SHERRY BRANDY – A CLASS OF ITS OWN
Sherry wines were made world famous by English merchants, and millions of people were delighted and continue to be by enjoying this versatile, fortified wine.
Sherries come in a range of sweetness – extra dry to deliriously sweet and every shade imaginable in between.
Sherry also yields an extraordinary, solera-aged vinegar and brandy, which this writer believes have been ignored for too long. It is only now that some sherry houses started realizing the potential of aged sherry vinegar and brandy.
Sherry brandy has several distinct flavour characteristics others cannot match. Airen grapes grown in La Mancha on the Central Plateau of Spain are vinified and distilled either there or in Extremadura north of Andalusia. These distillates are then shipped to Jerez de la Frontera for aging and blending.
Two types of stills are employed for distillation – alquitaras (alembic style copper, onion-shaped and columnar. The latter is efficient, fast but yields a neutral-tasting brandy of little distinction.
Alquitaras also known as hollandas are descendent of Moorish designs, who occupied and ruled part of Spain for five centuries. Alquitaras are batch stills and yield low proof (60 – 70 percent ABV), but flavourful distillates. They require experienced and dedicated still men who judge quality by colour, scent, and consistency, more than by alcoholmeters that measure concentration. It is said that Chinese invited distillation and Moors brought it to Spain, and in fact the word alcohol is derived from the Arabic word al cool.
Once the brandies arrive in Jerez de la Frontera they are run into old sherry barrels. Each house has its own style and employs a number of previously used casks. Some use fino casks, others oloroso and yet others cream. A few sherry houses use a range and produce different quality levels. The secret of sherry brandy is aging in the climate of Jerez de la Frontera and blending.
In addition, sherry brandies are aged in soleras, which automatically blend fractionally to ensure consistency.
Soleras are unique to the region and ingenious. They consist of layers of casks the first of which represents the foundation. Every subsequent year another layer is added. Once the desired level of layers is achieved, the minimum being three layers, up to 15 percent may be drawn from the first layer. This is replaced from the second layer and third. This way the final blend contains the brandy of three vintages.
The minimum aging requires by law for a sherry brandy is three years, but most brands aged for a minimum of five and many much longer than that.
Some houses blend their solera brandies (cabeceo process) to create their very own style and yet others age some of their brandies by vintage and style and then create special soleras for more complexity and deeper flavours.
Sherry brandies exude light to dark brown, brilliant colours, are smell of “rancio” (old but intriguing aroma derived from aging in old sherry barrels). All are smooth and viscous displaying a touch of sweetness and a long, pleasant aftertaste.
Needless to say the hot weather and above ground soleras in thick-walled, dark warehouses with high ceilings (14 – 15 metres) create a completely different taste profile than brandies created and aged in cooler climates.
Essentially, sherry brandies represent a concentration of sunshine, warmth and smoothness – characteristics of Mediterranean climates.
Gonzales Byass, an old sherry shipper, markets Soberano, its youngest brandy, after aging it for five years, Lepanto Gran Solera for 15 years. This fragrant, smooth, delicate and complex brandy has long been preferred drink of cigar aficionados.
Osborne markets several fine brandies, as does Pedro Domecq and Sanchez Romate. Pedro Domeq’s Carlos I, Sanchez Romate’s Cardenal Mendoza, available in three different qualities, Duke d’Alba are world renown.
Sanchez Romate created Cardenal Mendoza to celebrate his role in the expulsion of Moors from Spain with the help of Cardinal Richelieu of France.
While enjoying a snifter of sherry brandy, you can imagine sitting in a fine Spanish restaurant and feel the warmth and conviviality of people, their joy of life and how they savour each day.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu