Published on April 1st, 2014 | by Ruben2
How long can you store / drink a bottle of sherry?
When reading articles about sherry, two elements 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’s not a matter of making you sick, it just means we want the wine to retain its original, “optimum flavour intensity”. I’m convinced that the recommendations for conservation may have been too strict in the past. Especially in Spain people became allergic to remontado sherry (roughly translated: over the top sherry) and started to send back Finos and Manzanillas that were not pale enough (it even led to heavier filtering by the producers). This hypersensitivity of the general public was a consequence of the fact that some bars and restaurants stored their sherry improperly (outside of the fridge, for too long) after opening.
These are my personal guidelines and experiences. Over time the guidelines of the Consejo Regulador have become a little less strict
In reality though, few people will actually be able to detect any changes for a relatively long time. You may even find a sherry wine has improved because it may have mellowed a bit. People may have become a little too scared: the fact that a wine has lost a bit of its flavour intensity, doesn’t mean it becomes undrinkable right away.
Conservation guidelines: how long does sherry last?
I’d like to share a few practical guidelines for the conservation of sherry wines. 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, in an upright position to minimize the contact area with the air inside the bottle and with the cork.
Storing Manzanilla and Fino (shelf life)
Manzanilla and Fino have spent their whole life under a layer of flor, protected from oxygen. Bottling will filter out the flor and slightly expose the wine to air, which causes the wine to change. It is true that biologically aged sherry is relatively 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 and the specific flor aromas will fade. 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 year. Manzanilla Pasada or more mature Finos definitely longer. After that, the most delicate aromas will gradually start to fade and the profile will slowly change, becoming less ‘coastal’ and slightly more jammy, showing light hints of oxidation and ultimately even some hints of Amontillado wine.
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 (up to a week) in my experience, similar to a regular white wine actually. Older examples (like Manzanilla Pasada) or en rama bottlings will often improve slightly after opening, and they deteriorate more slowly in my experience. Again, changes will eventually occur, but for authentic sherry I actually find most of the changes interesting 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 days, it may take weeks, but eventually it will go flat, loosing most of its aromatic width while sometimes developing 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 maturing for many years 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 for conservation: 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 up to fifty years, according to the producer.
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 two months or more. Oloroso for a couple of months. Storing open bottles in the fridge will help to slow down deterioration. Bodegas Tradición say their V.O.R.S. wines will stay fresh for up to one year in an open bottle. Sweetened wines usually last a bit longer as well, and Pedro Ximénez can survive several months 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 as well. Always keep your bottles tightly corked and 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, transported 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, but wait a couple of days.
Bottle ageing sherry
Even after 40 years in different cellars, my bottle of 1970’s Domecq’s La Ina was still very enjoyable (though very different from a fresh Fino). While bottle aged sherry was something that most experts would have laughed at not so long ago, in recent years the interest for really old bottles has increased. Recently some bodegas even 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. Don’t expect bottle ageing to improve 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 in the bottle when aged in good conditions.
For more information about enjoying old bottles, check my article on bottle aged sherry
Quick tips for conservation
In conclusion, these are the guidelines for the conservation and consumption of sherry wines:
- Keep closed bottles in a dark, cool environment, in an upright position
- Keep open bottles in the fridge, properly corked
- Manzanilla and Fino are less stable than Amontillado, Oloroso, Cream sherry or Pedro Ximénez
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 general guideline to drink sherry as soon as possible. Finally, remember to relax, enjoy the wines and even still try a wine that is supposedly beyond its limit.