If you get offered a glass of 170-year-old sherry (not all that likely an occurrence, admittedly) I am in a position to give you a little advice: put it to your lips with the greatest of care. The wine’s perfume (like incense, perhaps – that’s the closest I can hazard a description) might prepare you for something unusual, but not for the unbelievable intensity of salty-umami concentration, as powerful and bitter as sin. It is, of course, utterly fascinating and totally undrinkable, and it is with mixed feeling that you pour (if pour is the word for something as thick as this) the last drops of this black-red marvel of survival back into its cask. There’s not much left there, by the way – this is not the sort of wine you can just top up….
The merely-90-year-old sherry that had preceded the truly ancient one was also, it must be said, undrinkable, though not quite as much so, if we can admit to degrees of undrinkability. A little sip is enough – and anyway has the forcefulness of flavour to persist in your mouth for hours. But it was more tasteable, again dominated by a greatly complex umami effect, with everything powerfully concentrated: acid, bitter tannin (from the barrel), alcohol and acidity – and flavour. And undoubtedly still a living wine, as was its older sister (Jerezanos tend to speak of their wines as feminine, I’ve noticed).
This hugely privileged experience was at the great Gonzalez-Byass sherry-producing complex in the heart of the city of Jerez, and marked the culmination of our tour through its row upon row of casks, housed in the large, high, airy buildings that have so often been compared to cathedrals – and now I can see why.
Of course, with most older sherry, because it has been matured by the fractional blending process of the solera system, it is difficult to give more than an approximate average age. This is so whether it is of the style developed with a thick covering of oxygen-excluding flor (fino, etc) or the wine that matures oxidatively (oloroso). But – amongst all the great young and old solera-created finos, manzanillas, amontillados, palo cortados and olorosos I’ve sampled over the past few days (to the point of near exhaustion, it has sometimes felt) have also been two vintage wines.
These are rare in the sherry region – especially for commercial release; I suspect that more are made to mark significant births and other auspicious occasions. They are always either palo cortados or olorosos, as the fino styles by definition have to go through soleras with new wines added periodically to provide the flor with nutrients. Vintage sherries are also fortified, of course.
The first we tasted (ex-barrel) was at Gonzalez-Byass – a 1986 palo cortado that they are considering bottling. A lovely wine, with a lot of volatile acidity complicating its already complex aromas. Both powerful and delicate – perhaps the two words that have occurred most often in close proximity in my tasting notes that last few days! Alongside “complex”. Much more detailed descriptions have mostly eluded me as I struggle to develop an adequate vocabulary for a distinctive set of flavours and sensations.
Even greater – and maybe the most impressive wine of my visit, though that’s a rash thing to say – was an exquisitely fresh, fine and richly complex oloroso from a much smaller and newer sherry house, Tradicion. It is also hugely expensive – about 150 euros, I think; their other brilliant old wines are a third of that, or less. Established as recently as 1998, Tradicion is a remarkable sign of hope in an area that seems swathed in pessimism (the vineyard area has been cut by half in the past few decades). Bodegas Tradicion bottles only old sherries (40+ years), which it prepares in its own soleras. The base wines it uses are already pretty old, bought in from elsewhere. Sometime, perhaps, it will buy its own vineyards and make great old sherries from its own grapes, developed in its own soleras for 40 years or so. It is a great vision, and a great project, and I fervently hope that it will come into full fruition. It is precisely what this wonderful wine, sherry, needs.
I must say, reflecting on all this, that it is impossible to feel any regret for the terminal decline of the “sherry” industry in South Africa. (It was once huge.) Port is another story and we can make some good versions of our own. But genuine sherry is so intimately tied to its origins (identical grapes and methods produce such different wines depending on the location of the soleras in inland Jerez or in Sanlucar, where the Guadalquivir river flows into the Atlantic; quite apart from the solid chalk of the best vineyards) that the real thing is inimitable. I wish more were imported – as far as I know just a selection from the house of Lustau is brought in, by Wine Cellar in Cape Town (www.winecellar.co.za). They are excellent wines, and great value, both the cheaper bottlings and the more expensive ones in the “Very Special Old Sherry” category.