On the Trail

Beautifully, Confusing Amontillado

Olivia Ragni

Lately, it seems Sherry drinkers have been so wrapped up in the mystery of palo cortado, they have forgotten about the style that can be even more interesting and diverse—amontillado.  The ambiguity of palo cortado has left people enamored with learning about the style, leaving possibly the most varied and mysterious style of Sherry off consumers' radar. Sherry is known for having distinct styles— fino, manzanilla, oloroso, cream, Pedro Ximenez— but lesser known is the amount of variety within each style. Ask Jerezanos what their favorite style of Sherry is, and the resounding majority of them will tell you amontillado. The wine’s versatility means that you can find an amontillado to pair perfectly with virtually any dish put in front of you. Since sherry is almost always consumed with food in Jerez, this may explain Jerezanos infatuation with amontillado.

So, what exactly is amontillado? Amontillado has the rare ability to take on characteristics of a fino and an oloroso, while at the same time being neither of those wines. As a fino ages, the amount of nutrients necessary to sustain flor (surface yeast) decreases. When the flor dies, the wine begins to age oxidatively, like an oloroso. It is at this point that the wine becomes an amontillado, having gone through both biological and oxidative aging. Each bodegas has their own secret to making Amontillado that's why Amontillados vary widely from producer to producer. Some amontillados show closer to finos (ones that have had many years of biological aging), others show closer to olorosos (ones that have had less time aged biologically and much more time aged oxidatively) and the rest fall everywhere in between. This is the beauty of amontillado, having bright, floral, briny flavors from biological aging and nutty flavors from oxidative aging. It is both fino and oloroso and neither fino nor oloroso at the same time. And you thought palo cortado was confusing.

The name amontillado comes from the wine’s resemblance to the wines from Montilla (“a Montilla,” or “from Montilla” meaning in the style of Montilla, becoming “amontillado”). Montilla is an area outside of the Sherry denomination with a more continental climate than Jerez. While they make great finos in Montilla, the climatic conditions make it a bit more difficult for flor to survive, resulting in wines similar to amontillados.  People from Montilla never let their friends from Jerez forget the style originated in Montilla.  Regardless of the origins of the name amontillado, Jerezanos have adopted amontillado as their own. Amontillados made in Jerez are complex and layered wines that span a spectrum of flavors, textures and ages. 

Manzanilla was the first Sherry I fell in love with years ago, but it was amontillado that stole my heart during this trip to Jerez. I finally understand why an old cask of amontillado was the Achilles Heel of Edgar Allen Poe’s character Fortunato. An old amontillado is like nothing else you will experience in the world of wine.  When I think about my favorite experiences of this trip, they all seem to involve an amontillado: a cask of old VORS Coliseo amontillado from Valdespino left me speechless (and tipsy), an ancient, exquisite cask of amontillado from Bodegas Baron in Sanlucar that opened my eyes to just how incredible the seaside amontillados from Sanlucar can be, and ultimately my favorite cask, a family-only (not for sale) amontillado from Bodegas Faustino Gonzalez that dates back to 1890 left my pensive. I was absolutely fascinated by the possibilities of this cask’s contents. Each time I had the pleasure of drinking from it, my mind would wonder about the history of the amber liquid in my glass.  How were the wines made 100-200 years ago? Surely very different than today. What varietals were they using? Possibly varietals that are no longer in use today. How many different vineyards supplied grapes to this cask over the years? Too many acres to count. And how many different winemakers and different winemaking techniques had a hand in creating this delicate Amontillado? It’s probably impossible to research in entirety, since the wine in the cask predates the Consejo Regulador.  Sherry is a complex wine with infinite possibilities, but one thing that holds true for all vinos de jerez is that every solera of Sherry contains a unique story. Like fingerprints, no two casks are the alike. Each time you have a sip of wine from an old solera, you are drinking a little bit of history.

I’m not trying to discourage you from drinking palo cortado, or any Sherry for that matter, but don’t forget about the versatility of amontillado.  The next time you’re eating something tricky to pair, like artichokes, cold Japanese acorn noodles, anchovies, tuna, mushrooms, game birds, or any other unique flavor, ask your local wine shop specialist for an amontillado. You’ll be pleased with the results and drinking like a true Jerezano. 

~Olivia Ragni