Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sherry, Unfiltered

Gonzalez Byass En Rama Sherries

Last month at a dinner with some wine enthusiasts, I had the pleasure of tasting a style of sherry that has been earning rave reviews amongst sommeliers and wine critics, while simultaneously slipping under the radar of mainstream consumers. That it should go unnoticed is both unsurprising and somewhat of a pity, as sherry has never found much favour in Singapore. As a wine that can be drunk both before and after a meal, its versatility is also a source of confusion. Is it dry or sweet? What’s the difference between a Palo Cortado and an Amontillado? Can I drink the bottle of sherry that I bought for cooking? (The answer to the last, by the way, is no. Cooking sherry is a cheaper version of sherry that has salt and other additives to preserve its lifespan.) 

Sherry producers are not about to make things simpler. To the diverse list of styles can be added En Rama, a lightly filtered and unclarified Fino-style sherry that was first launched by Gonzalez Byass in 2010. The wine is taken from the middle of its cask during spring when the covering of yeast is at its thickest. Unlike other wines, fino sherry is aged under a protective blanket of yeast known as flor. As it feeds on nutrients in the wine, it also protects the wine from oxidation while imparting a yeasty aroma and flavour similar to bread dough. 

En rama perfectly captures the fashion of the moment towards a less interventionist winemaking style (e.g. think natural wines). While filtration minimises the risk of bacterial spoilage (from residual flor) and results in a more stable product, it also robs the wine of some character. Tasting a wine that has been bottled en rama is as close as you can get to tasting it straight out of the barrel. While en rama refers to the practice of bottling without any filtration, in practice a very light filtration is often employed to remove solid particles that may otherwise cloud the wine. 

Gonzalez Byass is the largest sherry house in Jerez, known for its Tio Pepe fino which can be found all over the world. The en rama version was made to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the house and made from a special selection of casks. Initially released only in the UK, its popularity encouraged the firm to double production in 2011 and export to other countries, although it is still very difficult to find as the wines are mainly distributed in the UK and US. The producer recommends that the sherry be drunk within three months of bottling while the character of the wine is at its freshest. 

Other sherry producers have been quick to take note. Bodegas Hildalgo released an en rama manzanilla sherry in 2011 under the La Gitana label, followed by Bodegas Lustau this year which released not one but three bottlings – two fino-style sherries and a manzanilla. The difference between a fino and manzanilla has to do with location; a manzanilla is made in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda where the moderate temperatures encourage flor growth, resulting in delicate sherries with pronounced iodine and salty notes. 

What en rama sherries lose in terms of ageability, it gains tenfold in character. Compared to regular finos, they show more depth of character and complexity, a sherry on steroids. The Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana En Rama Manzanilla I tasted displayed savoury and saline notes on a broad, nutty palate, with a long and lingering finish. A youthful and exuberant wine that left me completely, if you’ll pardon the pun, flor’d. 

We can only hope that some intrepid distributor will import a few cases of en rama sherries into Singapore, but in the meantime, if you would like to dip your toes into this category of wines, Taberna Wine Academy has a fascinating collection all the way from refreshingly light finos to the delectably sticky Pedro Ximinez.

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