Background

Published on April 1st, 2014 | by Ruben

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How long can you store / drink a bottle of sherry?

When reading articles about sherry, two supposed facts pop up regularly:

  • Short shelf life: sherry should be bought and opened as soon as possible after bottling
  • Instability: once open, bottles should be emptied immediately

It sounds as if they want to boost sales or get us drunk rapidly. As a consequence, a lot of people seem to be afraid of storing and serving sherry – afraid that it will “go bad”. Of course “going bad” is hard to define: it doesn’t make you sick, it just means we want the wine to retain its original, “optimum flavour intensity”. I’m convinced though that even past this point, few people will actually be able to detect changes for a relatively long time. You may even find it has improved because it may have mellowed a bit. The fact that a wine has lost a bit of its intensity, doesn’t mean it has become undrinkable.

These are my personal guidelines and experiences. My timespans are generally a bit longer than what the Consejo Regulador prescribes

I’m usually quite relaxed about how long I store bottles in my cellar and how long I keep them in my fridge. Yes, the wine may change a little, but I won’t pour it away just because it isn’t the exact same wine any more. In fact I like to experience the evolution and see how it changes.

Besides this general credo “just relax”, I’d like to share a few practical guidelines. Note that these only apply for decent storage conditions and remember you never know how the bottle was handled before it arrived at your home or at the restaurant. Storage time becomes less relevant if the conditions are perfect. Always try to store sherry bottles in a cool, dark place, with no sudden temperature fluctuations, preferably upright to minimize the contact area with the air inside the bottle.

 

We have to make a big difference between biologically aged wines (Manzanilla and Fino) and oxidative wines (OlorosoAmontillado, Palo Cortado, Pedro Ximénez).

 

Storing Manzanilla and Fino (shelf life)

Pedro Domecq Ideal Pale sherry, bottled 1950'sManzanilla and Fino have spent their whole life under a layer of flor, protected from oxygen. Bottling will filter out the flor and expose the wine to air, which causes the wine to change. It is true that biologically aged sherry is slightly unstable, however commercial bottling techniques have improved in recent times, and this problem is not as big as it used to be.

Especially young Manzanilla or Fino (the ones you’ll find in supermarkets) are best enjoyed as soon as you’ve taken them home. Their delicate character will disappear rapidly. Unfortunately outside of Spain, you’ll rarely stumble upon a really fresh bottle. I’ve seen bottles on sale that spent years on the shelf already. Again, these sherries will probably taste just fine, but they will lack some of the finesse and brightness of a newer bottle. My article about bottling codes explains how to recognize old bottles and how to pick the newest bottle on the shelf.

A closed bottle of young Manzanilla or Fino can easily be stored for one to two years. Manzanilla Pasada definitely longer. After that, the most delicate aromas will gradually start to fade and the profile will slowly change. But even after 40 years in different cellars, my bottle of 1970’s Domecq’s La Ina was certainly not undrinkable. In specialized collector’s stores, you can sometimes find old bottles like the Domecq Ideal Pale sherry pictured to the right, this can be a hit or miss but really interesting in any case…

 

Drinking Manzanilla and Fino (open bottle)

Once your bottle is open, deterioration will go faster. The best advice is to keep it in the fridge at all times, and to properly close it again after each serve. This way a commercial Fino or Manzanilla will stay fresh for a few days in my experience, similar to a regular wine. Older examples (like Manzanilla Pasada) or ‘en rama’ bottlings will often improve slightly after opening, and they start to deteriorate later. Again, changes will eventually occur, but for authentic sherry I actually find it enjoyable to witness.

Say you keep an open bottle of Fino at room temperature for a couple of weeks. You’ll then discover that it is an unstable wine after all. It may take weeks, it may take months, but eventually it will develop some rather nasty organic aromas (decomposing leaves, sometimes hints of sulphur) or vinegar-like aromas.

 

Storing and drinking Amontillado, Oloroso or Pedro Ximénez

Oxidative wines are used to oxygen – they’ve been inside a “breathing” cask without a layer of flor to protect them. It’s quite logical that they are less harmed by being kept in a bottle. A rule of thumb: the older the wine was, the longer it can be kept in your cellar. So V.O.S. or V.O.R.S. sherry will have a much bigger margin. I try to open Amontillado or Palo Cortado wines within three years. Oloroso can be kept longer, five years or more depending on their age. Pedro Ximénez wines are very stable and robust, I’ve never seen a closed bottle go bad. Old vintage P.X. like the ones from Toro Albalá can be kept for ten to fifty years.

Similar things can be said about the due date of open bottles: oxidative wines are used to a bit of oxygen. Amontillado will be okay for about a month or more. Oloroso for a couple of months. Bodegas Tradición say their V.O.R.S. wines will stay fresh for up to a year in an open bottle. Sweetened wines usually last a bit longer too, and Pedro Ximénez can survive a couple of years in a cool environment. Amontillado will keep best in a fridge, but open bottles of other oxidative types can be stored in a (cool) room. Always avoid sun light or big temparature fluctuations.

 

Opening too soon?

There is a phenomenon called bottling shock. By this we mean a wine suffers from being bottled, but also from being handled, shaken, transferred or filtered. Bodegas know that when you move barrels of sherry within a bodega, you need to let them rest for some time before they get back to the quality they had before. The same is true for sherry in a bottle. In case you stumble upon a bottle of sherry that has been bottled just now, let it rest for a while after you take it home. The same thing goes for shipped sherry: don’t open your latest purchase straight away after the courier dropped it off.

 

Barbadillo Manzanilla Solear MagnumBottle ageing sherry

Recently some bodegas started to encourage bottle ageing, i.e. deliberately putting away bottles of sherry for opening after a long time, beyond the common timespans. A good example is Equipo Navazos, who are bottling a Manzanilla Pasada from the same set of butts every year. They encourage you to buy subsequent releases and try them side-by-side. One bottle will contain wine from the same solera, aged slightly longer in the cask. Meanwhile the other bottle will contain a slightly less aged version that has settled longer in a bottle. Very interesting.

The magnum releases from Barbadillo are another example. They are meant to be kept in a cellar for a few years to integrate further (magnums are better at this). Also, few people will drink 1,5 litres of Manzanilla within a couple of days, so they encourage you to take your time and enjoy the evolution of an open bottle as well.

In general the fruitiness of a Fino or Manzanilla will diminish and evolve to more nutty, buttery and herbal elements. It will become more complex and intense. Note that we’re talking about authentic sherry here: well-aged styles, bottled en rama with minimal filtering. Bottle ageing will do no good to a young, commercial supermarket sherry. It will also have less impact on Amontillado, Oloroso or Pedro Ximénez. They are generally older, they are matured oxidatively and they are therefore more stable wines, less prone to changes when aged in good conditions.

 

Short conclusion

Remember which type of sherry you’re dealing with, figure out the bottling date and try to find out the age of the sherry. This should allow you to make an educated guess about how long you can store (closed) or drink (open) bottles of sherry and how far you can deviate from the (strict) guidelines of the Consejo Regulador. Finally, remember to relax. Sooner is not always better when it comes to authentic sherry.

 

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About the Author

fell in love with sherry fifteen years ago, but switched to a higher gear in 2013 and started writing about it. Lived in Madrid for a couple of years, now back in Belgium. I also run a whisky blog over at www.whiskynotes.be



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