Setting the scene
Roussillon stands alone, proud and independent. For many years it suffered a union of convenience with the Languedoc, when the wines of two relatively unknown areas lacked any reputation, and when it was simpler to refer to the departments of the south, without differentiating between them, as Languedoc-Roussillon. Roussillon deserves so much more than that; it needs to come out from under the shadow of the Languedoc and stand alone. Its history is different, its language is different and the wines are quite different and original. Much of Roussillon is Catalan, with strong links to Catalonia in Spain. The local language is Catalan, whereas the Languedoc is part of Occitanie, where Occitan is the local language. Roussillon did not become fully part of France until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.
The original reputation of Roussillon is founded on what are rather clumsily called Vins Doux Naturels, VDN for short, fortified wines for which the key grape varieties are Muscat and Grenache, with their easily attained high alcohol levels making them the most suitable varieties. The natural sweetness is the sugar that remains in the juice after fortification. The wine growers tend to simply refer to the Vins Doux Naturels as vins doux, in contrast to their table wines, or vins secs. These are a relatively recent development in Roussillon. It is only in the last 20 years or so that vins secs have overtaken Vins Doux Naturels in importance. The first appellations in Roussillon appeared in 1936 and were for Vin Doux Naturel; the first appellations for vins secs did not follow until 1971, for red Collioure, and 1977 for Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, admittedly a few years before the key appellations of the Languedoc, in 1985.
Essentially Roussillon equates to the department of the Pyrénées-Orientales. Its boundaries are limited by the Pyrenees, with the Canigou the highest peak, at 2,785 metres, providing an important landmark. To the north, the foothills of the Corbières massif separate it from the Languedoc vineyards of Corbières itself, with the ruined Cathar castle of Quéribus and the lookout tower of Tautavel dominating the skyline.
Usually I have approached Roussillon from the Languedoc, driving south on the motorway. You pass Fitou, the last village of the Languedoc, reaching the extraordinary fortress of Salses shortly after, by which time you are in Roussillon and in northern Catalonia. In the distance is the outline of the Pyrenees, which are snow-capped for much of the year. These mountains unify the two halves of Catalonia. The fortress of Salses was first constructed in the fifteenth century and adapted by Vauban in the seventeenth century. It is well worth a visit, which you can easily do from the motorway aire, without leaving the motorway itself. Taking a slower and more scenic route over the hills from Corbières, you come past the castle of Quéribus and descend into the Agly Valley past either Vingrau and Tautavel or Maury. Alternatively, for still more dramatic scenery, there is the most stupendous of all the Cathar castles, the Château de Peyrepertuse, from which you could take in the Gorges de Galamus to St Paul-de-Fenouillet.
Three principal rivers cross the region to meet the Mediterranean. The most northern is the Agly, with the twin appellations of Maury and Maury Sec, as well as many of the villages of Côtes du Roussillon Villages. The Agly Valley really is the core of the vineyards of Roussillon, with awe-inspiringly majestic scenery. The vineyards peter out after Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes, as the climate becomes cooler. If you carry on west along the valley past Axat and drive through the dramatic Defile de Pierre-Lys, with its threatening overhanging rocks, the next vineyards you encounter are those of fresher, more bucolic Limoux. The middle river is the Têt, which flows past the city of Perpignan and the northern edge of Les Aspres, where the vineyards are on undulating slopes. Then to the south there is the Tech, which meets the sea just north of the resort of Argelès and the vineyards of Banyuls and Collioure. Even without wine, Collioure and Banyuls would be worth the journey. Banyuls has an attractive seafront, with statues by Aristide Maillol, who was born here, and Collioure, dominated by its castle, is an enchanting fishing port with lively streets, known for its anchovies. The appellations stand slightly apart from the rest of Roussillon. The vineyards are even more dramatic than those of the Agly Valley, sitting on steep terraced hillsides, where mechanization is virtually impossible and heroic viticulture is the order of the day.
There are many strands to the wines of Roussillon. With some exceptions among the wine estates near the coast close to Perpignan, the vineyards are all on hillsides, some gentle, some much steeper. The flatter land to the west of Perpignan is a vast market garden, above all for apricots and peaches. March is a wonderful time to be there; the orchards are flowering and spring is coming, with vivid splashes of delicate blossom. The climate is essentially Mediterranean, but with climate change it is becoming much less consistent. The winds can blow hard. Winters are usually mild, and summers are hot, with drought conditions increasingly prevalent, having an inevitable impact on yields. As a result of the formation of the Pyrenees, the soil is enormously varied, more diverse than just about any other vineyard of France, with the exception of Alsace. Maury is based on schist, there is granite at Lesquerde and you will also find clay and limestone, marl, sandstone and gneiss. The variations are infinite.
As for grape varieties, Grenache Noir is the key variety for red wine, with the added attraction of old vines. You will see vineyards of gnarled, stubby bush vines that withstand the strong winds. Usually the wines are field blends, featuring all three colours of Grenache, often with some Carignan for good measure. There is growing interest in Carignan, with its acidity providing an important balance to Grenache. Syrah and Mourvèdre also feature, and to a lesser extent Cinsault, which was previously considered too light and not suitable for Vins Doux Naturels. The likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are relatively rare in Roussillon.
For white wine, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris are important, as is Macabeo, the traditional white grape of Catalonia, which is much less common in the Languedoc. You will also find Carignan Blanc (Carignan Gris is very rare) along with Malvoisie du Roussillon, or Tourbat, which has fallen from favour, but may be in line for a revival. Vermentino, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier also feature in the appellations, and you may find occasional examples of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the IGPs. Muscat, both Muscat à Petits Grains and Muscat d’Alexandrie, is of course significant for Muscat de Rivesaltes, and also as a vin sec. One of the surprises and discoveries during my research was the quality of the white wines of Roussillon. It is an enigma that so many of the wines simply do not taste as though they come from a hot climate. You could be forgiven for thinking that the climate of Roussillon would be completely unsuitable for white wine, but other factors come into play, such as altitude, the proximity of the mountains and the suitability of the indigenous varieties to the terroir.
The red wines have evolved enormously, with many changes and developments over the years. Winemaking has become more refined, with less heavy-handed extraction, less use of small oak barrels and a shift towards bigger demi-muids and even foudres. You will also find eggs and amphorae. There is a quest for lower alcohol levels. People are experimenting with orange wines and wines without any added sulphur, even wine growers who I would have thought more conventional in their approach than the natural winemakers, for whom any additions or interventions are anathema. The natural wine movement has a firm foothold in Roussillon, centred on the village of Latour-de-France, and is popular with many of the new arrivals in the region. Like the Languedoc, Roussillon attracts outsiders, from elsewhere in France and from other countries and continents. The price of vineyards is such that they are accessible to those with more limited means. Often the newcomers have moved from other fields of activity, bringing a different perspective to a second career in wine. Although production was once dominated by the village cooperatives, these have become very much less important, with an escalation in the number of independent wine estates, each trying to make its mark. Several of the wine estates that I visited have made their first wines within the last five years, and certainly within the past ten years. Work in the vineyards has evolved. Organic viticulture and biodynamic practices are increasingly important, while some growers prefer to follow the requirements of Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE), which places an emphasis on biodiversity. There is a widespread awareness of climate change and its impact, particularly on yields and grape quality.
Often the appellation requirements are questioned, with the restrictions found to be limiting. Consequently, the principal IGP, Côtes Catalanes, is widely used by those who prefer more flexibility and who find the appellations irksome; the IGP allows for single varietals, which are often particularly successful for white wine. Although blending is the essence of the appellations of Roussillon, sometimes a wine grower does not have the necessary proportions in their vineyards, and will again resort to the IGP (Pays d’Oc is less important in Roussillon than in the Languedoc). And for those who will have no truck with any regulations, there is always Vin de France. Do not dismiss a Vin de France from Roussillon; there will be a good reason why the wine is a Vin de France rather than an appellation or IGP. You may not like it, but it will have been made with passion and commitment.
The most original aspect of wine in Roussillon remains without doubt its Vins Doux Naturels, with the appellations of Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes. Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes cover virtually the whole department, while Maury and Banyuls are focused on those two villages. The Vins Doux Naturels take two forms: reductive and oxidative. The reductive wines, Rimage and Grenat, are a more recent development, while the oxidative wines are an intrinsic part of the history and traditions of Roussillon. They may be described as rancio if they have developed the particular characteristics while ageing, in either a barrel or a glass jar exposed to the elements and extremes of temperature.
However, Rancio Sec, an old tradition that so nearly disappeared, describes a wine that is not fortified, merely aged for several years in barrel without any ouillage. Some say that historically rancio preceded the Vins Doux Naturels, as rancio does not require fortification. It is neither a Vin Doux Naturel, nor a vin sec, but depends on oxidative ageing to develop some wonderful original flavours, not dissimilar to fino sherry. Rancio Sec nearly disappeared, as so few people were making it, but happily a group of fervent enthusiasts managed to stem its decline, and now it features as a category of both Côtes Catalanes and Côte Vermeille.
One of the enigmas of Roussillon is the decline in its Vins Doux Naturels. The best, the Hors d’Age, which have spent at least five years in barrel, are truly wonderful original wines, and yet they have fallen from favour. How can their decline be halted? Another puzzle is why Roussillon has not acquired the cachet of Priorat. My friend and colleague Andrew Jefford describes Roussillon as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat, observing that ‘the wines are just as “mineral”; no less overwhelming; often fresher.’ I could not agree more.
Altogether this book is the fruit of some 30 days of research on the ground, totalling almost one hundred cellar visits concentrated between June 2019 and September 2020. What follows is the distillation of those conversations and tastings, capturing the current concerns and enthusiasms of the wine growers I talked to. As I was putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, the wines of 2020 were finishing their fermentations and being racked into barrel or vat. Despite the problems and challenges of Covid-19, the wine growers were happy with the harvest.
Wendy Wilson of Domaine le Soula describes the region as ‘a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered’. So, I would urge you to discover the region for yourselves, first via the pages of this book, preferably with a glass in hand, but I also hope that it will encourage you to visit in person, once we are able to travel freely again.
Extract from The wines of Roussillon © Rosemary George (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
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A bird’s eye view of the terrain
If we could board a boat in the canton of Valais where the Rhône emerges from the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps, we would glide down the river for three weeks or so before it emptied us out in the Mediterranean. In all, we would cover 813 kilometres of waterways. And what an idyllic trip it would be: by the time we reached Lyon we would have already passed through some fascinating wine regions, drinking Chasselas, Petite Arvine and Humagne Rouge along the way. But it’s just south of Lyon that the wine region known as the Northern Rhône begins, and it’s here that we pick up the story, following its twists and turns through the Southern Rhône as the river meanders its way to the sea.
The Northern Rhône runs from Vienne to Valence (or a little further south if you include the resurgent appellation of Brézème). Today, the river runs broadly north to south, following the eastern edge of the hulk of granitic and metamorphic rock known as the Massif Central. The vineyards don’t stray far from the river; the majority are perched on the dramatic slopes of the west bank of the Rhône. The only two appellations on the east bank of this stretch of the river are Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Although the Northern Rhône receives a lot of attention it makes up just 5 per cent of the wine produced by Rhône Valley vineyards.
The Northern and Southern Rhône are connected by a river and a few shared grape varieties but are otherwise distinctly different, not only in soil type, but also in climate, flora and the typical character of its inhabitants. There is little in the way of vineyards in the 25 kilometres between the Northern Rhône and Montélimar, the town that marks the gateway to the Southern Rhône. As the river continues its journey south from here, the valley opens up and spreads wide. The Southern Rhône is less verdant, flatter, and the trees are notably different; suddenly there are olive groves, tall cypresses and Aleppo pines. Apart from fields of lavender, the landscape has more yellows and browns than the Northern Rhône, particularly in summer. The Southern Rhône growing area is vast; if you include the appellation of Duché d’Uzès, it covers more distance east to west than it does north to south. East of the river, the vineyards occupy as much land as they can before they hit the inhospitable Prealps. To the west, they stretch to the Cévennes. Follow the Rhône as it dog-legs south-west at Avignon, and you’ll get to Costières de Nîmes and eventually the Mediterranean Sea. Skirt around the southern edge of Mont Ventoux instead and you’ll enter the Luberon. All of this makes up the geologically diverse land that produces the remaining 95 per cent of Rhône Valley wines.
The Rhône, here not restricted by the Massif Central, has changed its snaking course over millennia, switching paths like channels of rain down a windowpane. Although only the fourth longest river in France, it is powerful and fast moving, bringing vast amounts of debris on its journey from the Alps, including the emblematic pale-brown stones known as galets roulés that have been rounded and polished over centuries by rivers and glaciers. There is no direct translation in English for the French term galet roulé; the closest approximation would be ‘cobblestone’ but this brings to mind something smaller and more uniform. Galets roulés vary in size, typically anything from a hen’s egg to a human head, occasionally even larger, and they vary in colour from cream to brown to crimson. They are most commonly associated with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but deposits from various sources are found all over the Southern Rhône.
The east bank is more extensive, with more varied terrain than that of the west bank, and three different types of growing area. Firstly, there are a number of raised terraces, typically at around 100–150 metres, of ancient alluvial deposits over clay, sand or gravels (or any combination), which tend to produce powerful and potent wines. Secondly, there are three rolling low massifs: Massif d’Uchaux (280 metres), Ventabren (390 metres) and the Visan Valréas Hills (500 metres), each with their own character. Thirdly, there is the mountainous terroir among the Dentelles de Montmirail, on the slopes of Ventoux and around the Montagne du Luberon.
Southern Rhône ‘côtes’ don’t overlook the river Rhône as those in the Northern Rhône do. Instead they overlook the main tributaries of the Rhône that criss-cross the terrain, principally the Aigues, Ouvèze and Lez on the east bank, the Cèze, the Tave and the Ardèche on the west bank. Although there are plentiful rolling hills and plateaux on the west bank, the valleys of the Cèze and Tave are broader and the vineyard land tends to be lower and flatter – vineyards don’t scale the slopes to the extent they do on the east bank. It is however just as diverse in terms of soils. A few domaines start to ascend the Cévennes to the far west, but there is no mountain terroir to speak of. There is a difference in character between the wines of the west bank and those of the east bank. The red wines of the west bank tend to be relatively lean and straight, with a savoury mineral edge. Traditionally there have been larger volumes of white wine, pale red and rosé cultivated here. The red wines of the east bank are rounder and more generous and, for now at least, more varied in style, ageing for longer and reaching higher peaks of quality. Part of this distinction is down to the different types of soil typically found on each bank. There is more sand on the west bank, more clay on the east. Wines grown on the same soil type often share certain characteristics. Speaking about red wine:
- Granite: vibrant in colour, upright, serious, saline;
- Schist: perfumed, precise, airborne;
- Galets roulés: bold, high in alcohol, muscular, rounded;
- Clay: deeply coloured, thickly tannic and velvety, fruity, potent;
- Sand: pale in colour, elegant, fine tannins;
- Limestone: pale in colour, aromatically fresh, straight, lean, tense.
These are gross generalizations – needless to say these characteristics don’t always appear – but they are observations made after years of in-depth tasting. We’ll look at the terroir of each appellation as we address it.
Changing climate, changing wines
The climate is changing and winemakers need to adapt. Thankfully, Southern Rhône vineyards have plenty of varieties to play with, so planting later ripening ones that retain acidity and produce lower levels of alcohol is one possibility. ‘The problem is this region has been planting too much Grenache for decades,’ says Philippe Gimel of Saint Jean du Barroux in Ventoux. He believes looking into alternative varieties, perhaps from Spain, will be important in the future. Vincent Bouyer of Château Bizard in Grignan-les-Adhémar wonders if Tempranillo could work in his terroir. Other vignerons are planting late-ripening white varieties among their parcels of reds, and planting on cooler sites. Louis Chèze in northern Saint-Joseph is now planting white varieties on north-facing slopes. Pierre-Jean Villa in Condrieu advises that ‘before changing varieties, we should think about rootstocks,’ and has had some success by using once ill-advised alternatives such as rupestris du lot and gravesac. Using different clones and changing pruning methods back to gobelet could also help bring back balance, as could reducing planting densities. Irrigation could have numerous benefits, reducing hydric stress, helping to maintain yields, helping to preserve acidity and limiting alcohol levels – but there are downsides.
Adapting their methods to account for climate change may help vignerons produce balanced wines for longer. But these are short-term fixes that do little to address the causes of our increasingly chaotic climate. I’ve heard precious little from wineries about renewable energy, carbon capture, bulk shipping or lighter weight bottles. It’s not surprising therefore that some winemakers’ attitudes are fatalistic. ‘We’re going back to the old ways,’ says Thibaud Chaume of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud in Vinsobres, referring to polycultural farming. ‘I’m planting lavender, fruit trees,’ he says, as a way of hedging against climate change. Adrien Fabre of Domaine la Florane in Visan is doing the same. ‘You can’t irrigate the slopes,’ he says with a shrug of resignation.
It’s not bad news for every part of the Rhône. A warming climate has opened up areas such as Puyméras to more consistent, better quality wines. James King of Château Unang in Ventoux admits it’s also been the key to making better wines in his cool microclimate: ‘now nature is on our side,’ he says. It might be at present: whether it still is in twenty years, time will tell.
Extract from Wines of the Rhone © Matt Walls (Infinite Ideas, 2021)
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Into the glass
Like all wines, sherry’s raison d’être is to give pleasure. And like all great wines it gives pleasure in complex ways appealing to all the senses. As soon as it is poured into a glass it shows its colour and clarity. A lot can be learned simply by looking at it. Then comes its appeal to the nose. The bouquet of a good sherry strikes the nose while it is being poured into the glass, sometimes even from the next room. The nose is a major organ of tasting, receiving the first sensations. For this to happen the wine needs room for the volatile compounds to collect and concentrate above its surface, contained in the space defined by the glass, which should therefore taper in towards the top and be big enough for the wine only to occupy about a third of it. The little thimbles sold as ‘sherry glasses’ with the wine filled to the brim do not give it a chance. Apart from the bouquet ascending to the nose, the colour and viscosity can be appreciated. These features reveal the character of the wine and lay the foundations for the pleasure it can give in the mouth. There is a difference between aroma and bouquet. The aroma is the smell of a young wine, while the bouquet develops with age as the wine matures, giving a complexity that can be immense, subtle and complex.
Many wine lovers begin by being interested in one or other of the great table wines; they are perplexed by the many styles of sherry and sometimes never seek out ones that really satisfy them. It is essential to try all the styles. The final choice depends on the time of day, the weather, and the other wines that are taken with the meal. Above all, it depends on what one happens to like. It is not easy to advise anyone. There is only one hard and fast rule: judge for yourself and drink what you enjoy. No one has the right to tell others what they should drink, but that has never prevented people asking. The only possible answer is that people who drink sherry regularly generally agree about the styles that suit certain occasions, and it is as well to try following their example first. Then by all means be original; your own taste is all that matters. To be dogmatic is a form of ignorance, and often a manifestation of wine snobbery. Other people’s views may act as a guide, but they are only opinions and should be treated as such.
For those who enjoy a glass of wine and a biscuit in the morning, any style of sherry is suitable, though the majority prefer a dry wine when the weather is hot and a sweeter one when it is cold. It is here that the fuller-bodied wines – amontillado, palo cortado and dry oloroso – come into their own. In the sherry country there is a saying that one should have a glass of oloroso mid-morning to prepare the stomach for the serious drinking of fino before lunch.
Very dry sherry has an unaccountable snob appeal, but habitual wine drinkers do generally prefer such sherries as aperitifs. My own preference is certainly for a bone dry aperitif save in the depth of winter, when the sugar in a slightly abocado sherry is very comforting. In choosing an aperitif one must obviously bear in mind the table wine that follows. A very old amontillado would destroy the flavour of a Moselle; it would even overpower many Burgundies. Wine lovers like to arrange a progression of flavours, leading up to a big white wine, like a Burgundy or Rhône, with a light manzanilla or fino sherry; but many white wines, like those from the Saar or Loire valleys, or the north of Spain, are light in themselves and have high acidities so that instead of a progression there is a rather unsatisfactory contrast. Here an amontillado, a palo cortado or a dry oloroso can be better; and sherries such as these with the soup provide just the right degree of contrast when champagne is served as an aperitif. Claret can follow a fino, young amontillado or delicate palo cortado; Burgundy can withstand a somewhat older amontillado or an oloroso; a Rhône wine, a big Spanish red, or a super Tuscan can safely follow an old sherry. Old palo cortados and olorosos, whether dry or sweet, are excellent with cheese, particularly blue and green cheeses, and goats’ or ewes’ milk cheeses such as queso Manchego.
A dessert sherry should generally be more or less sweet, though a dry palo cortado or oloroso can be delicious after lunch on a hot summer’s day. A wine to be drunk at the end of a meal should have plenty of body, and although I have enjoyed an old amontillado after lunch, palo cortado or oloroso is generally more attractive. Earle Welby was undoubtedly right when he wrote that sherry is far better than port after champagne.
Pedro Ximénez had long been used in the sherry country as a blending wine but was seldom drunk by itself, though locally it was thought good for nursing mothers. Then, in the 1990s, shippers began to bottle and sell it. Perhaps they had a surplus, as wines like brown sherry were going out of favour. Pedro Ximénez is slightly viscous, sticky and very sweet, but these qualities give it an appeal of its own. It tastes delicious poured over a vanilla ice-cream and the rest of the bottle can then be drunk with the ice-cream, a food that is usually impossible to match with wine. And when Pedro Ximénez ages it develops real distinction; although still very sweet, its after-taste becomes almost dry, complex and very long.
Sherry is generally at its best with food. In Spain, it is taken with a tapa. The word means a lid, or cover, and is said to be derived from an old Spanish custom of putting a plate with a morsel of food on top of the glass. Bars in Spain compete with one another in providing good tapas, and the choice includes such things as cheese, prawns, fish, small steaks, tomatoes, olives, potato salad, chips, pâté, fried squid, fancy sausages (notably chorizo), egg including cold Spanish omelette, meatballs, salt cod, ham and a multitude of specialities. Fino sherries are particularly good with food. My own favourite working lunch is a large glass of fino with a salad or with more easily portable food such as a slice of quiche or a well-filled sandwich. It even tastes good with an egg mayonnaise sandwich, something which defeats most wines.
While the second edition of this book was in the press I got married and proudly took my wife to a vintage feast in Jerez. Soon after midnight the two of us, walking with a sherry-shipping friend in the feria, began to feel the need for dinner. We were passing by a stand where they were spit-roasting chickens, basted with oil and flavoured with the most delicious herbs. I ordered a chicken and a bottle of fino. ‘A whole bottle, for three?’ Deborah asked, aghast. But she did not bat an eyelid when I ordered the second. It is, after all, very little stronger than many table wines and one drinks more with impunity when well exercised and in the Andalusian air.
Sherry is a white wine, and the general rules for serving white wines apply. A fino tastes better if it is chilled but not frozen and this is especially so in hot weather; wines of greater body need only be slightly cool, for instance at cellar temperature; and dessert sherries are best served on the cool side of room temperature, though cream sherry nowadays is sometimes served ‘on the rocks’ as a refreshing drink. On no account should any sherry be warmed.
Sherris-sack was first drunk from silver vessels – and they usually held a man’s measure. Then, during the seventeenth century, Venetian glass was introduced into England, and it was generally drunk from flute glasses. A wide choice of wine glasses is available today; many of them are aesthetically very beautiful, but few are suitable for drinking wine out of, and the small so-called ‘sherry glasses’ are by far the worst of all. Among the worst are those that narrow towards the middle: so-called Elgin glasses and schooners. The former are said to have been designed by an extraordinarily mean peer who wanted his guests to think they were getting a good measure when they were not. One of the best things about sherry is its deep, penetrating fragrance that prepares the palate for the flavour of the wine; the bouquet of a good sherry is so attractive that one can enjoy it without tasting the wine at all. Sherry needs a big glass with plenty of room for the full fragrance to gather within it. Tulip-shaped wine glasses filled only half-way are very good, but the special tall tasting glasses, known as dock glasses and used in the wine trade, are better still. The ISO glass, now widely available, is a good example. These are from five to seven inches high and gently taper in towards the top; they should only be filled to the height of one inch or two. A smaller version which is good is the copita. But good glasses not only show up the beauty of a wine, they also reveal its faults. There is a saying in Jerez: solo hay dos clases de Jerez, el bueno y el mejor – ‘there are only two kinds of sherry, the good and the better’, but there are a few sad exceptions in the cut-throat competition of today, and most of these find their way to public bars, where small glasses may perhaps not always be out of place.
What happens to sherry after it has been bottled depends very much on its style. A fino is never at its best after more than three months in bottle and this is especially so with wines sold en rama. Light amontillados also deteriorate and coarsen in bottle, but rather more slowly. Strange things can happen when dry sherries are kept for a long time. In my own cellar I laid down some fine palo cortado rather more than thirty years ago. For the first three or four years it improved; then it went through a bad patch that lasted for six or seven years. After that it came out on the other side, showing great age and elegance that improved annually until the wine had about twenty-five years’ cellaring. Then it began to go off.
An unsweetened oloroso remains unharmed for several years. If the wine is sweetened, its behaviour is quite different. Light amontillados do not improve but they last far longer than finos and can safely be kept in bottle for two or three years. The development of a medium-quality amontillado in bottle over a long period of years is extremely speculative. Many years ago I inherited three bottles of an identical, slightly sweetened amontillado that had been in my grandfather’s cellar for twenty years. One had absorbed all its sugar and had become a bone dry, very smooth wine of outstanding character, while the other two were dreadful. A really first-class amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso, if it is initially sweetened, develops in bottle and steadily changes. It gradually consumes its sugar, and becomes remarkably smooth while the bouquet and flavour grow exceptionally. Such wines are said to have ‘bottle age’. Given long enough in the bottle, a dessert oloroso can become absolutely dry, though this may well take fifty or sixty years. I have tasted a sherry that had been in bottle for over a hundred years, and it was truly remarkable. One of the finest dessert sherries I remember was a good oloroso my father bought before the war; it was still very sweet thirty years later, but had developed a remarkably mellow and complex flavour with a remarkable nose. Such wines develop with every year in bottle, and they have long been sought after by wine lovers. They should be kept at the very least ten years if the quality of bottle age is really to be appreciated. Then they are glorious.
Once the bottle has been opened, fino sherry oxidizes and gets coarse very quickly: the more delicate the wine, the more noticeable this is. A natural fino should be drunk within three days of opening the bottle, unless it is kept very cool, for instance in the door of a refrigerator, when it lasts twice as long; anyone who takes longer should buy half-bottles. Alternatively, as soon as a bottle of sherry is opened, half of it can be decanted into a clean half-bottle which, if immediately and tightly corked, preserves it almost as well as if the wine had not been opened at all, as there has been hardly any time in the air for it to become oxidized. Nowadays there are gadgets that help: one of these evacuates the space above the wine, while another fills it with inert nitrogen and carbon dioxide; both reduce oxidation.
The same thing applies to the other styles of sherry provided they are completely dry. Oxidation completely spoils them and since few people could wish to drink these wines very cold, the easiest way of ameliorating it is not available. They should be drunk within a week. The more body or sweetness a wine has, the longer it lasts and, at the opposite end of the scale, a brown sherry can safely be left for a month even in a decanter. Decanters are far less airtight than corked bottles, and sherry tends to deteriorate more quickly if it has been decanted. This does not generally matter, as a good wine seldom gets the chance to last for more than a day or two, and decanters are very decorative, but they are only really useful when the wine has been in bottle for two or three years and has thrown a slight deposit.
Strong wines such as sherry attack their corks, which crumble and leak, utterly spoiling them. This can be avoided if the bottles are stored upright, and this is always done in bodega reference rooms, where the wine is generally stored for three or four years. If it is kept upright for longer, there is the danger that the cork may get too dry and cease from being airtight, though I have never known it happen to a bottle of sherry. It is the reason why table wine bottles are binned horizontally, though. For sherry to be laid down, upright or horizontal, it should be corked with long corks of the first quality, like those used for vintage port. Nowadays metal screw-tops with thin plastic seals inside are rapidly taking over. This reduces the risk of oxidation and works very well, though when they were introduced in the 1980s the plastic was not entirely inert and I have known an amontillado become positively nasty after a couple of years. I would not expect this to happen now.
Sherry, like other wines, should be stored in a dark place, as light catalyzes oxidation. The traditional sherry bottle is made of very dark, almost black, glass and that helps. ‘Market forces’ however are calling for clear bottles. Wine in such a bottle should be kept in a dark place and certainly never exposed to direct sunlight.
There is a dictum of Robert Benchley that, ‘Drinking makes such fools of people, and the people are such fools to begin with, it’s compounding a felony.’ A man who drinks fine wine because he enjoys it will never become a drunkard: wine stops being a pleasure long before it becomes a danger. Taken the right way, it is wholly good. During the Great Plague, only Dr Hedges, of all the London doctors, escaped contagion; he drank a few glasses of sherris-sack every day, and wrote in his memoirs: ‘Such practice not only protected me against contamination, but instilled in me the optimism which my patients so much needed.’ There is a legend that many years ago there lived an archbishop of Seville who so far exceeded the decent complement of years laid down in Holy Writ as to reach the age of 125. He was a man of regular habits and drank a bottle of sherry with his dinner every day, save when he was feeling at all unwell; then he drank two bottles.
In Castile and the north of Spain sherry is given as a tonic to expectant mothers. When George C. Howell, of New York, examined the ages and habits of the sherry shippers in Jerez, he found that 10 per cent were light or very light drinkers, and the other 90 per cent were heavy drinkers; 10 per cent died before the age of seventy, and the other 90 per cent lived longer; 15 per cent lived to be ninety. If a sherry shipper dies aged less than seventy, his colleagues regard it as a case of infant mortality. Henry Swinburne recorded the curious fact that, ‘The earth in the cemeteries of Xeres, has the quality of preserving corpses incorrupted for years and ages.’ Some doubt has been cast upon the accuracy of this observation, but if indeed it was true, I am sure the quality of the earth had nothing to do with it: by the time a Jerezano dies, he is safely pickled by a lifetime of steady drinking.
When a Jerezano opens a bottle of sherry, he sometimes gives it a shake and throws a little on the floor before filling his glass. There is a good reason for this, as it gets rid of the wine that may have been corrupted by contact with the cork. But it is also a ritual – a sacrifice to the earth that gave the wine its being. Then he does the really important thing: he drinks the rest of the bottle. But he bears in mind the rule of St Gildas the Wise: ‘If any monk through drinking too freely gets thick of speech so that he cannot join in the psalmody, he is to be deprived of his supper.’
Extract (edited) from Sherry, Julian Jeffs (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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It was Mark Twain who observed ‘the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’. As far as I am aware Twain never visited Portugal but his quip about the weather in San Francisco might also be applied to Oporto and the north of Portugal. Anyone who has ever been to San Francisco in July will understand that the fog that rolls in off the Pacific overnight has a huge bearing on the climate of northern California and the style of the wines produced there. Substitute the Atlantic Ocean for the Pacific and the reasons for this climatic anomaly are much the same. During the height of summer the waters of the north Atlantic are still so cold (typically 16–18°C) that they cause a bank of fog to build up just off shore. It lurks there after sundown and rolls in silently during the early hours, the only noise being the sad boom of the fog horn on the molhe (breakwater) at the mouth of the Douro. Like the Golden Gate in San Francisco, the narrow estuary serves to funnel the fog upriver. At times it will cover more than half of northern Portugal, reaching fifty miles inland before gradually retreating back towards the coast as the sun burns through. In high summer the coastline from the Aveiro lagoon to the mouth of the River Minho and beyond is often shrouded in clammy fog until midday or even mid-afternoon.
The Atlantic Ocean exerts an influence over Portugal in its entirety. Even the Alentejo, 100 kilometres or more from the coast is, to some extent, under the sway of the prevailing Atlantic westerlies. But the oceanic influence is strongest on the littoral, a narrow strip of coastal plain 20 to 60 kilometres wide extending from the northern frontier with Spain, all the way down the Atlantic coast, before turning along the Algarve, where the maritime effect becomes more Mediterranean. To the north of Lisbon, the littoral is shaped by a series of interlocking river basins. Travelling from north to south, the lower reaches of the Minho, Lima, Cavado, Ave, Douro, Vouga and Mondego, and the ribeiras (streams) that drain the hills of Estremadura, provide ample sites for cultivating vines.
Climate is the uniting factor for a seemingly disparate group of wine regions with varying fortunes. In the north lies Vinho Verde, the most Atlantic of all Portuguese wines, covering a granite landscape that feels very much part of northern Europe. It merges, in places almost imperceptibly, with the Douro and then with Lafões on the River Vouga, which leads the Aveiro lagoon. Bairrada, a wine region which (climatic vagaries permitting) is now proving itself to be capable of excellence, sits in between this and the university city of Coimbra. This is an area traditionally dominated by the red Baga grape. The heavily irrigated lower Mondego valley provides a natural gap in the vineyards before they recommence around Leiria. Lisboa, the wine region that is now named after Portugal’s capital, used to be known as Estremadura and before that the Oeste. This is still Portugal’s most productive wine region, with the district of Lisbon itself capable of producing nearly a million hectolitres in a fruitful year. The Lisboa vineyards extend from the rural hills north of Leiria down the Atlantic coast into the suburbs of the capital. In the nineteenth century there was an internationally known fortified wine named ‘Lisbon’, which was a competitor of the better known wine from Porto. In the early twentieth century three very different enclaves representing white, red and fortified respectively – Bucelas, Colares and Carcavelos – were demarcated. Carcavelos succumbed almost totally to the westward expansion of Lisbon in the 1980s but has been saved from extinction and is now showing its worth once again. Bucelas and Colares are both undergoing a modest but welcome revival of fortune.
Just over a third of Portugal’s wine comes from these Atlantic vineyards but, partly due to the unpredictability of the climate, both quantity and quality can vary alarmingly. Average annual rainfall, perhaps the most representative measure of climatic differentiation within Portugal, is high throughout, from around 750 millimetres per year just north of Lisbon up to (or even in excess of) 2,000 millimetres in the northern mountains that form the boundary between the so-called litoral and the interior. But this is not generally a region of extremes: winters are mild and wet and summers are warm and mostly dry. Average annual temperatures range from 15°C in the south to 11°C in the north, in the mountains that create the rain shadow over inland Portugal. But when it comes to rainfall timing is everything. Most rain falls during the winter months but an Atlantic depression causing drab, damp weather in May and June is not uncommon. This reduces yields dramatically as well as increasing the risk of disease in the vineyard. A local proverb highlights this risk: ‘Maio é couveiro não e vinhateiro’ (May is a month for cabbages, not vines). However, late spring frost, a significant problem inland, is rarely a threat on the coast. High summer is usually dry, but while dry enough to cause hydric stress in those vineyards rooted in shallow soils there is still sufficient moisture in the air for disease to be a problem. Severe stress causes the vine to shut down as photosynthesis is limited and grapes stop ripening evenly. This difficulty is summed up in another local saying: ‘em agusto secam os montes, em setembro as fontes, em outubro tudo’ (in August the hills dry up, in September the springs, in October everything). During September growers play a tense waiting game, balancing the ripening of their grapes with the looming threat of autumn rain. The summer weather often breaks around the September equinox and the expectation of a fine crop can be cruelly dashed at the last minute when the heavens open and the rain continues to pour down for the two or three weeks pencilled in for the harvest. White grapes are now being picked earlier (sometimes from late August) but some indigenous red grapes are slow to ripen. In some years, growers on Portugal’s Atlantic seaboard are tempted to pick early, often before their grapes have reached optimum ripeness, and this shows up with a green streak in the wines.
Atlantic Portugal is undoubtedly a challenging place to grow grapes and make wine but thankfully there are plenty of growers and winemakers who feel that it is worth the effort. Although total production has been shrinking, a new generation of growers is discovering (or in some cases rediscovering) their own terroir. ‘This is not the place to be an absentee farmer’, as one quality-conscious grower in the Lisboa wine region asserted. With perceived climate change, grape growers are taking their holidays earlier. The variability of the weather means that snap decisions have to be taken in the vineyard in order to protect the crop and produce worthwhile wine. Some extremely worthwhile and sometimes age-worthy wines – red, white and occasionally fortified – are being made all the way down the Atlantic seaboard (which now also includes isolated vineyards on the maritime stretches of the Setúbal district and the Alentejo, covered in Chapter 5). There are also volume wines being made to meet key price points on domestic and international markets.
With a few exceptions the wines from Portugal’s littoral share a family resemblance. Levels of alcohol are rarely head-splittingly high and a streak of enervating acidity is never very far from the surface. In fact some winemakers are actively looking to produce wines with lower levels of alcohol at the same time as achieving physiological ripeness. Wines from vineyards closest to the sea may even capture a touch of Atlantic salinity. The Portuguese often use the term astringente (astringent) not as a pejorative but in its positive sense to describe that combination of firm tannin and acidity that is the hallmark of Portugal’s best Atlantic reds. Astringency gives the wines longevity, perhaps equalled only by the best reds from Bordeaux. Although the grapes are different there can be a real affinity with Bordeaux, a trait that was not overlooked during the phylloxera years, when this part of Portugal supplied the French with large quantities of red wine. It has taken over a century for wine producers in the Bairrada and Lisboa regions to rekindle their pride. Sometimes this is misplaced by producers who try to obtain a high price for something rather mediocre. But there are now many who are getting the balance right: in the vineyard, in the winery and increasingly with their sales and marketing. They are almost always the ones who have been prepared to reunite the vineyard with the bottle, seeing things through from the setting out of a new vineyard to presenting their wine at a tasting in Lisbon, London or New York. The key to making good wine in Atlantic Portugal is to be in control.
Extract from The wines of Portugal © Richard Mayson (Infinite Ideas, 2020)
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