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Notes from a Pedro Ximénez tasting

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Gypsy Boy May 11, 2007 08:07 AM

(Several months ago I posted here seeking advice on this tasting. Well, the tasting has finally taken place and, as one measure of my gratitude for all the advice I received, I thought I'd post something about the tasting and the bottles we enjoyed.)

We all have our vices, our guilty pleasures, our secret lusts. But secrecy aside, my list just expanded. Have you ever had a wine from Pedro Ximénez grapes? Sweet. Unctuous. Syrupy. And, to use that hoary advertising language: “sinfully delicious”!

Once upon a time, just a few short months ago, I had only heard of this stuff. Although I’d had similar sweet cream sherries or sherries made from a combination of Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes, I’d never had wine made exclusively from PX, as it’s often called, and knew little about it. Then I tasted it and decided to indulge my new lust and share it with others. Pedro Ximénez is the extraordinarily complex, very sweet dessert wine produced in Andalucia, Spain. And once you’ve tasted it—if you like sweet things, that is—you’ll never be the same person again.

I have preferred my sherry dry for many years. My usual choice is palo cortado, a much less well-known style that falls between an amontillado and an oloroso. Fino is the driest of all. Amontillado is both darker and more strongly flavored. The next step is an oloroso. Perched between amontillado and oloroso is palo cortado. Because of the way that this particular kind of sherry develops, barely 2% of sherry that finds its way to the market ends up as palo cortado.

Digression the first: Sherry, unlike ordinary wine, is fortified with brandy following fermentation. If the wine is intended to be made into fino, yeast is allowed to grow on top. Wine destined to become oloroso gets an even larger portion is fortified sufficiently to prevent the yeast from growing. Because the brandy is added only after fermentation has already finished, all sherries are dry; sweetness is added later. Sherry is usually aged and blended in solera systems. Three times a year, about 10% of the wine from the oldest row of barrels is bottled and the casks are replenished with wine from the next younger row (each row is called a criadera). The youngest set of barrels is topped off with new wine just entering the system. The word solera itself refers to both the method as well as the oldest wine in it. It’s a time-honored system in use throughout Spain and one reason why sherry is ordinarily not vintage dated. The sherries we tasted, however, are true vintage bottles. The winery sets aside certain lots of Pedro Ximénez for aging in oak barrels. Those barrels are sealed and left untouched: never blended, never topped off. Authentic vintage sherries are rarely encountered. Occasionally, a miracle occurs. The 1945 was quite simply forgotten: a private reserve of a former owner was rediscovered in 1998 and just bottled a few years ago.

After drinking and enjoying palo cortado for many years, I thought that the time had come to expand my horizons and try an oloroso. Though I had occasionally tried other styles, primarily amontillado, I had never gone in the other direction toward an oloroso. After spending what was undoubtedly far too long a time investigating the subject, I decided on a particular maker and a particular bottle I wanted. To my dismay, when I arrived at Sam’s I found the shelf bare in the precise spot where “my” bottle should have been. I called for help. To my rescue came Jill Mott, one of their Spanish wine experts. We ended up having a lengthy discussion of sherry styles, makers, and other nuances of the trade. I was impressed both with her knowledge, her passion for sherry, and her low-key style. I walked out with several different bottles, including an Osborne oloroso and a time bomb.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the oloroso, but the other bottle exploded into my consciousness. I loved another bottle Ms. Mott had been enthusiastic about: La Noria Pedro Ximénez, a 2003 bottle of sherry made from organically grown grapes.

Digression the second: Pedro Ximénez sherry is not technically sherry at all. In the first place, Pedro Ximénez is the name of a grape variety as well as the wine made from the grape. Although PX grapes were originally used in far greater quantities to make various sherries (along with hardier Palomino grapes), Palomino eventually displaced the use of PX in traditional sherries. PX grapes began to be used to make their own varietal. The grapes are grown primarily in Andalucia, the hottest region of Spain. There, they are picked and dried in the sun, resulting in a wine that is thick, almost like syrup, with—in the best examples—a truly extraordinary depth of flavor. A good PX can call to mind everything from fig to caramel, raisin to molasses, citrus, and still other things…all while resembling nothing so much as nearly black, heavy, motor oil.

I opened my split of La Noria PX innocent of what awaited me. The taste was that time bomb I referred to. I tasted, flavors exploded. I was simply and totally unprepared for the depth and variety of what I was tasting. Too often, at least in my experience, dessert wines are sugary and end up being too cloying to enjoy. A sip or two and you’ve tasted everything the wine has to offer. In part, that can be due to a lack of acid to balance the sugar; or it might just be because it’s not a good wine in the first place. It’s also not so for a very short list of things, things like a top-notch eiswein, Hungarian tokay azsu, or Sauternes. Or, now added to that very short list, PX. There was plenty of acid and, as a result, I drained my glass and found myself inclined to taste a little bit more. So I did. Having done so, decided that this was an area worth much more careful investigation. And, as with so many other food or food-related inquiries, I also decided that this investigation would profit from other viewpoints. So I decided to buy several bottles of PX and have a little tasting.

La Noria is made by the Bodegas Toro Albalá, a distinguished house in Spain founded in 1844 that, happily for me, makes a range of top-notch sherries, including PX still available dating to 1939!

Eventually, I was able to determine that I could arrange a nice vertical tasting with bottles from four decades at this winery: 1945 Marqués de Poley, 1959 Gran Reserva Convento, 1966 Reserva Especial, and the 1971 Gran Reserva that I had already had the foresight to purchase along with the La Noria.

Unfortunately, purchasing these bottles proved to be a challenge of far greater proportions than I had anticipated. The older vintages, which are reasonably available, are only reasonably available elsewhere. Meaning outside Chicago. In fact, meaning outside the United States. But then, in one of those fortuitous happenings courtesy of the internet, I sent an inquiry to a wine shop in the Belgium that carried some of the bottles I wished to purchase. Their very nice reply explained that they could not sell/ship to the U.S. and telling me that they had taken the liberty of forwarding my e-mail to the winery itself. The winery in Spain forwarded my e-mail to Seattle and, in short order, I received an e-mail from a company I’d read about in passing but had previously had no contact with: Classical Wines.

Digression the third: As wine importers, Classical Wines is prohibited under U.S. law from selling directly to consumers. Nevertheless, they champion Spanish wines and helped me enormously with my quest for the bottles I had chosen. (For the terminally curious, they also represent wines from Portugal, Germany, dessert and aperitif wines, and specialty foods. I would encourage you to visit their website at http://www.classicalwines.com and, should they have something that interests you, I unhesitatingly recommend them.) I exchanged a number of e-mails with the company, including its president and founder, Stephen Metzler. Everyone was generous with their time and they arranged for me to obtain all of the bottles I sought at reasonable prices. Although shelf prices may have been cheaper in Europe, without the intervention of Classical Wines, I don’t know if I could ever have bought them successfully overseas, much less afforded the shipping. Needless to say, their advice and assistance were priceless to me.

How I came decided on what to pair the PX with is the subject of another (not yet completed) post. Here, I want to just briefly comment on the sherries themselves—hoping that my fellow tasters will feel free to add their reactions.

The 1945 was the greatest disappointment. Perhaps because I had anticipated it most (based, foolishly, on nothing other than its age), it failed to meet my expectations. That said, I must add that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “bad” bottle—whatever that might be. Nevertheless, I found it disappointing in itself and distinctly disappointing in comparison to the other bottles we tasted. Most surprising to me were two characteristics: (i) I found it a relatively thin wine, lacking in depth and without the myriad different flavors and aromas we found in the other bottles we tasted and (ii) it seemed out of balance.

Digression the fourth: This is a good place to note that my usual wine-tasting vocabulary—both the words I ordinarily use to describe what I feel, sense, and taste, and the “categories” I use to sort out my reactions—was of little help here. PX is so different from table wine as to demand a completely different vocabulary. PX can exhibit characteristics that are rare or don’t exist in table wine and offer sensations for which my usual vocabulary failed me. This is, of course, neither a bad nor a good thing. But it pointed up just how unique an experience this tasting, or perhaps any sherry tasting, is.

That caveat in place, I found the 1945 to be smooth without being syrupy, sweet without being cloying. It was, I found, the least sweet of the bottles we tasted. But for quite some time I was troubled by the balance issue. Were it a wine, I would have said that the alcohol was out of balance. Indeed, that was my very first comment. But as we tasted and talked, I realized that that wasn’t right. Alcohol wasn’t the problem. Eventually, Gary pointed out that the wine had a slight odor of sulfur. It seemed odd but as I smelled carefully, I detected the same thing. A very faint but noticeable rotten-egg scent was detectable. I couldn’t locate the taste analog but given the significant role that smell plays in taste, there is little doubt in my mind that the scent, no matter how slight, helped convince me that the flavor was “off” in some way.

The 1959 was a gem. Syrupy, intense, heavy, with an astonishing array and depth of flavors. The instant that this bottle hit the tongue, there was no doubt that this was a truly extraordinary bottle. Although we initially thought of it as raisiny, longer exposure and comparison (with the 1966, in particular) led us to change our view to from raisin to fig. Fig is, perhaps, the classic flavor associated with PX. Combined with the variety of different notes we experienced—from molasses or toffee to grape—the lushness of this wine made it the top selection for some.

The 1966 was another striking wine. Although I initially preferred it to the 1959, I eventually changed my mind. Not as heavy as the 1959, it was silky and, like the 1959, presented a great range of flavors. The more I tasted it, the more I found the 1966 to be the “raisiny” one. The wine had, a great deal of spiciness, almost a tang to it. What was most impressive about these bottles was the match of acidity and sugar. As I noted above, too many sweet wines lack sufficient acid to balance the sugar and, after a few sips, the sugar predominates and one simply finds the wine cloying. No such thing happened here. The alcohol content of PX, it should be pointed out, is higher than table wine, at around 17-20%.

Anyone who has ever learned about tasting wine has learned about its “legs”—the thin streams of glycerin that run down the inside of the glass. Without entering into a discussion of the significance of a wine’s “legs,” one observation on the PX is worthwhile, I think: these wine didn’t have legs. Instead, the PX coated the glass! One could swirl it about and then look through a slight molasses-y haze that coated virtually the entire inside surface of the glass.

The 1971 was the lightest of the four bottles we tasted. This is a comparative description, though, and not in any way meant as a negative. I found it lighter in terms of both viscosity and depth. It seemed to me a more accessible wine for precisely these reasons: there was less complexity to challenge the palate and less complexity to “analyze.” I found that it was more citrus-y than the others, with perhaps some berry-like notes as well. At the same time, it had a light molasses-y undercurrent, if something can be reminiscent of molasses and, at the same time, light.

I am eager to taste more PX. The wine itself has been a revelation to me. And the vertical tasting was even more enlightening. There are other bottles of Toro Albalá that are readily available and, for the scarcer items I will work with Classical Wines to obtain what I can. And of course, there are other makers of PX as well. All of which, I think, suggests the necessity for another tasting (or two…). I am still, by far, a rank beginner in this realm—but I know that it is a realm I will enjoy exploring further.