Sherry is probably the most underrated, un-understood and maligned wine in the entire wine portfolio of the world. To a huge number of wine aficionados, it rates right up there on their desert island wine list; to the majority who haven’t discovered it, it’s the sweet, old fashioned drink that gathers dust in the elderly aunt’s drink cabinet. Fortunately, at long last, Sherry seems to be having the semblance of a revival, particularly for the dry, Fino style, especially in London, with new Sherry bars and tapas restaurants popping up almost weekly.
Sherry is a wine – not a spirit. It is a fortified wine produced in the deep south of Spain, from the sun-baked plains of Andalucia, west of Gibraltar, near Cadiz, in 3 main areas, Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. There is a unique soil, known as Albarizo, a white chalk soil, which glints off the vineyards, and reflects the glaring and blinding sunshine of the area. This is one of the unique characteristics which produce Sherry. Despite the southern location, the Jerez region has more rainfall than Rioja during the winter and spring, and the deep chalky soil, stores the water, to feed the vines during the searingly hot summer. The white chalk also reflects the hot sun, ripening the grapes, to their early vintage.
Wine has been made in this area since 8BC, and of all the regions of Spain, it’s the one, with the oldest and most multi-cultural history; the gateway between Mediterranean Europe and Africa, to which it is very close, the area has a very long history, and a strong Arabic influence, having been the stronghold for the Moors in Medieval times.
The majority of Sherry is produced from the Palomino grape, with the sweeter styles made from the Pedro Ximenez. The creation of Sherry is a unique process. The heart of Sherry country is in Jerez de la Frontera, with the majority of the wine companies and producers (or ‘bodegas’ as they are known), being housed here.
Grapes are harvested, fermented to about 15% alcohol and then placed in butts (large oak casks), where, on the lighter wines, with higher acidity, a thick layer of a white yeast called ‘Flor’ develops on the surface. This prevents oxidation and also gives its own unique, nutty, salty, character to the wine.
Not all sherry butts develop Flor; those that do will be made into Fino, or Amontillado; those that don’t will develop into Olorosos.
There are many unique aspects about Sherry, one of which is the ‘Solera’ system. Rather like NV Champagne, the majority of Sherry is non-vintage. The region has developed a unique blending system to ensure a uniform style of sherry, by bodega. The sherry butts are stacked on top of each other; when sherry is bottled, it is taken from the bottom butt – the butt is then topped up with sherry from the butt above and so on; this effectively means that the older sherry is continuously freshened up and made more complex by the addition of younger wines. Some old barrels may date back decades, and still contain small amounts of the original wine, refreshed over the years by younger versions.
Sherry Grapes And Styles
Over 95% of the grapes grown for Sherry are Palomino Fino, the remainder (for sweet sherry) being Pedro Ximenez.
Fino - this is the bone dry, delicate, wine that develops from barrels with Flor – fortified to around 15%, this tangy, nutty, uniquely flavoured wine should be drunk chilled and very fresh. It goes perfectly with tapas, olives, the traditional almonds from the region, and searingly fresh seafood and fish.
Manzanilla – another light, fresh, tangy dry sherry, which, must have been aged in the cellars of the coastal, sun-baked town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The proximity to the sea gives the wine a unique, salty tang, and they are generally slightly lighter and more delicate than Fino.
Amontillado - this is fino, where the layer of Flor has not developed to the same degree, and where the wine has been allowed to oxidise and age , yielding an amber colour, and a rich, walnutty character. True amontillado is searingly dry, but many of the commercial styles are now sweetened. It is another wine that is great with small plates of tapas, but its richer flavour, yet high acidity lend its style to more substantial meat and poultry dishes. It also works well with some cheeses.
Oloroso – this is a sherry, which has not developed Flor, and thus oxidises to a rich, dark colour and flavour. These wines are intense and pungent, and once again, in their truest styles, will be dry. Incredibly rich and intense, they have a powerful, almost bitter treacle character and are quite unique. Like Amontillado, the wines are fortified to about 17.5%, and many are sweetened, to produce commercial styles.
Palo Cortado – another style of sherry, which is allowed to oxidise, but, as opposed to Oloroso, it is from butts where Flor has started to develop and then stopped, and is made in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel – these are intensely sweet wines, made from the grapes of the same name , rich, treacly, and full of raisin, and brown sugar character.