Published on February 26th, 2015 | by Ruben0
Age statements: VOS / VORS sherry
After the demise of cheap, sweetened sherries in the 1980’s, there was a trend to commercialize older sherry. In an attempt to set their premium wines apart, bodegas came up with a whole list of vague and ambiguous age references on labels, such as Muy viejo, Viejísimo or Very Old Sherry. During the 1990’s this became a serious problem as it was hard for consumers to know what they were buying exactly and how one sherry compared to another in terms of maturation.
VOS and VORS sherry is highly reliable, often unique sherry of the highest standards
The Consejo Regulador tried to end this ambiguity by introducing stricter rules, with fixed age boundaries. The aim was to officially guarantee a certain age and quality, rather than allowing a categorization chosen by the producer. The solution was found in a VOS and VORS label. The rules were set in 2000 and the first wines were accredited in July 2001.
Although at first there was a certain reluctance among producers towards the higher transparency, in the end they realized that these labels introduced new marketing opportunities as well and allowed the really old wines to have a better exposure.
VOS 20 Years / VORS 30 Years
VOS is a Latin acronym which stands for Vinum Optimum Signatum (sometimes you also find the unofficial English equivalent Very Old Sherry) and VORS is Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (or Very Old Rare Sherry).
To get a VOS label, the sherry has to prove an average age of 20 years or older. For the VORS label it has to be 30 years or older.
The problem is of course: how can you prove the average age of sherry when it is a mixture of hundreds of wines passing through a solera system for many years? It would be an incredibly complex formula which needs to take into account the starting date of the solera, the age of the starting wines, the refreshment rate of the solera, the number of scales, the amount and volume of all bottlings, etc. This is an impossible task, especially when dealing with soleras started centuries ago, when all these elements weren’t tracked or noted down as they are today.
VOS / VORS assessment
To overcome this problem, the Consejo Regulador agreed on a specific process to evaluate each wine. It consists of three major elements:
- Laboratory testing: Carbon-14 dating (though this may not be very reliable for 20th Century objects that lived through nuclear disasters and increasing Co2 levels) and/or different measurements like the amount of dry extract, the levels of esters, volatile acidity, dust or ashes…
- Total solera quota: the bodega needs to maintain a stock of the wine that equals 20 or 30 times the volume that will be commercialized at that time. Usually old wines are bottled once a year at most, so this guarantees that the average age will not go down in between bottlings.
- Tasting assessment by a special Tasting Committee, which usually includes one person from the Consejo as well as five external experts (enologists, professors, retired employees of bodegas…)
The Tasting Committee tends to have the final word in accepting or rejecting wines
The tasting committee gets to try the wine and is also presented with a reference sample that was saved from the last assessment. The committee evaluates the organoleptic qualities of the wine and the evolution from the last sample. For most wines this is just a formality. Less than 20% of the wines are rejected and most of these are sweet wines (Pedro Ximénez or sweetened Oloroso), which are harder to categorize because the sweetness makes them seem younger sometimes.
Note that a VOS / VORS label is always given for a specific bottling (“saca”), not for the solera as a whole or for a certain brand name. This means that every new batch of the wine will have to pass the tests again in order to maintain the age designation. After it has passed, the bodega can buy official VOS / VORS stickers with a unique number.
Less than 1% of all sherry wines on the market get a VOS or VORS label.
Criticism towards VOS / VORS
Not everyone agrees with this system and some producers choose not to use it at all. Let’s have a look at some of the objections that are heard most often:
- High cost: bodegas pay a fixed fee for every wine they want to have tested, regardless of the outcome and each time a new batch is bottled. This may not be a big deal for large bodegas (in the end the consumer will pay for this service), but it can be hard to overcome for small, independent producers. Also, having to donate the necessary tasting samples and reference samples to the Consejo can be problematic (of some very old wines, only a few dozens of bottles are available each year).
- Subjectivity of the tasting assessment: this is probably the biggest issue. Can you set apart a 28 year-old wine and a 32 year-old? Probably not. Moreover, what if your wine has a special character that is a little deviant from what we tend to expect?
There is a famous story of bodegas Fernando de Castilla, who once presented a 20 years old wine to the Comittee and succesfully passed the test for a 30 yo VORS sherry. After they proved the inconsistency with their solera records, they refused to use the label.
- Some bodegas criticize the fact that the VORS label is not high enough or that the difference between VOS and VORS is too small. Some of the oldest wines in the region are 75-100 years old. Mentioning ’30 years old’ on the label of such relics could have an adverse effect on the prestige, and it’s simply not allowed to mention the precise age on the label. This is why bodegas like Tradición use the VORS label but they stress the real (significantly higher) age in their marketing and promotion.
- The imposed quota (20-30 times the stock of the bottled wine) are problematic for single cask releases or unique bottlings that simply don’t have that kind of volume. With the rise of independent bottlers, this could become even more important in the future, although you could argue these bottlers already give you a lot of valuable details about the age and history of their wines.
Note that even with the criticism, the VOS / VORS system is now widely accepted and used by most bodegas to give their products an extra marketing asset. In most cases, there is a proven effect on the sales of bottlings that are guaranteed as VOS or VORS.
The bottom line for the consumer should be the high general quality of the wines that are accepted. This is beyond doubt: all sherries with a VOS or VORS label are highly reliable, unique sherries of the highest standards. It’s all about trust and the system certainly accomplished this. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that there are also exceptional sherries without an age label…
12 Years / 15 Years old
In 2005, two other age statements were officially recognized by the Consejo Regulador: 12 Years old and 15 Years old. However they are not frequently seen on the market. Two notable exceptions are Bodegas Williams & Humbert who have a 12 years old Collection series and a Dry Sack 15 Years old, and El Maestro Sierra with their Amontillado 12yo and Oloroso 15yo. There’s no special sticker or icon, it’s just the possibility to print the age on the label which is otherwise not allowed.
Both age statements seem rather arbitrary, and it’s strange for bodegas to be able to mention two specific ages but not ’14 years old’ or ’18 years old’, although this would be just as easy / difficult to prove. Under 20 years, C-14 dating becomes unreliable, so the only possible proof is a written track of solera manipulations, something a lot of bodegas are unable (or unwilling) to expose, which explains the limited popularity of these age statements compared to the traditional VOS / VORS categories.