By André Tamers
Unveiling the secret wines of Sherry
Sacristías are a reflection of the rich history that runs through the heart of Sherry. The name comes from the "sacred" stocks of a bodega. They are the inheritance of the winery as it is passed through the generations. In the past, very small amounts of these wines were sometimes sold, but they were typically reserved for special events and almost never commercially available on a large scale. Due to their extensive age, they have a uniquely crafted structure which allows them to develop incredibly complex aromas and flavors. Sacristías are the great legacy of the region, and to taste these wines is to travel through the history of Sherry.
The barrels of El Maestro Sierra Amontillado 1830 by Steven Alexander
Sherry has one of the most compelling stories in the wine industry. The evolving nature of business in the region, created a stratification of the industry where different people handled different phases of production and distribution. Three separate entities developed: the grower, the almacenista (stock-manager), and the shippers (negociants). During times of prosperity, this relationship was mutually beneficial. Stocks or Soleras, as they are commonly referred to in Sherry, were depleted as the market for the wines grew.
This structural interdependency eventually initiated the decline of the industry through a collapse of pricing. This collapse was a direct result of a “race to the bottom,” whereby the exporters rapidly created private labels in an effort to expand their individual market shares at all cost. As the market for Sherry waned, there were some positive aspects that came from this trying time. First, almacenistas began to accumulate stocks, rebuilding their Soleras after a tremendous boom period. Second, the Consejo Regulador was forced to relax the existing laws that prohibited almacenistas from bottling and exporting their own stocks. These new laws were passed in 1997, and finally allowed the almacenistas to market their wines directly, bypassing the large export houses.
Today these wines are now seeing the light of day thanks to a renaissance of demand in the US.
Ana Cabestrero, El Maestro Sierra's capataz by Steven Alexander
Sherry is inherently a subjective wine defined by the house and their capataz. The capataz is not a winemaker but a wine taster who guides the wines through their ageing process. To appreciate the role of the capataz is to understand the philosophy that governs the house. A capataz is constantly tasting and commenting through a special language that is unique to him or her. These comments appear as markings on the barrels indicating the progression of the wine. The markings may be a call to action to move part of the stocks into another part of an existing solera or to completely reclassify a barrel. Ultimately, it is the capataz who defines the identity of each wine from the day it enters the bodega until the day it leaves the bodega. Herein lies the beauty and ambiguity of Sherry. Although there are clear distinctions within certain categories in Sherry there still exists great differences between the houses as to how wines are classified. An amontillado may overlap into a fino or vice versa. Within this overlap of categories, one can sometimes find the elusive Palo Cortado, the prize of the bodeguero. A true Palo Cortado is a wine whose uniqueness and classification is purely the decision of the capataz. Of course, the wine must fulfill organoleptic notions of that classification, but the decision is always intuitive and personal. It is the ultimate reflection of the capataz and his/her house.
The Consejo Regulador has set up a legal framework to classify these old wines. Their system is based on the age of the soleras and attempts to help the amateur navigate this complex landscape. In 2000, two age-based classifications were established. VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum or Very Old Sherry) indicates a solera between twenty and thirty years old, and VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum or Very Old Rare Sherry) labels a solera as over thirty years old. There is a three part process to achieve a certification of age. First, the bodega must insure that only an acceptable portion, or quota, has been withdrawn from the solera, which is important in making sure the stocks are not depleted. Second, a committee of independent experts from within and outside of the sector conduct a tasting panel, to determine if the wine meets the standards of style dictated by the Consejo. Third, scientific analysis attempts to measure factors that indicate age. Though the system is intended to protect consumers from fraud and malfeasance, there are some problems. Most notably, the use of Carbon 14 dating to determine the age of the wine. This process has potential in detecting wine fraud in single vintage wines after 1945, when we entered the nuclear age. That said, it is a problematic tool, at best, when dealing with wines that are blended across vintages, with some wines in the solera from vintages both before and after 1945. There are simply too many variables to draw specific conclusions.*
All of this has led to a debate with Sherry as to whether to adhere to the rigorous process of classifying the Sacrisitías or opting out. Some wineries, such as Maestro Sierra have decided to not classify their wines because they consider the process cumbersome and potentially flawed. In the end, it may be the well-informed consumer who will have to decide the value of these wines.
For further reading the following are highly recommended.
Sherry, Manzanilla and Montilla by Peter Liem and Jesús Barquím.
Sherry by Julian Jeff
*(source: Beta Analytics, http://radiocarbon.com)