Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Types of Sherry: Pedro Ximénez

PX as it is generally known is probably the sweetest wine on the planet, yet although sweet wines are rather out of favour and represent a niche market, PX sells reasonably well, some 650,000 litres annually in fact, and that is just from Jerez. Many spirits aficionados enjoy whisky or Spanish brandy or even rum matured in a PX butt and many others enjoy it as a dessert wine, while chefs use it in desserts or as a reduction in sauces. All agree it is incredible stuff and pretty well unique.

Nobody really knew the origin of the grape till DNA testing showed it is derived from the Arabic table grape variety Gibi which once grew throughout Andalucía. There are written records of it being called Pedro Ximénez since at least the early XVII century. The name is quite likely to refer to the name of a vineyard owner who made memorable wine long ago, perhaps near Jimena de la Frontera. Another suggestion is that “pero ximén” is a Spanish corruption of the Arabic for “golden drop.” Some hold with the now debunked story of a German Soldier, Peter Siemens, bringing it from the Rhine and it is surprising how many still tell it; even Ximénez Spínola, the Jerez PX specialists. The grape is not at all suited to the Rhine but is perfectly suited to the Mediterranean climate and alkaline albariza soils, and it has a good sugar content ideal for producing sweet wines - buta also makes excellent dry ones.

A PX vine with its typical rounded grapes
The vine itself grows on American rootstocks suitable for albariza soil, but these cannot prevent the grapes’ propensity to rot in the overnight dewfall or humid west winds of the Jerez area due to its thin skin, meaning that the grape has declined there to the point of near disappearance. In fact the vast majority of Spanish PX vines are to be found in the DO Montilla-Moriles in Córdoba. Here there is also albariza soil but much less humidity so it is the ideal place for the cultivation of PX, from which they make every style of wine from bone dry to incredibly sweet. In fact such is the shortage of Jerez-grown grapes that Montilla is the main supplier to the Sherry bodegas, some of which once owned bodegas in Montilla.

According to the Consejo Regulador of Jerez PX should be “a wine made from must of at least 85% super ripe or sun dried PX grapes, whose fermentation has been stopped by the addition of wine alcohol, with a more or less intense golden-amber to mahogany even ebony colour, and a dense appearance with aromatic notes of dried grapes, and very sweet and unctuous on the palate.” The wine should have an alcohol content of 15ᴼ-22ᴼ and a minimum sugar content of 212 grams per litre, though it usually contains much more.

Asoleo at the almijar - old way at Sandeman
If we concentrate on Jerez, all PX wines produced there are made by the asoleo (or sun drying) method. Grapes are picked at over 13.5 Beaumé and left exposed to the sun for about 4-10 days during which time their sugar content can treble due to water loss. But there is one exception: Ximénez Spínola. This quirky old bodega also produces a late harvest PX which is made simply from grapes picked later than normal but not sun dried. Yields of must from pasas (sun dried grapes) are tiny due to the water loss through evaporation. Only some 30% of the original juice remains, but it is very concentrated in sugars. The pasas are much harder than normal grapes and therefore need special pressing techniques.

First they go through a set of rollers to extract the “mosto de yema” or the finest juice, and are allowed to slowly drain. This must is sometimes kept separate for the best wines. Next the squashed pasas, now looking more like a paste, go to a small diameter horizontal plate press. More juice is extracted here, but not all, so then they go to the vertical press where they are arranged on “capachos” or circular esparto mats in the form of a club sandwich and the last of the juice is extracted at around 28ᴼ Beaumé (or 28ᴼ alcohol if fermented dry). The juice will probably have already started to ferment, but when the yeasts realise the impossibility of their task they give up, having created hardly any alcohol, so the wine is fortified to about 16ᴼ with either wine alcohol or a mixture of that with some Amontillado or Oloroso – but only if it is made in Montilla, as the latter are also made from PX. It is then filled into butts to begin ageing. Wine is destined for another bodega or DO it will be sent at 22 Beaumé with 9% alcohol to allow the purchaser to adjust it if required.

Asoleo the modern way. Little has changed really
As the wine ages it becomes more concentrated particularly in relation to colour, acidity, sugar and dry extract levels, the latter two helping to provide the amazing texture of this wine. Unlike other Sherries though, it loses alcoholic strength because its viscosity is such that it is mainly alcohol which evaporates through the pores and staves of the butt. Interestingly if PX seeps between the staves of the butt it can crystallise and force the staves very slightly apart allowing a little more wine through which makes the butt look like it is weeping. When this happens the wine will need to be transferred to another butt while the original is rebuilt. These slight leaks are known as “salideros”.

Despite most of the Jerez PX coming from Montilla it tastes different. This is down principally to differences in climate and ageing techniques. In Montilla the butts are filled to the brim (“a tocadedos”)and thus the wine is less exposed to air, while in Jerez the butts are only filled to ⅚ capacity (“ a dos puños”)allowing more exposure to air. Over time this gives the characteristic Jerez coffee, cinder toffee and chocolate aromas as compared to the caramel, honey and fig aromas of Montilla, to generalise a little.

After lengthy ageing and slow “merma” (loss through transpiration), some PX wines reach sugar concentration levels of 500g/l. If that could be fermented out – which it can’t – the alcoholic strength would be about 52ᴼ! By comparison a typical Sauternes contains around 120g/l, but in both cases this is natural grape sugar, mainly fructose and glucose in that order, as opposed to the cane sugar (sucrose) which we add to coffee. Despite the massive sugar levels, there is enough acidity for freshness; much the same level as in a Fino in fact.

Huge amounts of younger PX are used for the “vinos de cabeceo” or blended styles of Sherry. Smaller amounts are added to the Medium wines and larger amounts to the Cream or Brown Sherries. Blending can either take place before entry to the solera giving a solera blend, or afterwards by drawing the necessary wines from their respective soleras. Sugar is never added to sweeten Sherry; any sweetening is done by PX (or occasionally with concentrated must from super ripe Palomino). Extremely old Amontillados, Palos Cortados and Olorosos which have developed woody or volatile notes can be rounded off with a drop of PX; not so much that you would notice, but just enough to give the old wine a little more smoothness. A drop of PX is a rather nice alternative to sugar in coffee.. and over ice cream...!!!

That should be all you need to know to enjoy PX. Just don’t forget your regular visit to the dentist!

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