Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Cabeceo or Blending of Sherry

For a very long time Sherry has been greatly misunderstood, and most of the blame lies in the perception of it in its export markets. Here, merchants have traditionally sold blends of different types of Sherry, rather than the unblended product of a particular solera, to match their idea of the public taste and pocket. The results tasted different from the wine in its natural state - which most people had never tasted - and led to widespread assumptions that, for example, Amontillado is medium and darker wine is sweet – indeed many often thought that all Sherry was sweet. As tastes moved towards dryer wines this misconception was an important contributory factor to Sherry’s plummeting sales.

The huge sample room at Domecq
Blending was usually, but not always, carried out by the Sherry bodegas who were asked to make up blends specified by merchants who then shipped and sold them under their own mark or brand name, (marcas blancas or BOB) and were entirely free to call the blend whatever they liked. Some bodegas in Jerez were owned by foreign wine merchants who shipped their wines, sometimes exclusively to their home market, where they bottled and labelled them as they saw fit. Some blending was done by the wine merchants themselves in their own cellars, Harveys for example. Terms like “Milk”, “Cream”, “Brown”, “Pale Cream”, “Pale” and “Golden” were British not Spanish inventions, and all were blends with more or less sweetness. Cream alone currently accounts for about 50% of Sherry consumption in Britain and about 20% of total consumption. Such blends still exist today, but in much smaller quantities and mainly in supermarkets, and are thankfully giving way to the natural solera wines which are at last taking off.

Blending at Gonzalez Byass in the 1950s (foto:charleshewitt/gettyimages)

Natural Sherry is a “vino generoso” and blended wines are known as “vinos generosos de licor” with a minimum alcohol content of 17ᴼ and a minimum sugar content of 5 g/l. In response to a petition by the Consejo Regulador to improve labelling nomenclature, the Junta de Andalucía published a directive in April 2012 which put a stop to the likes of “Medium Amontillado” which tended to contain very little Amontillado, and “Sweet Oloroso”. It stipulated that mention of the names of the traditional styles (Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso) could only be used in the labelling of blends with a minimum content of 85% and then only with qualifying expressions like “made from a base of” or “a blend of” printed in lettering of the same size as that of the name of the traditional style. Some chose then to simply use expressions like “Medium” or Medium Dry”.

Blending vats at Gonzalez Byass

Bodegas traditionally had large rooms dedicated to reference samples of shippers’ or indeed their own blends. These were used as a guide for the next batch of a particular blend along with notes from the sample book, which held details of which soleras and precise quantities, so as to avoid any difference to the previous batch. The 12½ litre jarra or jug was the tool usually used to measure out quantities of wine needed for a blend. It takes forty jarras to fill an export butt, so blends were made in divisions of forty.  A glass measuring cylinder graduated with forty marks, each representing one jarra, was used in the tasting room to create the original blend and the numbers were duly noted in the sample book. Larger scale blends were also made up in the same fashion using arrobas (@), an old liquid measure of 16.66 litres, 30 to a 500 litre shipping butt.

Arrumbadores making up blends at Sandeman 1920s

Here is an example (from Pedro Verdad’s book) of a blend in jarras for a late XIX century Brown Sherry, which might seem pretty unpalatable today, and also a little strong:

Pale Solera …………………….....23 (young Oloroso or possibly Raya)
Oloroso…….………………………4 (older Oloroso)
Vino de Color……………………...5 (Colouring wine: boiled down must with a little oloroso)
Vino Dulce………………..……….6 (probably Pedro Ximénez)
Aguardiente……………………......2 (fortifying wine spirit)
Total………………………………40 jarras

Julian Jeffs quotes the following cabeceo in arrobas of a commercial “Amontillado” blended some time ago for a well-known merchant. It contains only about 8% Amontillado.

Fino Fuerte………………………13 ½ (slightly rough full bodied Fino)
Amontillado Dolores………… ......5     (already a blend of @ 50% Amontillado)
MZA puro…………………………2     (Manzanilla)
Chiclana Fino……………………...7    (Fino from Chiclana, obviously)
Dulce…………………………...….2 ½ (Sweet, probably PX)
Total………………………………30 arrobas

The wines would be carefully drawn by taking measured amounts from all of the solera butts so as to minimise any change in them, and then, for small scale blending, filled into export butts previously rinsed with spirit. Next it was fined, first with egg whites and then with Spanish earth from Lebrija, a powdered silica clay which was whisked into the wine with a switch. Once the wine fell bright it was racked into a clean export butt, sealed and branded with the customer’s name and order reference ready for shipment. The blend would marry en route. For larger scale blending huge oak vats were used in which the component wines could marry. Some blends however, are made up at the sobretablas stage and age and marry in their own solera, for example Dry Sack and Canasta from Williams & Humbert.

In addition to a number of different solera wines of varying types, ages and quality, the blender's palette consisted of many types of wine  which were produced specifically for blending, and there follows a list of the main ones:

Vino de Color: Used to darken a blend, it is made by simmering must over a fire  for a day or more to obtain a very dark, very sweet syrup. Once cool, more must is added and fermentation takes place. The wine is then aged and is very dark and aromatic with toffee aromas.
Mistela: This is basically juice from super ripe sunned grapes to which alcohol has been added so it retains all the sugars and is intensely sweet. Normal PX and Moscatel lose some during fermentation.
Dulce Pasa: A pale sweet wine made from late picked sunned Palomino grapes where the must is added to butts containing alcohol. As little or no fermentation or ageing takes place it is quite fruity. It has replaced Dulce Apagado.
Dulce Apagado: Similar to Dulce Pasa but made from a variety of grapes, and as it usually came from outside the Jerez area it is no longer allowed.
Dulce de Almíbar: Once used for sweetening pale wines, it is made from a mix of glucose and fructose (both found in grapes) and Fino. The mix was then briefly aged. It was banned by the EU.
Pajarete: Named after the old Moorish tower of that name, this was an intensely sweet wine made, usually from PX, and not unlike a Brown Sherry where intensity of sweetness and colour was the object. It was this that attracted distillers who wished to "improve" their product.
Rectified Concentrated Must (RCM) This is a more modern, ingredient, and  is simply grape juice which has been concentrated by other means than heating, which darkens the wine and intensifies the flavour. Colour can, of course, be removed by activated charcoal filtration, but concentration can also be achieved by vacuum distillation, which involves just a little heating, or reverse osmosis which doesn't. The resultant sweet viscous liquid is blended with Fino to produce Pale Cream. It is a bit of a juggling act as obviously the RCM will dilute the Fino so it needs a bit more alcohol. The result can be a little crude, and a better alternative is to blend in young Moscatel.

Nowadays blending is much simpler and less common, due largely to the steep decline of this kind of wine and the growth of the real thing. So the moral of the story is that this wonderful wine is best in its natural state, sold for what it is rather than what people think it is.

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