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The main characteristic of sherry, wherever it is produced, is its more or less pronounced nutty flavor, and it is to this end that the grower develops his basic wine. Most suitable for its production in California, as in its native Spain, is the Palomino grape, also known in some California winegrowing districts as the Golden Chasselas or Napa Golden Chasselas.
It is from the Palomino that all the finer California sherries are derived and the fact is then often indicated on the labeling. Other grape varieties for sherry production include the Mission, fermented off the skins, as it is a dark grape, and the prolific Thompson Seedless.
California sherries are produced by two entirely different methods. The regular sherries, as this Guide terms them, are the result of the heating or "baking" method, similar to that used for Madeira wines in the island of that name off the west coast of Africa. California flor sherries owe their special character to a process resembling that used in Spain for Spanish Sherries of the drier types. Some California sherries are the product of blending both types of wine.
Most California sherries are produced by the heating method. The basic wine is fermented to the desired degree of dryness, brandy being added to check the fermentation, as in all wines of the dessert type. It is then heated in oak or redwood containers for a number of months up to a year and at a temperature of about rzo° Fahrenheit. This takes place either in a hot cellar or with the containing vats heated by coils and at times by the warmth of the sun. When the process is completed the wine is gradually cooled and then aged for the desired period of time. It is the oxidation which takes place during the heating of the wine which gives it the typical character associated with sherry.
In the flor process, which is more and more being adopted in California, a special kind of secondary fermentation is induced in the basic wine by a species of yeast, for long considered to be a strain of Mycoderma vini, but later identified as belonging to the genus of Saccharomyces. This yeast covers the wine, as it is stored in open vats, with a flowerlike crust-hence the term flor or flower -and imparts to the wine, by some mysterious alchemy of nature, the characteristic light, nutty tang of all fine sherry. When the wine is fully impregnated, it is brought up to the desired alcoholic strength and blended and aged by the so-called "Solera" system.
A number of California wineries have developed their own Solera systems, which vary considerably, resembling to a greater or lesser degree the method by which sherries are aged and blended in Spain. A Solera consists basically of an arrangement of communicating barrels or vats lying in superimposed rows, four or five tiers high. At periodic intervals the matured sherry is drawn from the bottom row of barrels to be bottled, this row then being replenished with wine from the row above and so on to the top range, which in turn is filled with new wine. In this manner the young wine mixes and ages with the older in one perpetual blend while the Solera itself has been started with aged wine in the first place. The finest California sherries, with a few exceptions, are produced by the flor and Solera systems.
California sherries, both regular and flor, come in three main types, dry, medium, and sweet. There is only one varietal, the Palomino, from which grape the better generics are also derived.
VARIETAL Palomino Sherry Produced principally or exclusively from the Palomino grape and can be either dry (Pale Dry or Cocktail), medium (Golden) or sweet (Cream). The finest are the flor Palominos, aged and blended by a Solera system.
GENERICS California Pale Dry Sherry or Cocktail Sherry The drier wines, varying from very dry and very pale to dry and light amber. Some producers bottle both a Pale Dry and a Cocktail Sherry, the former being then the paler of the two.
California Sherry or Golden Sherry The medium-dry or medium-sweet types, golden amber in color. California Sherry, without further indication, falls in this class, as does Amber Sherry.
California Sweet Sherry or Cream Sherry The sweeter and sweetest types, usually of a dark amber color. Use and Service-Dry sherries are typical aperitifs, served before the meal. Many, however, prefer the medium types for that purpose, and some even the sweet wines. Dry sherry can be served at a formal lunch or dinner with the soup.
All sherries are useful as refreshment wines in the afternoon or evening; the sweet types are traditional with a sweet dessert or after dinner.
Sherry can be served either at room temperature or slightly chilled, stored for an hour in the refrigerator. It is much used in cooking, when the finer wines are preferable, with the most flavor. Sherry also makes an excellent base for flips and cobblers.