumn and winter
Barón: Manzanilla Pasada Xixarito
Delgado Zuleta: Manzanilla Pasada Goya XL
Elías González Guzmán: Manzanilla de la Casa
Emilio Hidalgo: La Panesa
Equipo Navazos: all wines are en rama
Faustino González: all wines
Fernando de Castilla: Fino en rama, also Antique range (en rama but not stated on label)
González Byass: Tio Pepe en rama and the Palmas range
Gutiérrez Colosía: Fino en Rama
Hidalgo La Gitana: La Gitana en rama
La Guita: La Guita en rama
Lustau: Tres en Rama range: 3 wines, 1 each from Sanlúcar, El Puerto and Jerez
Maestro Sierra: All wines
Pedro Romero: Manzanilla Aurora en Rama
Sanchez Ayala: Gabriela Oro
Sánchez Romate: Fino Perdido, Amontillado Olvidado
Tradición: All wines
Urium: Fino and Manzanilla Pasada
Valdespino: Manzanilla Deliciosa en rama, usually more than one annual saca
Vina La Callejuela: Manzanilla de anada 2012
Williams & Humbert: Fino Añada 2006 (and successive vintages)

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