Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Bottle Ageing of Sherry

Many Sherries, particularly Finos and Manzanillas, carry a recommendation to drink them within a few months of purchase.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but without doubt these wines have the capacity to develop considerably more complexity in bottle, especially those bottled en rama. The recommendation on the label is really to avoid complaints from consumers who encounter  unexpected flavours  as they do not understand the effects of bottle age. In fact nearly all wines are better after a few months of settling in bottle after the shock of bottling itself, yet well over 80% of them are consumed within 48 hours of purchase. Such a shame.

Standard Finos and Manzanillas are filtered so as to be fresh and bright as the consumer expects, and they can develop well in bottle, however the all-but-unfiltered en rama wines have more substance, and that allows them to age better. All wines are living things and continue to develop in bottle, but the more that is taken out by filtration, the less scope there is for improvement. In fact some Sherries are bottled in magnum for the express purpose of ageing them in bottle, Equipo Navazos and Barbadillo for example, as wines age longer and more gracefully in magnums. In the end, the better the Sherry, the better it will improve in bottle. Equipo Navazos sometimes release wine which they have already aged in bottle for some time.

The bottle doesn't need to be this big...or does it?

One only has to taste side by side two en ramas of the same brand bottled a year (or years) apart to see how interestingly they develop. They are likely to be from the same vineyards and the same solera – virtually the same wines - the only important difference being bottle age. Depending on the age difference, the older one will have more intense, complex, subtle, nutty, buttery, bitter, oxidative characteristics and a slightly deeper colour, all of which certainly appeal to the Sherry connoisseur. These effects are brought about by reductive ageing; that is ageing in the virtual absence of oxygen, though it has been estimated that about 1m/g of oxygen per year can get into the bottle. 

With a vintage printed on the label one usually knows roughly when a wine was bottled, or at least how old it is. But Sherry is rarely a vintage wine. Being aged in wood for much longer than almost any other wine, one might reasonably consider it fully mature at bottling, yet it demonstrably continues to improve in bottle. This development is most marked in the younger, lighter Finos and Manzanillas. Naturally proper storage in the home will extend the life and enhance the enjoyment of these wines. The type of cork is a clue to how the producer sees the wine: if it has a cylindrical driven cork it is intended for longer ageing. So the question is how much bottle age is needed for the wine to develop the desired characteristics. This is really a matter of personal taste and the wine in question, but just one year can make a difference, but the more – within reason – the merrier. Experiment!

It would be very useful, therefore, to know how long they have been in bottle already, but bottling dates usually appear as impenetrable codes. At least with most en rama wines the bottling or saca date is stated on the label, but all Sherries really should carry a clear bottling date, or at least a common code which connoisseurs can understand. At the moment, the bodegas use many different codes. One does sympathise with them for not putting dates on the labels of more commercial wines, as the less well informed consumer might think the bottle is past its best.

This date is easy: Lot number: Year 2015 day 295 (October 22)

The other styles of Sherry are also capable of ageing well, but improvement is less dramatic as they are usually older already. All wines, including Sherry, will eventually throw a fine and perfectly harmless sediment over long periods of time, say five years or more, and sweet wines will eventually become a bit dryer. Harveys used to bottle some of their sweet Bristol Milk with a two inch driven cork specifically for laying down in bottle, and the result was marvellous, some of the sweetness drying out and giving way to texture and length.

Wine, like all things in life, needs understanding, and the best way to achieve that is to build up experience by tasting as many as possible at as many stages as possible. I would recommend you try ageing some Sherry in bottle. Buy two bottles of, say, a good Fino or Manzanilla, make careful tasting tasting notes on the first one, wait a year or ideally two, and do the same for the second. Comparing the notes will be fascinating, and you will have an even better bottle to enjoy than the first one. Then repeat the process.

Some Magnums to look out for:
Equipo Navazos: Amontillado 69 and Manzanilla Pasada 70
Barbadillo: Manzanilla en rama, Manzanilla Pasada Pastora
Delgado Zuleta: Manzanilla Pasada Barbiana
Antonio Barbadillo Mateos: Manzanilla Sacristia AB
Unfortunately releases are very limited.

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