If you were to ask a Jerezano which wine they would take as a castaway on a desert island I am almost certain the majority would say Oloroso. Revered as the complete Vino Generoso - powerful, stylish, pronounced on the nose and pallet and, when made well, utterly ethereal. Nothing lights up the eyes of a Jerezano more than a glass of Oloroso.
Fairly inconspicuous outside Spain, Oloroso has remained something of a regional specialty. The quality is, therefore, generally quite high due to discerning and well-informed locals dominating the market.
In many ways it is understandable that Oloroso has not travelled far. Pronounced and classy, Oloroso is the pinnacle of the solera style and is often the most mature wine in a bodega’s stable. To be fully appreciated an incremental education in the wines from Jerez is helpful. Oloroso is the mantel for the Solera purist.
100% Oloroso may be a rare-delight in the UK, however, more Oloroso has been consumed here than any other style in history thanks to its inclusion in blends. Creams and Mediums are all made up of a mixture of around 4/5 Palomino Fino and 1/5 Pedro Ximenez. The former being dry Oloroso and the latter sweet PX which we also enjoy in its full distinct, individual glory as one of the sweetest wines in the world. The marriage between pronounced bota flavours from the Oloroso mixed with luscious sweetness from the PX has been a massive hit. Indeed, the international Sherry boom in the 20th Century came about thanks to these styles.
In terms of production, Oloroso follows a singular viticultural method. We have spoken before about the initial classification of mostos in the bodega. This is the moment when the capataz tastes each Palomino Fino mosto (the new fermented wine from the recent vintage) and decides its course. At this junction there are only 2 fates – biological aging (under a veil of flor i.e. Manzanilla or Fino) or oxidative aging (aged without flor and with direct contact with the bota i.e Oloroso).
Oloroso, therefore, is the innate oxidative style. Selected for its robust character, with a more pronounced flavour-profile, a powerful structure, and a generous texture these young wines are destined to evolve in bota. Once approved as an Oloroso style, neutral wine spirit is added to raise the ABV to around 18%, thereby preventing flor forming on the surface of the wine (flor can not survive at an ABV greater than 15%). Each bota is filled almost to the top and the vast majority of botas are made from American Oak, a wood with a larger grain than French or Eastern European Oak.
The botas are porous and within one calendar year 4% of the Oloroso is lost through evaporation. A phenomenon the winemakers charmingly offer as a gift by naming the deficit “the Angel’s Share”. Over the years the wine’s contact with the bota and blending of ages via the solera system creates a wine with a rich, amber hue packed with flavour. The transfer of oxygen through the botas porous grain also helps to soften the wine and create a smooth, layered texture. 12 years maturation go into a bottle of Diatomists Oloroso which allows the wine to mellow and the fruit to integrate completely.
The most common tasting notes are almonds, pecans, leather, cigar box, chocolate, coffee, vanilla, fudge. These are hardly surprising after years of contact with American Oak botas. What is remarkable are the fruit flavour profiles which can range from orange, lemon, apricot, mango, pineapple, date and fig often with a sun-baked quality and a clean, dry finish with legendary length.
Our own Diatomists Oloroso is, in Tommy’s own words, “an absolute bomb!”. Made at Garcia Jarana in a small Almacenistas in Jerez, tucked away in a labyrinth of narrow alleys, our visits are always greatly anticipated. Around 320 botas make up the small bodega dedicated to Amontillado and Oloroso.
Garcia Jarana itself is a labour of love and was started as a passion rather than a business. The present owner’s grandfather founded the small bodega out of a deep love for Amontillado and Oloroso. Indeed, he still visits the bodega today and drinks from his favourite bota. The inviting tables and chairs are evidence of the founder’s drinking sessions with his friends, known locally as tertulias (conversation and music being the other essential ingredients).
One of the reasons we enjoy tasting here so much, aside from the outstanding quality and folkloric surroundings, is the great variety from bota to bota. Despite the botas being side-by-side and the solera following the same sacas and rocios (the drawing-off of mature wine and adding of new wine to a solera) – each bota is its own world.
On deeper reflection, this should not surprise us. Don’t siblings come from the same parents and grow-up in similar conditions only to be as different as night and day. The variables are numerous, of course, from the grapes and vintages, to the oak tree that was felled to make the bota, to the location of the bota within the warehouse. Even the slightest variations in temperature and humidity can also make a marked difference.
Despite all this, Tommy and I are always amazed at the stark comparisons and enjoy nothing more than tasting through scores of botas in search of the Diatomist’s style.
What we look for above everything else is balance, concentration and ripe fruit and a good structure. The task is not for the faint-hearted and palate fatigue is a real concern when you arrive at the 30th bota. However, when the elixir is swirled around the mouth and the eyes brighten and meet in recognition of excellence it all becomes eminently worthwhile.
A particular tasting note we are always looking for is fragrance and ripe citric zest – particularly orange peel. Many Olorosos can be overly baked or heavy lacking freshness and acidity. We avoid these styles selecting instead botas that have a harmonious balance of pronounced oxidative flavours with integrated freshness from the fruit. Our selection process is in keeping with our focus on the exceptional potential of the terroir and the diatom rich soils that create these distinct styles.
As we come into the autumn proper there is no better time to try this quintessential Jerez style. To be served slightly chilled around 10-12 degrees, Oloroso pairs brilliantly with game, stews and pies – the cornerstones of winter cooking. As you would expect, it is also delicious without a meal to be sipped with nuts, charcuterie, or cheese. The stereotype is that wine-making regions always keep their best wines for themselves – the maxim holds some water in Jerez when it comes to the local’s cherished Oloroso.