Wine Club: Sherry in its natural state

Fresh as the grapes it is made from 'en rama' sherry brings new flavours to a familiar wine.
Fresh as the grapes it is made from 'en rama' sherry brings new flavours to a familiar wine.
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Sunshine Flavour: The light, fresh taste of en rama is becoming the leading trend in sherry, writes Christine Austin.

‘If you taste sherry straight from the butt in Jerez it has a great deal of freshness and complexity. It is that character which is captured in ‘En Rama’ sherry.” Beltrán Domecq talks about sherry with a great deal of authority. A well as bearing one of the most famous names in the world of sherry, he is President of the Consejo Regulador of Jerez and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the governing body that controls sherry production.

I met up with Beltrán to taste through a whole range of ‘En Rama’ sherries, which are rapidly becoming the new taste of sherry. For those accustomed to buying a bottle of sherry and keeping it on the sideboard for several months, this style may come as a bit of a shock. The term ‘En Rama’ roughly translates as ‘in its natural state’ and it is the kind of product that really should come with a sell-by date. In fact many producers are starting to put bottling dates on the label, because this is a wine that should be bought and enjoyed within weeks, not months or years.

The real focus of en rama sherry is the light, fresh, styles of manzanilla and fino which are lightly fortified to around 15 per cent alcohol and then matured under a layer of yeast, known as flor for a minimum of three years. They are refreshed by the addition of younger wine, which keeps the flor active. During this process the yeast protects the surface of the wine from oxidation while at the same time changing the flavour to become sharper, tangier and deliciously refreshing. If the wine is matured in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda it becomes manzanilla with a particular, almost sea-salty tang, while fino is matured in Jerez and is still fresh and light with just a little more body and weight.

When a commercial sherries are ready to be bottled they are taken from the large wooden barrels known as butts where they have been maturing and then they go through a stabilization process of fining, chilling and filtration. This allows them to be bottled, shipped around the world and eventually sold, with the possibility that they will stay on a sideboard for months. En rama is different – these are the equivalent of fresh food. The wines are taken from the butt and given the lightest of treatments, so they are just stable enough to travel without going cloudy and they are sold through selected merchants. These bottles don’t end up on the shelves next to regular sherries; instead they are sold through a mailing list to people who enjoy these vibrant, lively flavours that represent the true taste of the region.

Once bought Beltrán believes they should be treated like the first asparagus of spring, and enjoyed within weeks for their delicious, lively flavours. “They should be kept for a maximum of six months because they have had such a light treatment and they may become unstable,” he said. Even storing them in a fridge may cause them to become slightly cloudy, which doesn’t affect the flavour but just might take a little getting used to.

I tasted through a range of 10 en rama manzanillas and finos, first sprucing up my tastebuds with a glass of Tio Pepe, which many regard as the benchmark regular fino sherry. That was classic with a crisp, lively, cold shower across the tastebuds feeling.

Moving on through the sweep of glasses I particularly enjoyed Lustau manzanilla en rama for its delicious light, lemony character and long salty finish. Barbardillo manzanilla Solear en rama bears a bottling date on the label, which is possibly the only way to know that you are buying the very freshest product. This had a fuller palate, rounded yet still fresh. Other favourites included Williams and Humbert Fino en rama for its vibrant, long finish and Una Palma from Gonzalez Byass for its sheer concentration while balancing fresh, lively yeasty flavours. Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino en rama also showed particularly well with vibrant freshness and a clear, new-baked bread yeastiness.

Local merchants who are definitely getting excited about en rama sherry include Field and Fawcett (01904 489073), Harrogate Fine Wine (01423 522270) and The Halifax Wine Company (01422 256333). They are all expecting a small delivery of Fernando de Castilla Antique Fino En Rama within a week or so which will be priced around £10 for a half bottle. If you want to taste sherry at its freshest then you need to get your name down for a bottle right now. And don’t put it in a decanter on the sideboard, just open the bottle and enjoy it. Sherry is great served with food. There are the classic accompaniments such as jamón and salted almonds with fino and manzanilla, but these light sherries can also be poured alongside fish dishes such as sushi, sashimi, and particularly with fried fish which is how the locals drink it. Chill it down and pour a glassful to be transported to the sunshine of Andalusia.

By the way, if you have some old-style schooner-shaped glasses in your cupboard, do yourself and your tastebuds a favour and get rid of them. Those ridiculous, small-waisted glasses were a way of controlling the amount poured in 1980’s steak bars. There is nowhere for the aroma to go, the liquid spills as you pick them up and they just don’t hold enough. Sherry should be served in a tulip-shaped glass, somewhat smaller than the sort used for red wine, but the same shape.

As a parting comment, Beltrán added: “We have some other ideas in the pipeline for sherry. So far we have never talked about specific vineyards within the region, but there are some fantastic vineyards making really special wines.”

After years in the doldrums sherry is getting a new image which can only be good news.