Have you ever tried Spanish Sherry or been to Spain’s “Sherry Triangle?” Well, let me tell you, it’s not your grandmother’s Sherry and after my visit to the region, the complex and mystifying wine is now a staple in our cellar.
Jancis Robinson, the renowned British wine critic, once said, “Many modern wine drinkers will look at this section and wonder why on earth I think it worthwhile devoting so much space to such a dinosaur of a wine as sherry. The answer is plain to anyone who has tried a good quality version. The trouble is that most people have not.”
In fact, Sherry is often misunderstood. It is complex, rustic, refined, traditional, exciting, relaxing and, perhaps above all else, proud and passionate. It is meant to be explored, as is all wine, for its unique sensory experience.
What is Sherry?
Sherry (also known as Jerez or Xérès) is fortified wine, which means that alcohol is added to the wine in a second stage of production (this doesn’t mean dumping bunch of grain alcohol in the vat). The name Sherry came about from the inability of the Brits to correctly pronounce Jerez, the modern form of Xérès, which is the name of the Andalucían region where Sherry is grown and produced, and the DO was established in 1933. However, various forms of Sherry have been in production much longer than it’s export to the UK, in fact, since the Phoenician times.
Once a seabed, the soils of the Andalucían region reflect marine life and sediments. The grapes, all white and most of which are the Palomino, are grown in arid vineyards forming a triangle with the inland point of Jerez de la Frontera, and the two coastal points of Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. While 95% of Sherry is produced from the Palomino, with the remaining coming from the muscatel bianco and Pedro Ximénez grapes,
Sherry remarkably comes in seven distinct styles: Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, Crema and Pedro Ximénez.
(Winetraveler fun fact: They still often print all three names (Sherry, Jerez and Xérès) on the bottle, connecting those of us who enjoy it with the wonderful producers and places that exist today and the traditions and families of the past.)
How is Sherry Made?
If there is one thing I have learned in my wine travels, it’s that winemaking is an art form, and that being the case, Sherry-making is akin to designing and constructing Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. The process is intricate, time consuming and relies heavily on the past while still building into the future.
Essentially, the grapes are crushed and fermented, as they would for white wine, with only a slight amount of grape spirits added to the first fermentation, or the sobretable. Additionally, the barrels at this stage are only filled three-quarters of the way for the velo de flor, or layer of wild yeasts, to form a cap over the wine. This wine is then set aside for about six months.
The next stage of Sherry-making is referred to as the solera in which the wine is moved through rows-stacked-upon-rows of old American Oak barrels, a process which lasts years. The bottom row, or solera row, is extracted from when the Sherry is ready to bottle and go to market. Only up to 30% of the Sherry is allowed by law to be removed from the solera row barrels.
The newly opened space in the barrel is then filled with an equal amount of wine from the row above, and so only, until you reach the top row of barrels, in which the new wine is added. In other words, the Sherry in the bottom barrels never gets completely emptied, and the longer they keep making the wine, the older, on average, the Sherry that is bottled becomes. This, and the fact that it’s law, is why you’ll never see a vintage on a bottle of Sherry.
The whole process is fascinating. In fact, in the bodegas I visited the flooring of the solera is basically exposed gravel, and a watering system is used in the summer to keep the inside of the building at the right temperature and humidity. The barrels, all American oak, are kept for as long as possible rather than rotated out after just a few years like you might with red or white wine. The entire process and the conditions in which the Sherry is produced keeps things as neutral as possible. The goal is to have consistency from year-to-year, rather than to have distinct vintages.
The Seven Styles of Sherry
The solera is a very systematic and controlled way of exposing the wine to oxygen and the flor and this combined with the various methods of fortification are what make each of the seven styles of Sherry unique. Again, all made from white grapes and predominately from the Palomino variety, Sherry ranges from dry to sweet, and from light in color and body, to dark in color and almost syrupy in body.
Manzanilla – a light-style of Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanilla relies heavily on the velo de flor, rather than oxidation, in the solera for its character. The resulting wine is so delicate it must be drunk chilled and within a day or two of opening.
Fino – a light and dry, lower-alcohol (between 15 and 17% ABV) Sherry again relying on the velo de flor vs. oxidation although it can still age around four or five years in the solera depending on the winemaker. Made solely from the free run juices (as is manzanilla), this Sherry must be chilled and drunk within a few days. This is excellent with Jamón Iberico, seafood and even sushi!
Amontillado – amber in color and characterized by both the velo de flor and oxidation, thereby going through multiple fortifications. The first fortification ranging between four to six years in the solera offers the wine contact with the velo de flor. The second fortification is done without room for the velo de flor allowing for greater oxidation. Depending on the winemaker, the amontillado can be produced dry, or medium-dry by adding a small amount of Pedro Ximénez.
Palo Cortado – a unique and revered dark Sherry with shades of green amber. Palo Cortado falls between the amontillado and oloroso. It is dry and refined, yet also luscious, owing to the high levels of glycerin. This wine is also very rare, so a tasting should be treasured.
Oloroso – meaning “intensely aromatic,” this Sherry is aged for long periods and without the velo de flor. Full-bodied and made from pressed juice, olorosos are also more fortified with grape spirits before spending six to eight years on average in the solera.
Crema – originally created for export to Britain, crema is made by typically adding a minimum of 11% residual sugar to oloroso. This sweet, syrupy runs between 15.5% to 22% ABV.
Pedro Ximénez – a dark colored, sweet Sherry with a molasses-like consistency. This Sherry comes from the Pedro Ximénez grapes which are dried on straw mats in the sun for up to a week. The grapes are then processed and run through the solera before adding between 40% to 50% residual sugar. This is a dessert wine!
Places to Visit in the Sherry Triangle
Sandeman Bodega: Sandeman, located in Jerez, has been around since 1790 and the tours offered are highly informational and include a tasting. Sandeman offers three kinds of tours, from basic to premium. Tours are at various times in various languages, depending on the season. I recommend calling or emailing in advance to verify.
Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestra: While in Jerez, make sure to take in some Adalucían culture at the world-famous equestrian school. The facility is spectacular and the show a work of art. No photos allowed, so sit back, relax and marvel at the sheer talent of both the equestrians and the horses.
Osborne Bodega: In the seaside town of Puerto de Santa Maria, visit the exquisite Osborne Bodega for a private tasting or group tour. Established in 1772, a visit to Osborne features private tasting rooms and a stop in the unrivaled gift shop, Toro. I left with a whole new appreciation for the elegance of Sherry (and a few bottles). It’s a tasting worth experiencing.
Ribera del Marisco and Ribero del Río: After sampling the Sherry at Osborne, stroll down the seaside roads in Puerto de Santa Maria. Tascas, open air markets and fisherman’s bars make it an easy tapas crawl for sampling chilled fino and seafood.
Barbadillo: Established in Sanlúcar in 1821, Barbadillo has both a museum of manzanilla and a tour of the bodega. The experiences at Barbadillo will provide the history and the art behind this delicate wine that will only enhance the tasting offered.
Casa Bigote: Is the perfect seaside dining experience where you can choose to dine in the restaurant or at the open air manzanilla bar overlooking the beach. Although not a sunset beach, the beaches of Sanlúcar are still a delight, and any beachside bar offers an evening to remember with manzanilla and seafood.
International Sherry Week: October 8 – October 14, 2018