Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Types of Sherry: Fino

Fino is a light, pale, dry wine made only from the free-run or first-pressing must of Palomino grapes and with an alcoholic content of 15%/vol or occasionally slightly more depending on age. It is sold at between 2 years (the minimum required by law) and over 10 years of age. The wine has distinct, slightly bitter almond and dough aromas from the acetaldehyde it contains. It is under flor for its entire ageing period in solera, a process known as “biological ageing” in which the flow of wine through the solera system is more frequent in order to maintain the health of the flor which protects the wine from oxidation. Both Palo Cortado and Amontillado originate as Fino.

Until the mid XIX century the concept of biological ageing was not properly understood, and wines which developed the growth of flor were regarded as sick and were either racked and allowed to oxidise or made into vinegar. Sherry at that time was mainly Oloroso sometimes with PX blended in, a wine which would withstand the sea journey to northern European markets, helped perhaps by some fortification which had been practised on a commercial scale since the early XVIII century.

It would be the 1820s before Fino began to be taken more seriously and the comparatively new solera system would make it a great wine. Nevertheless it took a long time to get there. González Byass and Garvey were among the first to see its potential, and Tio Pepe was first exported in 1844 while Garvey’s San Patrico launched in the 1850s, both successfully, and both probably fortified to 17-18%. By now Pasteur was explaining that the flor was not a disastrous mould but yeast, and a little fortification could kill off any bacterial spoilage.

It is doubtful if the Tio Pepe and San Patricio of those days would bear much resemblance to those of today, we simply don’t know, but scholars think they were probably more like Fino-Amontillados as the application of the solera system to this type of wine is thought to only have become generalised in the early 1870s. Certainly Vizetelly, visiting in that decade, gave the age of Tio Pepe as 7 years (now 5), which would mean it could only have had the Fino characteristics he describes at that age if it had been through a solera. He quotes the strength as 25ᴼ proof or around 15%/vol. in bodega.

From about the early to middle part of the XIX century tastes in Britain, which was by far the biggest export market, were beginning to change toward a lighter, drier style of wine. The heavier style was losing popularity, especially after the climate began to warm in the 1850s, and although there was still some demand for it the market was becoming, perhaps, more sophisticated and “Pale Dry” was taken up enthusiastically, though it was not necessarily Fino per se. British importers, who in those days shipped the wine in butts and bottled it, had never come across flor and were unsure what to do with it. This was not a great problem however, but an unfortunate development was that in the British market people began to see Sherry as dry if it was pale and sweet if it was dark, which was by no means necessarily the case, but it has caused confusion ever since.

During the sobretablas stage when the new wines are beginning to reveal their style they are classified and the butts marked accordingly. Wines with flor and showing the sort of delicacy required for Fino will be marked with a raya or palo (/). Particularly fine wines with really healthy flor will be marked with a “palma” (ϒ), and according to age will be given more palmas up to four by crossing the original chalk mark: Una Palma, Dos Palmas, Tres Palmas, Cuatro Palmas. By the time the wine reaches tres palmas the flor will have all but gone and oxidation will be under way, so the wine will be a Fino-Amontillado, possibly of some age, while the Cuatro Palmas will be an Amontillado, but one of exceptional quality.

Fortification of Finos is standard practice, from the 11.5-12% of the fermented must up to 15%, the minimum required by law. The reason for this particular strength is that it is the minimum needed to protect the wine without  killing the flor. This amazing yeast has quite an appetite, and consumes the oxygen in the wine, glycerine, any unfermented sugars (making it very dry) and even alcohol. It is possible on occasion to find butts in a solera with a strength as low as 14% especially in soleras with healthy flor thanks to regular refreshment, and the wine may need to be lightly fortified again. This seems a pity in a perfectly healthy wine, but the law says it must be 15%.

Before bottling most Finos undergo filtration to eliminate any particles of flor which are unsightly, and in the past they were fined with egg white and Lebrija clay. Nowadays more powerful filtration equipment is used which, it is agreed by many, takes out too much colour and character from the wine which has spent years in solera developing it. Manzanillas treated this way are known as “Manzanillas Finas” and in many cases have replaced older, tastier wines with less taken out, but apparently this is the fashion. It is a shame the wine trade has to adjust wine to suit a public which often doesn’t understand it.  Luckily many bodegas now sell “En Rama” wines which are Finos (and Manzanillas) with minimal filtration and thus retain most of the character they had in solera. While they are a drop in the ocean in terms of volume, they are gaining ground and respectability.

Fino, then, is one of the wine world’s most interesting wines, and which contrary to some opinion, will often age well in bottle. One is told to drink it as fresh as possible, and that is lovely, but with a few more years in bottle it can develop into something special. Sealed in a bottle, with the absence of oxygen and none of the flor the wine is accustomed to in barrel, it develops slightly differently taking on a deeper, slightly oily, nutty character. The gainsayers protest that it is oxidised, but a well-stored bottle will not be, even though there is something of that flavour. Naturally the Finos which age best are the en rama ones which have more complexity, though filtered Finos can be rewarding too. Perhaps bottle-aged Fino is not for everyone, but like all Sherry, it is highly complex and needs experience to get the most out of it – to understand it. But once you do, there is no going back.

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