Since we started the Diatomist project we have tried to stay clear of historical references. That is not to say that the town of Jerez and Sherry do not have an incredible past, in fact the opposite would be true. But we want to turn the focus to what is happening today, to the winemakers with albariza sugar-coating their boats.
Despite all that, I am going to break ranks and use an historical analogy to talk about our next style of wine in the kaleidoscope of Sherries – Amontillado. For me, Amontillado is one of the great redemption stories. A wine that was set on a particular course only to reinvent itself and become a glorious reincarnation.
My favourite tale of redemption is that of Henry V, as characterised by Shakespeare. The exile and later lacklustre heir who became the great King to march “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers” to victory at the battle of Agincourt.
Like Hal, Amontillado was destined for one thing and lost its way only to find a new course all of its own. Amontillados were, at the beginning of their biography, a biological wine. The veil of flor had spontaneously bloomed on the surface of the wine and started the marvellous alchemy of biological interaction. The capataz’s initial classification, in the bodega, had marked the bota as a Fino (for the botas in Jerez) or a Manzanilla (for the botas in Sanlúcar de Barrameda).
Tastings are carried out frequently in the bodegas to keep abreast of the wines’ development. In most cases the wine evolves as the capataz would expect. The biological styles continue to flourish under the veil of flor and the olorosos and pedro ximénez’s gain complexity from the solera and oak botas. Amontillados cross this divide and is the only style to have experienced both biological and oxidative aging. This gives the wine a unique story and a complex flavour profile which includes yeasty notes – like toast and brioche - as well as oxidative characteristics – notably hazelnuts and caramel.
The Amontillado style came about thanks to happy chance. The veil of flor died away naturally and an evolution took place. Today, the process is, to a certain extent, simulated by the bodegas. Most Amontillados will spend about the same amount of time under flor as a standard Fino or Manzanilla, between 3 and 5 years depending on the bodegas modus operandi. Pure alcoholic spirit (100% distilled Palamino Fino grapes) is then added to the bota to remove any remaining yeast and raise the ABV to between 16-22% and the wine will mature for a further 5 years or more, again as seen fit by the capataz and oenologist.
Diatomists’ Amontillado comes from an almacenista in the centre of Jerez called Bodega Juan Jarana García who specialise in Amontillados and Olorosos. For those of you unfamiliar with the term almacenista, these were traditionally small bodegas who did not have the right to bottle or ship their own wines and used to supply the larger shippers as and when they needed it. In recent years the Consejo (DO) have allowed almacenistas to operate independently which has opened up a rich source of untapped wines which would have previously been blended. For the first time these soleras can be bottled under their own name and display their distinct character.
The grapes used at Juan Jarana García come from a cooperative in Sanlúcar de Barrameda who own vines in Miraflores. The solera is over 100 years old and the botas are American oak with the standard capacity of 500 litres.
Diatomists select the botas that best reflect our style, always searching for a balanced structure, freshness and ripe fruit. Our Amontillado is aged for 12 years and carries a bright golden/mahogany in the glass. The aromas are pronounced with layers of toast, hazelnuts, caramel, apricots, and freshly cut hay. An extremely complex flavour profile, but all in perfect harmony. The palate is saline, round and silky with excellent structure. The sensation is similar to salted caramel as the mouth is piqued with ample acidity and a dry, thirst-quenching finish.
Food pairings with Amontillado are vast and an experimental spirit is well rewarded. My co-founders all have their top matches; Antonio is a fan of grilled asparagus with jamon and the delicious indigenous artichokes; Tommy swears by Toulouse casserole and I like to serve Amontillado with tuna steaks. Needless to say, Amontillado is delicious by itself also or with charcuterie, cheese or nuts as a classic aperitif or as a palate cleansing digestive.
We don’t know which style of sherry Henry V would have enjoyed in his own lifetime. Existing records only speak of Sack or Sherries without tasting notes or records of how the wine was actually made. The solera system was not used in Jerez for another 400-odd years so the present styles would be anachronistic to a Medieval pallet. However, there is no doubt the wine was transported in barrels and by boat so there would have been a period of bota-aging. Not to mention the possibility of flor forming whilst the wine was in the bodega. It is tempting to think that Henry V’s great drinking partner, Falstaff, was thinking of Amontillado when he wrote the greatest ode to wine ever put to verse:
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.