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From left: Bodegas Yuste Aurora Manzanilla, Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa En Rama 2018 and Hidalgo Manzanilla La Gitana, which offer quite different expressions of manzanilla.

Manzanilla sherry: Singular, saline and so polarising

Aug 9, 2019 5:50 AM

SHERRY is among the most singular wines available today.

Consider manzanilla, a type of fino sherry. While some wines may occasionally be reminiscent of manzanilla, none offers the combination of briny salinity, almond-like nuttiness and dried flower aromas and flavors that can snap even the most jaded palate to attention.

Some people, like me, adore these savoury flavours. We go out of our way to find reasons to drink manzanilla. Other people will do whatever is necessary to avoid the bracing onslaught of what my wife once called bilge water.

It's possible that minds won't change. But manzanilla is wonderful partnered with classic Spanish snacks like Marcona almonds, jamon Ibérico, olives and fried seafood. It may well be that a time-honoured combination like this will unlock closed palates. Or not.

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What's most important is the willingness to explore. It helps to create conditions that increase the odds of success.

The flavour is not the only thing about manzanilla and sherry generally that makes it so unusual. The method for making the wine is like no other.

Dry sherry is made only from palomino grapes grown in the area of Andalusia in southern Spain bounded by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

The grapes are fermented into wine and then fortified. That is, neutral grape spirit is added to the wine to raise its level of alcohol.

Fortification is not unique. Many different wines are fortified, most famously port and Madeira, but also lesser known genres like Marsala, Banyuls and Maury.

Unlike port, in which the wines are fortified midway through the fermentation, leaving residual sugar that sweetens the wine, dry sherries are fortified after fermentation is completed, leaving little if any residual sugar.

Why fortify? Stay with me.

Unlike the vast majority of wines in the world, sherry is deliberately oxidised. That is, when the newly fermented wine is put in barrels to age, some space is left in the containers for air. This is counter to almost every other winemaking procedure, in which the aim is to protect the wine from oxidation.

If the unfortified wines are fuller bodied, they may be selected to become oloroso sherries. These wines will age under the influence of oxygen, and will develop a robustly savoury, meaty character that is completely different from manzanilla. These oxidative sherries are a subject for another occasion.

Finer, more delicate wines will likewise be put in barrels that are not entirely filled, leaving room for air. Almost immediately, in the barrel, a layer of yeast begins to develop on the exposed surface of the wine. This yeast, or flor, imparts the fascinating nutlike, almondy character of dry sherry.

The historical reason for fortifying sherry was to stabilise the wine for shipping. With sherry, the level of fortification indicates what sort of wine it will become. Those intended to age under flor are fortified to about 15 per cent alcohol, an environment in which the yeast flourishes. Those intended to be olorosos are fortified to somewhere above 17 per cent, which kills the flor.

Other wines in the world also age with the benefit of flor-like yeast, like certain white wines from the Juraj region of France, which are said to be aged under a veil of yeast, or sous voile. These wines exhibit some similarities to sherry, but they come from a different place, are made with different grapes, are not fortified, and they are not aged as sherry is, in a solera.

The solera is almost synonymous with sherry. It is a complex method of blending vintages over time so that newer wines are gradually mixed with older ones to eventually produce a sherry encompassing many different vintages.

If sherry is aged under flor long enough, the flor will eventually begin to disappear, and the wine will continue ageing with direct exposure to air. These sherries that begin aging under flor and end ageing oxidatively are amontillados.

If the wine is bottled while it is still under flor, it will be a fino sherry, with one exception: Those finos aged in the seaside township of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are called manzanilla.

What distinguishes manzanilla from other finos? If all fino sherries are pungently briny, manzanilla is even more so. Ask the people who live in Sanlúcar, and they will tell you it's because of the salt breeze that blows in constantly off the Atlantic.

Manzanilla has another singular characteristic - its texture, which feels almost fragile next to richer finos. This combination of intensity and weightlessness is pure joy to sherry lovers.

As always, I recommended three bottles to sample over the last month: Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla La Gitana, Bodegas Yuste Aurora Manzanilla and Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa en Rama Saca de Primavera 2018.

These wines offered quite different expressions of manzanilla, revealing more about how the wines were produced.

La Gitana was a classic example of modern manzanilla, brilliantly clear and light-bodied, yet briny and saline, with floral and olive highlights. It was delicious, exactly what you are happy to get in a restaurant if you order a glass of manzanilla.

The Valdespino was similar and yet entirely different. It was darker than La Gitana, almost amber, and while the aromas and flavors of olives, nuts, flowers and ocean brine were not so different, they were far more intense, lingering long after swallowing. The Valdespino was also more textured, offering a grittier feeling than the gliding Gitana.

That leaves the third bottle, the Yuste Aurora, which occupied a middle ground. It, too, was darker and fuller bodied than La Gitana, perhaps a little more nutlike and floral than saline in its flavours. It actually made me think more of a fino than a manzanilla.

Yuste was the least transparent in its labelling. I had to ask its importer for help in determining that it was bottled in November 2018, just about halfway between the other two. I can only speculate on its production, though I would guess it likewise received more filtering than the Valdespino and less than La Gitana. NYTIMES