Visiting Jerez, exploring Sherry, and blending Las Palmas Part 3, making Sherry
Antonio Flores in action
So now it was time to look at some wines.
With cellarmaster Antonio Flores, I began with Palomino Mosto from
This Mosto had finished fermenting in a
barrel three weeks earlier, and it was still in the barrel. It will
be left until the first cold weather, which usually is at the
beginning of December, and this accelerates the natural
clarification process. The wine will then be racked off its lees,
and this is the point at which it is classified.
There are two routes a sherry can take:
biological and oxidative, and until this decision is made all the
young wines are called Mosto. This one has 11.9% alcohol, and
usually the winemakers know which vineyards will give the best finos.
Antonio Flores started work at Gonzalez Byass on 1st September 1980,
when there will have been around 19 000 barrels in the cellar.
That’s a lot of barrels to get to know. ‘The classification task was
quite extraordinary,’ he says. There was a team of 5 people who
visited 500 barrels a day, and their hands were corrugated by the
end of the day just from the moisture of the wine.’
Over the last 34 years this process has
become a bit simpler today: just 200 casks are barrel fermented,
while the rest of the wine is made in stainless steel tanks before
going to cask. For making fino, ‘the juice these days is from the
best pagos, the lightest juice, fermented from stainless steel,’
says Antionio. ‘The process has been simplified a lot.’
Mosto Palomino, first press, 2014, from Marcharnudo
Apple notes and ripe pears, with hints of wax and floral notes, as
well as some hazelnut. Fresh and textured with ripe red apples and
citrus fruit. A lovely textured wine with a rounded personality.
From 30 year old vines.
It’s anything but a bland, neutral wine,
from low yielding old vines. At the end of December, or the
beginning of January, alcohol is added. For those wines destined to
be Fino/Amontillado, it is added to make the wine 15.3% alcohol,
while for those to be aged oxidatively, it goes to 18%.
The idea is for Finos to take the wine to
the limit of tolerance for the flor layer. It could be left to 12.5%
alcohol, but then there would be a lot of competitors to the desired
flor yeasts, such as Brettanomyces. The pH is around 3, and
there’s very little malic acid in the grapes from the region, so
there’s no malolactic fermentation. The aim is to ferment all the
sugars out of the wine.
Gonzales Byass have their own private
research centre, and they have been studying yeasts, which are so
important in sherry production. The stainless steel vats begin
fermentation with 5000 litres of wine, inoculated with their own
yeast culture. Shortly after, 5000 litres more of must is added, and
so on until the vat is full. This is a type of temperature control,
and it also helps to keep their yeast strain the dominant yeast.
Sobretables Fino Palominio 2013
Sobretables is the name given to wine after it has been taken off
its lees and fortified (Sobre Lias is when it’s on its lees). This
is not barrel fermented, but rather it’s tank fermented. This is
wine as racked off lees, before it has been added to the solera
system, and the alcohol has already been added. Very clean, fresh
pear fruit with subtle apple note. Rounded with nice warmth and
texture. The alcohol is evident but it’s very attractive with a hint
of saltiness. The flor is growing, but it has just a small effect
because the wine is in tank.
Sobretables Oloroso Palomino 2013
Fortified to 18%, sitting in tank, not protected from air. This has
a bit of orange/yellow colour and it’s nutty, raisiny and textured,
with some apple notes and a bit of spice.
Flor is the magic ingredient in sherry
production, because this is what enables the process of biological
ageing, so important in the production of fino, manzanilla and
amontillado sherries. Oxidative ageing occurs when the sherry has no
flor layer, and olorosos are exclusively aged without a flor.
Many people don’t realize that fino, even
despite its freshness, is an aged wine. Tio pepe is on average 4.5
years old. The biological ageing process, with a layer of yeast
cells on top of the wine in the deliberately ullaged barrels, is
what keeps it fresh. And, of course, there’s the solera system.
These wines are made in a stack of barrels called the criadera. The
solera is the lowest and last level in these barrels, where the wine
is taken out for bottling. At regular periods, wine is removed from
the solera, and taken to be bottled. The wine removed is replaced
with wine from the higher barrels, which is younger, and the process
is repeated. This blending of young and old wines is important,
because nutrients from the wine in the younger barrels helps to keep
a healthy flor growth.
The process of transferring sherry
from different criaderas. Special devices called canoes, which fit
between the barrels are used. These have a proboscis like tip that
penetrates the flor and allows wine to be added to the barrel
without disturbing the flor layer.
Flor is the key agent in the biological
ageing of sherry, and its thickness and vitality in part depends on
the environment of the cellar – sherry’s second terroir. At Sanlucar
de Barremeda the cellars are cooler and more humid, the flor is
thicker and the Manzanillas that result have amazing freshness. In
Jerez, the flor tends to be thinner. Gonzalez Byass use the warmer
parts of their cellars for oxidative ageing, and the cooler parts
for biological ageing.
Flor is a layer of yeast cells. This is a
white/grey colour, and can be up to 2 cm thick. It consists of the
same species of yeast that carries out alcoholic fermentation,
Saccharomyces cerivisiae. But the races of this species that form
flor are different. They fall into four families: beticus,
cheresiensis, montuliensis and rouxii. Beticus is the most common,
but they all have their preferred moments on the yeast film.
The flor does everything it can to
survive. Fermentation removes all but a trace of sugar, and so the
yeasts begin to consume alcohol, oxidising it to acetaldehyde
(ethanol to ethanal, to use the modern terms). So Tio Pepe would
start out at 15.3% alcohol after fermentation, the flor would
consumer 0.3% of this, leaving a fino at 15%. The flor also consumes
acids, amino acids and glycerol.
One of the effects of the flor is
alcetaldehyde production. In Oloroso, the level might be 14
mg/litre. In Fino, it will be 340-380 mg/litre, and sometimes
higher. Glycerol will start out at 8 g/litre and by the end will be
lower than 1 g/litre. The reason the flor sits on top of the wine is
that microbubbles of oxygen bring the yeasts to the surface.
Autolysis is an important part of the
biological ageing of sherry. Yeasts at the surface produce proteins
that cause the cells to adhere keeping the flor as a layer. But when
the cells die the whole colony sinks to the bottom of the barrel,
and then they degrade. ‘La madre del vino’ is the dead flor at the
bottom of the barrel, releasing flavour compounds, and also fatty
acids that help feed the yeasts on the top of the wine. The flor
therefore gets nutrients from the wine in barrel, from dead yeasts
and also from fresh wine added during the solera process.
This is a very old barrel from
1805: the sherry has concentrated to the point where it is no longer
drinkable, but it smells amazing!
In producing Las Palmas sherries Antonio
Flores is testing the limit between life and death, look to see the
wine taken as far as possible by the yeasts.