The word translates as “fragrant” and a good Oloroso is certainly that. It is made only from Palomino grapes and it has been observed that with slightly harder pressing the incidence of Oloroso is higher. Also musts from hotter inland vineyards are more likely to produce Oloroso. In its youth the wine either develops very little flor or is prevented from so doing by fortification to 17-18 %/vol and allowed to age oxidatively. Its alcohol content will lie between 17 and 22 %/vol depending on its age.
With no flor to consume it there is a naturally high level of glycerine in the wine which makes it smooth and gives the impression of slight sweetness, though it rarely contains even 5 grams per litre of sugars. It is amber to mahogany in colour due to the oxidation, dry, full bodied, smooth and structured with an open texture, and often has aromas of walnut, dried orange peel, cinnamon and leather. Oloroso is the very pinnacle of the oxidised style of wine.
Butts in the sobretablas containing wine likely to be Oloroso are marked with two palos or rayas (//). Later they will be marked φ but precise markings tend to vary from bodega to bodega. If a butt contains exceptionally smooth Oloroso it will be marked with a ɺ or a raya with a foot. This is known as “Pata de Gallina” or hen’s foot and is quite a rare style of Oloroso. Butts containing less refined wine are marked /// (known simply as raya) and used for blending after ageing. In the past they were often aged in the sun outside to speed up the process.
As it ages the strength rises due to transpiration and the wine develops considerable concentration and complexity, and when it is older it can have a certain astringency, mainly from wood tannins and volatile acidity. Luckily Oloroso has an affinity with Pedro Ximénez, and a tiny addition of this can balance it out. Alternatively an addition of 10-15% can produce the attractively sweetened wine formerly known as Amoroso, Oloroso Dulce or Abocado till 2012 when the term Cream officially took over. Sweetened Olorosos are sometimes blended before bottling and sometimes blended before ageing, the latter being the better method, allowing much more time for the wines to integrate.
Until the mid XIX century, before Fino was properly understood, the majority of wine produced, particularly for export, was Oloroso. The grapes would have been sunned briefly in the almijar and foot-trodden, and thanks to its robust constitution the wine, usually a vintage wine, could travel well, being very suitable for the climate of northern countries. It was probably the principal type of wine known as “Sack” so beloved of the Elizabethans.
Despite the arrival of the solera system, some bodegas continued to produce small quantities of vintage or añada wines. These became more specialised over time (see post) with the majority of them being Olorosos as generally any flor would die off soon in a sealed butt. Due to their different ageing conditions they are not exactly the same as solera wines as the butts are never topped up, but they are not disimilar, and quite delicious.
Oloroso also has an affinity with whisky. Until the 1970s Sherry, much of it Oloroso in whatever form, was shipped to the UK in 500 litre “shipping butts”. These were smaller than the usual “bodega butt” of 600 litres capacity, but full to the bung. It was too expensive to ship empty butts back to Spain, so once the Sherry was bottled, they were sold to the distillers who gratefully used them for ageing Scotch Whisky. With its intense and particular aromas and flavours, the Oloroso more than any other type of Sherry, did much to enhance the final character of the whisky, whether it was aged full-term or even just finished in a butt, and this style of whisky became very popular. When Jerez bottling became the norm the supply of butts dried up and distillers were forced to procure new ones and have them seasoned with Oloroso at bodegas in Jerez, a system which works well but which is much more expensive. At least it has brought very welcome business to a depressed Sherry trade.