The When and Why of Amontillado

Posted January 2, 2018 9:48 p.m. EST

Amontillado is one of those wines that pose an immediate and difficult question: When do I drink this bottle?

The more different wines you drink, the better your instinct becomes for which bottle to open, which ingredient to add to the meal to create a wonderful harmony. But when does that instinct signal amontillado?

Certain wines, amontillado for one, are riddles nowadays: When to drink, what to serve; what’s their role, their use?

Amontillado is not alone. Its sherry sibling, oloroso, is another, as are other fortified wines like Madeira and port, to say nothing of lesser known brethren like Banyuls and Maury.

Sweet still wines like Sauternes, whose roles were once never in doubt, also fall into this category.

These historic wines, revered through the ages, seem to be anomalies in the 21st century, searching for footholds to hang on. Here at Wine School, we reserve special respect for wines that have stood the test of time, even if they are puzzling to the modern palate.

Most of you know how Wine School works. Each month I select a particular genre of wine and recommend three good examples. Readers may seek out one or all and drink them in a relaxed environment with a meal. We welcome your thoughts here.

This month we have been drinking amontillado, and it is telling that fewer readers than usual took up the challenge of commenting on these bottles.

The three I recommended were Hidalgo La Gitana Amontillado Napoleon, Valdespino Amontillado Tío Diego and Fernando de Castilla Amontillado Antique.

I’m not immune to the question of when to pull out a bottle of amontillado. I gave several suggestions in my introduction, all of which I continue to think of as good.

I know, for example, that mushroom risotto is wonderful with amontillado. It’s a pairing I have enjoyed myself, an opinion that was reinforced by several readers, most notably Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, who was so taken with the combination of the risotto with the Castilla Antique that he sent a bottle to his father in Berlin.

As well as this dish goes with amontillado, I have found myself preferring some other wine, like a nebbiolo, which would go just as well and would not carry the burden of the 17.5 to 19 percent alcohol of these fortified wines.

It’s likely that you have read somewhere that a wine’s alcohol content is a meaningless number, that the meaningful thing is whether the wine is balanced. Nonsense. That sentiment is fine if you are in a professional tasting situation swishing some wine around in your mouth and spitting it out. But if you are actually drinking that wine, alcohol content can be of the utmost importance.

The Castilla, for example, the best and most complex of these amontillados, is 19 percent alcohol, roughly 27 percent more than a fino, which would typically be about 15 percent, and about 46 percent more than a 13 percent still wine. That’s a lot of extra alcohol.

As I was drinking these amontillados with various dinners, I realized that I liked them best by the glass, with some nuts or ham, as an aperitif. I really enjoyed drinking a glass as I was cooking, paying attention to their nuances and complexities in small sips before drinking some other wine with the actual meal.

Perhaps this seems something of a bait and switch. Why invite readers to drink amontillado with a meal if that’s not the best way to enjoy it? I can only say that Wine School is an education for me, too. This time, I learned how I enjoy amontillado best.

The thing is, amontillado is fascinating and delicious. It deserves contemplation. And pondering several of them together is revealing and educational. Why fascinating? It stems from the process of making sherry.

Most sherries start off as still wines made from the white palomino grape, with the exception of ultrasweet sherries and sherry’s Andalucían cousin, Montilla-Moriles, which are made largely of the Pedro Ximénez grape. Let’s leave those aside.

When the still palomino wine is ready to embark on its voyage toward sherryhood, it is put into barrels. These barrels are not completely filled (as they would be with almost all other wines), which allows air to occupy the empty space.

In some barrels, a yeast known as flor will form on the surface of the wine, which both protects it against oxidation and imparts a sharp, tangy flavor. The wine in these barrels will become fino, one of the two main types of sherry.

Barrels in which the flor does not form in sufficient quantity on the wine become oloroso, the other type of sherry. These olorosos will be characterized by the interaction of oxygen and wine over time, rather than of flor and wine. They are fortified beyond the level at which flor can survive and set aside for their very different journey.

The flor-ridden barrels will then enter a solera, a complex system for blending and aging the wine. The barrels are figuratively arranged in tiers in which the newest vintage is on top of an older vintage, which in turn is over a still older vintage and so on. Over time, a small proportion of each barrel is extracted and moved to an older barrel. The extracted wine is then replaced with wine from a younger barrel. A solera can encompass dozens of barrels and many tiers.

Eventually, the cellar master will decide that a wine is ready for bottling. If the flor is still vigorous, it will be bottled as fino. But if the flor has begun to die off (a process that may be hastened by fortifying the wine to 17 percent), it is a candidate to become amontillado. As the wines continue to age, they are no longer protected by flor, so oxygen begins to affect the sherry.

Amontillados, then, are simply finos (or manzanillas, as finos are known if they come from the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) that have outlived the flor and gained additional oxidative character like olorosos, but still retain the influence of the flor. Therein lies part of the fascination. Amontillados travel an arc of evolution in which their origin and destination coexist in a tense balance that can be tasted.

The Hidalgo La Gitana Napoleon, for example, seemed not so far evolved from its younger days, when it set out as a manzanilla. It was tangy and saline like a manzanilla, refreshing, bracing and delicious, with an aroma of chamomile. Yet the Napoleon had another component as well, a nutlike, caramel quality that marked it as amontillado. Though several readers suggested it was sweet, I have to disagree. It was absolutely dry.

The Tío Diego also seemed like a young amontillado, hewing close to its fino days. It was more delicate in texture than the Napoleon, and just as saline. The piquant influence of the flor was still apparent, perhaps more so than the nutty, butter toffee flavors indicating its amontillado evolution.

“It’s like its fino origins outweigh its amontillado finish,” said Dan Barron of New York. Exactly.

It’s important to remember that these are introductory amontillados. Both Hidalgo La Gitana and Valdespino also sell older, more expensive amontillados that are thrilling in their complexity.

The Castilla Antique is in the middle, older than the other two but still reasonably priced at $40. It shows the years, with the flor character in the rearview mirror rather than upfront. It was darker and more concentrated, precise and detailed, with aromas and flavors of toffee, nuts, lanolin and cinnamon arriving in layers.

Sure, this wine can be delicious with mushroom risotto. But I’d prefer it in the library, if I had a library, with a cigar, if I smoked cigars, which I suppose is part of what makes these wines seem to be of a bygone era.

Nonetheless, this was a gripping wine that stimulated my imagination and filled me with wonder. A wine this good will always have a role to play.