Gonzalez Byass, Jerez-Xèrés-Sherry (Andalucia, Spain) Fino “Tio Pepe” (San Francisco Wine Exchange, $18): When I first started learning about wine oh-so-many years ago, I didn’t think of Tio Pepe Fino Sherry as a wine, but instead categorized it vaguely in my mind as some sort of bar drink. In actuality, Sherry is one of the world’s most fascinating and compelling types of wine, and Tio Pepe, as the single most famous dry Sherry, deserves a place on the table of wine lovers.
Fino Sherry is one of two broad categories of Sherry wine, both made entirely or mainly from the white Palomino grape variety. Wines of the Fino category -- which includes Amontillado Sherries -- age in barrel under a protective cover of yeast, known as flor, which prevents them from oxidizing. (Sherries of the other broad category, Olorosos, age oxidatively.) In their natural state, like all Sherries, Fino Sherries are dry. And like all Sherries, they are fortified wines, made by adding extra alcohol. Their aging involves progressive blending of the wines of many different harvests, so that the final wine contains very old as well as very young components. If this sounds complicated…well, it is. But I find the complex production method to be one of the fascinating aspects of Sherry.
Tio Pepe is the flagship Sherry of the Gonzalez Byass company, which this year celebrates its 175 anniversary. It is a family-owned and family-run operation that originated in the town of Jerez and today has wineries in six Spanish wine regions. Company literature states that the Tio Pepe winery is the most visited winery in the Old World.
To describe the taste of Tio Pepe in a general way is difficult. In the broadest of terms, it is a dry, full-bodied white wine with the weight of 15 percent alcohol, and aromas and flavors that derive from the aging of the wine (nutty, yeasty) rather than from any primary fruit character. Although it ages for many years in oak casks, the casks are old and the wine does not taste oaky. Despite its long aging, the wine tastes fresh because of the action of the flor.
To describe the taste more throughly, I must explain how the flor influences the wine’s taste. The flor yeasts form a thick layer atop the wine as it ages in partially-filled barrels. The flor prevents air from reaching the wine and oxidizing it. It also feeds on acid and glycerine in the wine, reducing both of these components. As a result, the finished wine is low in acidity, and fairly thin in texture. These are not typical characteristics of bone-dry whites (which are usually crisp) nor of high-alcohol whites (which are usually viscous in texture). Tio Pepe is therefore an anomaly: Bone dry but relatively soft; full-bodied but austere in texture; and fresh-tasting despite its developed flavors. Its high alcohol does give it a bit of a bite, which energizes the taste in a way that high acidity might in other wines.
Freshness is critical to Tio Pepe and other Fino Sherries, because the wine can oxidize in the bottle. The color should be pale and the aroma should have a persistent, fresh yeastiness. Chill the wine for tasting, keep it refrigerated thereafter, and don’t expect any leftover wine to remain fresh for more than about one week. Fortunately, Tio Pepe is so food friendly that you can find plenty of occasions to finish off the bottle. I enjoy it with green olives, raw or toasted almonds, potato dishes, grilled shrimp, and fried zucchini, to name just a few foods.