Tuesday 12 September 2017

Sherries of Certified Age

Few other wines can stand the extended ageing in wood which makes Sherry so special. Even a typical decent Fino, for example, spends longer in wood than a typical Gran Reserva (and is a fraction of the price!). This is possible thanks to the solera system whereby the wine is regularly refreshed with younger wine, and the butts have been very carefully seasoned to minimise any wood flavours. Thus there are many Sherries of great average age, concentration and complexity on the market, even a few over 100 years old.

Apart from small parcels kept aside for consumption by honoured guests and the bodega owners themselves, some of these “sacristia” soleras grew out of sheer lack of sales. The market seemed to want cheap wines, so huge quantities were supplied and the good stuff was left to carry on ageing. The wines, if bottled, were labelled “viejo” (old) or “viejísimo” (very old) which they undoubtedly were, but without any more precise definition. 

 In the year 2000, in order to promote these treasures and take advantage of a growth in interest, the Consejo Regulador introduced a new official category for these top quality old Sherries with a certified minimum period of average ageing. Thus were born the wines with "Mención de Edad". VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum or Very Old Sherry) for wines with a minimum average age of 20 years and the VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum or Very Old Rare Sherry) for 30 year old wines. There are two further categories which certify minimum average age of 12 and 15 years. The aim was not only to guarantee the age of a wine which does not carry a vintage date, but also to ensure it was of outstanding quality, representing Sherry at its finest.

While the solera system offers incredible consistency in a given wine, by its very nature it mixes wines of different ages, so only an average age can be given. Soleras have to be run consistently to avoid any changes in the character of the wine, so quantities of wine withdrawn from and fed into the system can be, and are, tracked by the Consejo. Fundamentally, the wine must have taken a minimum specific period to work its way through the solera system from start to finish. Here is how the process works.

The bodega submits a detailed application stating the type and quantity of the wine of a particular saca. On receipt of the application, Consejo inspectors visit the bodega and take samples and seal the container(s) of the wine. A sample then goes to a panel of expert and highly experienced tasters, five usually, none of whom work for a bodega. They are looking to be convinced of the wine’s age and also its quality, so even if it is old enough, but not good enough, it will fail. It is essential that the tastings are accurate as it is very awkward for bodegas to have a different saca of the same wine turned down. In the case of some very old wines there can be a hint of astringency so a very little PX is allowed to be added to round them off. It does not have to be 20 or 30 years old but the older it is the better it works.

If the wine passes the tasting panel it goes to the lab where three testing processes are then employed: scientific analysis, tasting and audit. The analysis is carried out at the Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Jerez, one of the best laboratories in Spain, where a number of tests are carried out including measuring the content of esters, dry extract, sugar and glycerine, along with carbon 14 dating.

The audit tracks the movements of the wine and verifies the correct amount has been withdrawn. There is a quota system by which the entire solera system for a given wine, say 12 years old, must retain 12 litres for every litre sold. Logically therefore for a 20 or 30 year old wine there must remain at least 20 or 30 litres. When a wine passes the tests – which are carried out on each saca – a precise number of the appropriate, numbered age statement labels will be issued according to the amount of wine.

This classic is 80 years old but VORS only guarantees 30

 Only certain types of Sherry qualify for certified age statements, and they are Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez as most Finos, Manzanillas and Moscatels are best when younger. It should be noted that the age certification guarantees that a wine is at least the stated age, but many are much older. There is no certification available for wines older than 30 years.

Although the system is as good as it can be, and most bodegas use it - after all nearly all of them have very old wines - some have chosen not to do so and sell their old wines without age statements. Perhaps their reputation is enough, or their wine is much older than 30 years and VORS might devalue it. Those bodegas which do use the system however, can easily demonstrate the advanced age of their wines and justify a more profitable price tag. Since only 0.2% of all Sherry carries a VOS or VORS tag they need to be profitable.

Interestingly I have never come across a Vintage Sherry with an age certification. Many are over 20 or 30 years old, and obviously their age is already known as it has been supervised by the Consejo from the start. I asked them about this and they said that they would certainly qualify, as long as they were top quality but couldn't remember seeing one either. I asked a few bodega people and they seemed a bit vague on the issue, but with a clear vintage date on the label most obviously feel it is unnecessary.

1 comment:

  1. I have a bottle of sherry de Terry Moscatel number 3 with B0553022 from my father and I would like to know the price of the bottle if you dont mind.
    Thank you very much.
    Best regards.