Amontillado is the most complex and elegant of Sherries and the favourite of many connoisseurs and experts. The name most likely originates from “like Montilla” and has been in use since the XVIII century, but unlike Montilla where they use Pedro Ximénez grapes, the product of Jerez is made exclusively from Palomino, at least since after phylloxera. The Consejo Regulador defines this chameleon of a wine simply as "a wine containing a maximum of 5 grams per litre sugars and alcohol between 16ᴼ and 22ᴼ which has a “more or less intense amber colour with an aroma and flavour characteristic of its particular ageing process with a biological phase followed by an oxidative one”.
Unfortunately in export markets Amontillado is still often understood as medium due to the sweetening in the past of mass market wines, many of which contained very little genuine Amontillado, often being blends of sweetened Olorosos. Luckily the Reglamento was amended in 2012 and bodegas are only permitted to use the word Amontillado for genuine dry Amontillado wines. Medium wines must use expressions like “Medium” or “a bIend of Amontillado and..” Natural Amontillado is a dry wine with 0-5 g/l sugars, where a Medium contains from 5-115 g/l.
The complexity of Amontillado stems from the fact that it is aged twice. It starts life as a Fino or Manzanilla ageing under flor, and it is the effect of this flor which provides a good deal of the character in the finished wine, which will have much less glycerine than an Oloroso and much more acetaldehyde, giving it its crispness and elegance. Traditionally an Amontillado evolved from a Fino or Manzanilla in which the flor had begun to wane and oxidation had begun in a slow but inexorable process which could easily last for decades. Because of these Fino or Manzanilla origins, a young Amontillado in its natural state is completely dry with no more than 1 g/l of sugars.
Once the wine is ageing oxidatively, slow transpiration will bring about the loss of a little water in the wine and with it a gentle increase in glycerine and alcohol content, which gives the wine its roundness. It is this phase which also provides the delightful hazelnut aroma which so characterises an Amontillado. Further complexity derives from interaction with the wood and the air during sometimes very long periods. There is a wide variation in style, much depending on the ratio of how long the wine spent under flor versus how long it spent ageing oxidatively. The longer under flor and the shorter under air the lighter and vice-versa. Much obviously depends on the final age of the wine.
Tradition is one thing, but commercial expediency is another. Amontillados can no longer be allowed to just happen naturally taking all the time they want. For centuries butts of Sherry took their time and developed as they saw fit, meaning that a multitude of different wines evolved. The only way to exercise any control was the use of fortification and the solera system, and once fortified to the right level and in a solera a wine’s character could be fixed.
The method generally employed now is that a Fino or Manzanilla will be aged under flor for anything between three to eight, years before being fortified to around 17ᴼ which kills the flor and allows the wine to begin the oxidative phase of its ageing which will be developed in a Fino-Amontillado solera and/or an Amontillado solera. Fino-Amontillado will normally be sold anywhere from 6 to 12 years old, while Amontillado will rarely be sold younger than 12 years old. A highly debatable and fascinating topic is at what precise point the wine ceases to be Fino or Manzanilla and become Fino-Amontillado or Manzanilla Pasada/Amontillada, and at what precise point does that become Amontillado. There are as many opinions as wines, and one of the joys of this ever-evolving style of Sherry is the sheer variety available.
Because of this variety, each wine used to be labelled with the most accurate description of its precise character, but it was deemed too complicated for consumers, so now a Fino-Amontillado or a Manzanilla Amontillada must be called one thing or the other - which could actually make the consumer’s choice more difficult. For example NPU and Viña AB are very different but both labelled Amontillado. It is therefore extremely important that more detail is printed on the back label, as understanding is the key to the enjoyment of Sherry.
Sanlúcar and Jerez offer styles of Amontillado which can be discernibly different. The Sanluqueño style is more profoundly affected by flor which grows on the wine’s surface more profusely than in Jerez because of the moister climate and the greater number of solera scales and rocíos. This can give the wine a more salty, savoury character from autolysis and also the marine atmosphere in which the wines age for many years. Interestingly, a couple of magnificent Jerez Amontillado soleras are refreshed with Manzanilla: Fino Imperial VORS from Diez Mérito and Valdespino’s Coliseo VORS.
Meanwhile the Jerez style tends to be nuttier and perhaps slightly fuller with more glycerine, which is probably the result of a warmer, drier climate and the fact that because of this the flor all but disappears in winter and summer. This leaves the wine open to oxidation for short periods which accounts for the slightly fuller style of Fino in Jerez, some of which of course becomes Amontillado. These regional differences are quite subtle, especially in extremely old wines with more oxidation and wood extractives, and much depends on the hand of the capataz.
So here’s to Amontillado: a fascinating wine which is so varied that it is as close as one can get to a Sherry for all seasons and most dishes. Put a glass to your nose and it immediately inspires reflection on all it has been through and the skill of those who made it, and if you can tear yourself away from these thoughts, put the glass to your lips and savour a real oenological treasure.