The apera that we have in a barrel, and a few bottles, was made in the SA Riverland from the 2009 vintage. It was made from palomino grapes, the grape variety that most Spanish sherries are made from. In my early days of winemaking, there were many growers across the country who grew palomino and they usually grew pedro ximenez as well. In those days fortified wines were much more popular than now, so over the years some really nice palomino vineyards have been grubbed as no one wanted the fruit.
Palomino produces a rather neutral dry white wine, nowhere near as aromatic or flavoursome as Riesling or sauvignon blanc for example. This is one of the reasons that palomino dry white makes such a good base for the most delicate, pale dry apera wines. But it also makes a great base for the more robust, deeper coloured aperas.
So our apera started off as a delicate dry white, very pale, and was fortified with very neutral grape spirit to an alcohol content of 15%. It was clarified and pumped into barrels, certainly not new ones, but barrels that had been used for wine storage for some years previously. The barrels weren’t fully topped, as is usual with table wines, but were filled to about 75-80% full, leaving quite a headspace above the wine. On to the surface of the wine, a specially selected yeast, called a flor yeast, was gently sprayed. This yeast is one that will grow on the surface of the wine, unlike the usual wine yeast which grows all through the juice/wine. The wine is quite dry (ie contains no, or almost no sugar), so there’s none of the usual bubbly fermentation, but instead the flor yeast spreads across the wine’s surface. It produces a compound called acetaldehyde, and this is what gives the apera its typical aroma and flavour. It helps to protect the wine against oxidation, and that’s why the apera stays so pale while the flor yeast continues to grow.
We were fortunate enough to be able to purchase a couple of barrels of the young apera in 2011, and some of you may remember seeing the apera in a glass-headed barrel that we kept in the cellar door for some years. That barrel is still our main apera barrel, but is “kept out the back”..!
As the apera developed, it became more and more difficult to maintain the flor yeast film on the surface, so the colour of the wine started to deepen. It so happened that Heather and I spent a month in Spain about then, and much of that time was spent in the south of Spain, particularly in Jerez which is often said to be the capital of the Spanish sherry industry. We visited some wonderful bodegas and even though I started off with a high degree of scepticism, I/we were won over by the range and variety and absolute quality of the sherries. One wine style that we loved enormously was the very old Palo Cortados which were a lovely golden tawny colour, dry as a chip, and with wonderfully complex aromas and flavours. A similar style in Australia would be an aged apera that we used to call Amontillado, but the Australian version of an Amontillado always had a fair bit of residual sugar.
So, I could immediately see a great future for our Somerled apera as a wine modelled on the Spanish Palo Cortado style – and that’s the way it’s going. It’s now over 9 years old, and has been in barrel for nearly all that time. The flor yeast film has long disappeared, but the flor influence is still there, just as it is in the old Spanish Palo Cortados. It has deepened further in colour, so that it has a lovely golden tint with a touch of the tawny, and the aromas and flavours are incredibly lifted.
The Somerled apera has an alcohol of just on 15%, so it’s not much more than a big red table wine, and this helps the wine to remain soft. It doesn’t have the bite of a lot of other aperas which are closer to 18%.