Lesson 22 – Spain, pt. 2

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Sommelier School

Lesson 22 – Spain, pt. 2

Hello everyone and sorry for the delay yet again. The real job and personal schedule sometimes conflict and honestly I sometimes just decide to take a day off 😉 This website is like a 2nd job sometimes. OK, enough of that!

This week we are going to finish up Spain. Specifically we are going to cover Cataluyna, Priorat, Cava, and Sherry. Get your thinking caps on because this is some serious stuff here.

Cataluyna or Catalonia as most of us know it is in the northern eastern part of Spain along the Mediterranean coast. In many ways it’s like its own country. It used to be. There is even a different language spoken; Catalan. This is still a part of Spain and Spanish is spoken too. You may see Catalan and Spanish terms used interchangeably. So that can be a bit confusing. I’ll try to stick to the Spanish terms as much as possible.

OK, so to give you some perspective, Barcelona is the best-known city here. The climate here is a fairly mild Mediterranean one and become more continental as you go inland. Vineyards can be as high as 2,600 feet as you get closer to the Penedès Mountains. Soils vary throughout the region with granite, limestone, clay, chalk, sand, and alluvial soils. Catalonia encompasses Priorat, and Cava among other DOs, so the above basically applies to all. Priorat is a small part of Catalonia, so it has less variations.

Let’s talk about Catalonia specifically (numbers 24-33 on the Map below). There are nine DOs here and one DOCa (or DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada) as it’s know here. Here is a list of them:

  • Alella (32)
  • Conca de Barberà (29)
  • Costers del Segre (24)
  • Empordà (33)
  • Montsant (27)
  • Pla de Bages (31)
  • Tarragona (26)
  • Terra Alta (25)
  • Penedès (30)
  • Priorat (DOCa) (28)

For the purposes of today, we are not going to cover all the DOs. At this level we just need to know Catalonia in general. The Catalonia DO was created in 1999 to encompass all of these areas really due to one of the largest producers in the region, Torres, needing something other than the Penedès DO as it was too restrictive for them.


English: Wine regions of Spain with denominación de origen (DO & DOCa) in 2008.

Date: May 2008

Source: Self-made (data taken from Ministerio de Agricultura and the respective consejos reguladores of the DO regions.)


Té y kriptonita based on Image:Comunidades_autónomas_de_España.svg created by Emilio Gómez Fernández


(Reusing this file)

GFDL or Creative Commons – Attribution – Share-Alike – 2.5

Grape varietals used here are Moscatel, Malvasía, Monastrell, Garnacha, Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Parellada, Tempranillo, and Cariñena (Carignan).  Wine of all styles are produced here. From sweet to dry; white, rose, red, and sparkling (Cava). Wine has also been produced here since at least Roman times and probably as early as the Phoenicians.

There are really two DOs here that we should make a mention of; Penedès and Priorat. As I mentioned before the producer Torres found that the Penedès DO was too restrictive in its laws governing winemaking. It is divided into 3 areas; Bajo Penedès, Medio Penedès, and Alta Penedès – Lower, Middle, Upper. As you get higher, more white grapes are used. Priorat also deserves a mention. 

Along with Penedès, Priorat has some really good wines. Priorat is a DOQ (the DOCa is Priorato). It is the preferred designation (see I told you they switch between Catalan and Spanish). Being that it is a DOQ and only one of two (Rioja is the other remember), wines from should be excellent. Much of this is attributed to René Barbier. Those of you that have been watch 1337 Wine TV for awhile will recognize that I’ve reviewed one of his Mediterranean whites. He is another large producer of wine here. He formed a group of producers to improve the quality of wines. Eventually the area grew in importance.

The area is very hot which also produces very ripe grapes. These grapes can produce high alcohol wines. The grapes are also very concentrated due to low yields. This is due to the soil known as Llicorella. It is a dark brown slate soil with quartzite. the soil gives the wine a mineral quality to it. Also, there is very little rainfall here. The wines here are not inexpensive, so if you are looking to splurge on a big, bold red, find a Priorat.

Next is Cava (mainly 30 on the map above, but Cava is a sparkling wine from anywhere in Spain). I’ve already mentioned it since Cava is from the Catalan area. Penedès is the home of Cava. So what is it? Spain’s answer to Champagne. It is a sparkling wine that is made in the same way as Champagne – the second fermentation is in the bottle. The varietals used here are Macabéo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo. There are two main producers of Cava here. Codorníu and Freixenet. Freixenet only uses these three varietals. Codorníu adds Chardonnay to help give their Cavas more body.

Finally we come the Sherry (54 on the map above). Now this is some complicated stuff. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible, but I can tell you my brain started hurting when I was researching it. So what is it? Sherry is a fortified wine from a specific region of Spain. It is also a protected name in Europe. Like Champagne, only fortified wine from this region can be called Sherry. In the United States, a “sherry” must indicate location, such as American sherry.

The region is called Andalucía, specifically around the town of Jerez, and it is in the southwestern part of Spain on the Atlantic coast just west of the Straits of Gibraltar. It’s hot here. And dry. This part of Spain is the hottest region with temperatures reaching 100°F. The rainfall here is only 20 inches and that happens mostly between October and May.

Soil. When you look at the soil here, you will notice it is very white. It’s known as albariza. It is a soft marl formed by sedimentation of diatom algae. It is very absorbent when wet and very hard when dry. When it does rain, the soil acts as a sponge. When it gets hot, the top part of the soil hardens and acts as cover to preserve the water.

There is also the levante and poniete winds. The levante winds come from the east. They start over the central Mediterranean Sea. These winds dry out and “vacuum-cooks” the grapes while they are ripening. This changes how the grapes ripen versus other areas. The other wind is called the poniente. This wind comes off the Atlantic and is responsible for bringing specific yeasts to the Palomino grapes and is important for a fino Sherry.

So when you look at Sherry it will have an amber color. This is a white wine that changes color as it ages and from syrups added to the wine. The varietals used here are Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. However, prior to the phylloxera plague there were as many as 100 different varietals used to make Sherry.

So what’s so special about this stuff? The entire process from growing, harvesting, fermentation, aging, and bottling. We’ve already mentioned the unique aspects of the climate, soil, and winds. Let’s talk about the harvest. Traditionally the grapes used to make Sherry are picked in early September. They are then laid out to dry under the sun for 10-21 days in a process known as soleo. This is to increase sugar content while reducing malic acid and tannin content. This is similar to other regions of the world that dry out or “raisin” the grapes prior to pressing. This process is happening less often now.

Once this drying out is done, the grapes are pressed. Only the must from the first pressing is used to make Sherry. Later pressings are used for other wines, distillation, and vinegar. The must is then fermented. The traditional method is to ferment using small oak casks that are filled to 90%. The first 36-50 hours of fermentation will convert about 99% of the sugar into alcohol. It takes another 40-50 days to finish the fermentation. Most producers now use stainless steel vats for the fermentation. 

During fermentation what is known as flor will determine whether a sherry will become a fino (we’ll cover what this is soon). As mentioned above, flor is a yeast that collects on the Palomino grapes. This yeast creates a film on top of the surface of the wine. Depending on a few factors, the flor will absorb any remaining traces of sugar, diminish glycerine and volatile acids, increase esters (remember that’s the fancy name for the aromas), and aldehydes. So that’s all the chemical stuff happening with flor. Now for all of this to work, the following conditions need to happen:

  • The alcohol strength of the must needs to be between 13.5 and 17.5%. Ideally you want 15.3% which is the level at which acetobacter is killed. Acetobacter produces vinegar so this is a bad thing if allowed to grow.
  • The temperature of fermentation needs to be between 59 and 86°F.
  • Sulfur dioxide content less then 0.018%
  • Tannin content less than 0.01%
  • Virtually no fermentable sugars.

As you can see, if you don’t have the right conditions, then a fino sherry will now happen. However, other styles of sherry will still happen.

Next, the sherry is sampled. The cellarmaster smells each cask to determine the potential quality of the wine. Each cask is marked with different “strokes” to indicate quality. These are as follows:

 / a single stroke indicates a wine with the finest flavour and aroma, suitable for fino or amontillado. These wines are fortified to about 15 per cent alcohol to allow the growth of flor.

/. a single stroke with a dot indicates a heavier, more full-bodied wine. These wines are fortified to about 17.5 per cent alcohol to prevent the growth of flor, and the wines are aged oxidatively to produce oloroso.

// a double stroke indicates a wine which will be allowed to develop further before determining whether to use the wine for amontillado or oloroso. These wines are fortified to about 15 per cent alcohol.

/// a triple stroke indicates a wine that has developed poorly, and will be distilled.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherry

At this point the fortification has been done as mentioned above. The fortification is either a 50-50 mixture of distilled wine and mature sherry called mitad y mitad, or just 100% mature sherry. The fortification is added to the casks and then allowed to age.

A second classification usually takes place about 9 months after the first. Then the casks are classified on a regular basis during the following 2 years to continue to determine their final style. 

Once the final style has been determined, the sherry is put through a process known as solera. This is a blending system where younger wines are combined with older wines. The oldest wines are called the solera and the younger wines are called criadera (aka nursery). There are up to 7 criaderas in a solera for sherry. For a Manzanilla solera there can be up to 14. What happens is up to 1/3 of the solera sherry is bottled. That amount is replaced by the criadera above it. The process is repeated through to the youngest criadera. At that point the new wine is added to the youngest criadera. This new wine, aka añada is the wine from the long classification system.

Once a sherry has been bottled, it doesn’t benefit from additional aging. So letting a bottle age for years won’t improve its quality. Once a bottle is opened, it is best to drink it as soon as possible if it’s a fino or Manzanilla. Some other sherries can last quite awhile however.

Now to add some more complexity to this. There are many types of sherry out there. We’ve already mentioned fino and Manzanilla. Here is a list of them:

  • Fino (‘fine’ in Spanish) is the driest and palest of the traditional varieties of Sherry. The wine is aged in barrels under a cap of flor yeast to prevent contact with the air.
  • Manzanilla is an especially light variety of fino Sherry made around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
  • Amontillado is a variety of Sherry that is first aged under flor but which is then exposed to oxygen, producing a sherry that is darker than a fino but lighter than an oloroso. Naturally dry, they are sometimes sold lightly sweetened.
  • Oloroso (‘scented’ in Spanish) is a variety of Sherry aged oxidatively for a longer time than a fino or amontillado, producing a darker and richer wine. With alcohol levels between 18-20%, olorosos are the most alcoholic sherries in the bottle. Again naturally dry, they are often also sold in sweetened versions.
  • Palo Cortado is a rare variety of Sherry that is initially aged like an amontillado, but which subsequently develops a character closer to an oloroso.
  • Sweet Sherries (Jerez Dulce in Spanish) are made either by fermenting dried Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes, which produces an intensely sweet dark brown or black wine, or by blending sweeter wines or grape must with a drier variety. 
  • Cream Sherry is a common type of sweet Sherry made by blending different wines.

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherry

That’s going to wrap it up for this week. We will continue on to Portugal next week. The actual lesson may not be up until Friday as I will be going out of town for business (the real job) for a week. After Portugal we will hit the United States and cover the “Big 4.” After that we will very likely cover things very quickly. I am toying with the idea of stepping up the lessons to twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Yeah, I’ve been pretty bad recently of skipping a week so trying to double time lessons seems a bit unrealistic. However, the tests are coming up soon and I’d like to be completely finished by the end of May.

I’ve signed up and paid for the Society of Wine Educators test in June so that’s a definite. I’m waiting to decide for sure on the Master Sommeliers Introductory Exam to see if they add more tests. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll be taking it in July.

Thanks for watching/reading this week’s lesson! I will see all of you next week!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training

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