Thanks for coming to the Sherry Deep Dive! We have a lot of information to share with you and here's what we'll be covering:
What is Sherry
How is it made
Where is it made
Styles of Sherry
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When you think of sherry does it conjure images of sweet little old ladies, daintily sipping from thimble-sized antique glasses, watching tiny dogs sleep in front of a fire? You’re not wrong. Somewhere in the world this scene is indeed unfolding. In other corners of the world however, there are also full-flavored, late-night sherry experiences going down, complete with loud music and tight trousers. How could a singular style of wine from a tiny region attract such a disparate spectrum of admirers? Because like the human palate, sherry is immeasurably complex and layered, made with equal parts tradition, skill, patience, and accident.
First of all, what is Sherry?
Simply put it’s a fortified, aged wine made from white grapes (mostly Palomino) in the Southeast of Spain. There are many nuances, traditions, and rules that we’ll get into, with the most definitive being that in order to be called a sherry it must be made in this very particular region of Spain, the Sherry Triangle of Andalucia.
Wine grapes have been cultivated and vinified here for centuries. Not a few centuries either; since before the Romans occupied the region, on through the Moors for another 800 years, and then under Castillian rule since the 13th century. The term sherry is said to be derived from the Arabic name for the capital city of sherry production, Jerez (Xèrés). When anglicized the word became sherry. Andalucia (the province that contains the Sherry Triangle) has seen its share of invasion, occupation, and appropriation, but one constant has been the cultivation of wine grapes. It’s always been more agricultural than the rest of the country, with its warmer climate, essential rivers connecting the sea to the interior for import/export, and the unique salty air that both keeps grapes safe from rot and provides the magical ambient yeast called flor that protects sherry while it ages. There’s also a special soil here, called albaniza, composed of brilliant white chalk, reflecting the ripening powers of sunlight onto the grapes all day long.
How is it made?
This is the fun part. There are many styles of sherry, but only three kinds of grapes are used: Palomino (the majority), Pedro Ximenez, and Moscatel. The grapes are harvested in September and sent to be pressed. The first pressing is usually destined for Fino and Manzanilla, while the second pressing goes on to make Oloroso (this will make more sense later). Juice is fermented in steel until November, transferred to barrels, becoming a dry white wine at about 11-12% alcohol. At this stage it’s tasted and scored (literally the barrels are marked w/slashes) to determine its eventual fate.
Sherry reaches a crossroads here, where it is determined if it will be aged biologically (meaning under a flor) or oxidatively (meaning exposed to oxygen). This is the main dividing characteristic between sherry styles. If the wine coming out of fermentation is exhibiting the finest flavors and aromas, it will be vinified as a Fino/Manzanilla or Amontillado and so only fortified to 15% alcohol to allow for the indidgenous yeast in the air to inoculate the wine, forming a protective veil (flor) that floats on the surface of the wine as it sits in a barrel. These wines are then considered to be aging biologically. The flor allows the wine beneath to develop and mature without the oxidizing effects of contact with air, allowing them to age for up to 10 years and still retain fresh, bright acidity and a clean, lean mouthfeel.
Conversely, if the wine coming out of fermentation has a heavier, fuller body it will be fortified to 17.5%, to prevent a flor from forming, and aged oxidatively to become an Oloroso. A grape-based distillate is used to fortify in both cases, so no conflicting flavors are introduced; it’s only intended to be a mechanism for controlling ambient yeast.
Sometimes a wine will be partially aged under flor and then finished oxidatively as is the case with Amontillado when the process is intentional, or with the magical accident called Palo Cortado when the flor just disappears mysteriously. Palo Cortado is rare and coveted, as it happens spontaneously and unpredictably, but of course results in the most delicious finished product. Its name comes from the barrel markings in the cellar, where the highest quality wine would have received a single slash (or stick-palo) but then when the flor disappears a second mark cuts (cortado) across it to denote the special barrel.
The making process doesn’t stop here though. Only with sherry will we see the aging process play such a central role in the finished product. It could be argued that this part of the wine’s life is almost more important than the earlier stages that we recognize as “winemaking.” Sherry is aged in a solera system, meaning “on the ground.” Each year barrels are stacked on top of each other, with the barrels below (older) being topped off with wine from the year before. Each level is called a scale, with the oldest resting on the ground, destined for bottling. This makes sherry a non-vintage wine, as each batch spends two years in a barrel before moving on in small increments to be blended with the next scale. The average sherry cellar has 20-30 years in their bottom (oldest) scale.
Where is it made? Excellent question…
Jerez is the most well-known and largest city of the region, comprising the inland corner of the Sherry Triangle. Though its vineyards have been under cultivation for hundreds of years, it was only officially established as a wine region in 1932. Before phylloxera there were over a hundred different indigenous grapes used in sherry production; now there are only 3, but many of these are old-vine plantings. With a drier climate than the other two main producing towns, Jerez grapes ripen a bit differently, making the area more well known for their Amontillado, Oloroso, and PX sherries.
San Lucar de Barrameda is the only approved producer of Manzanilla sherry, a style whose name translates to “chamomile” in Spanish, for its distinctive aroma. Basically a Fino, Manzanilla is only different because of the unique strains of yeast that populate the flor here in San Lucar, which is right on the ocean. The town sits at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, just north of the Straits of Gibraltar, and local legend claims that when the tide goes out the smell of the shore matches the aroma wafting from a glass of Manzanilla. High humidity and salinity in the air definitely manifest in the sherry, and may also contribute to a thicker flor, protecting the wine even more and allowing it to age a bit longer than Fino from elsewhere.
El Puerto de Santa Maria is the smaller of the coastal producing towns, south of Jerez and east of San Lucar, at the mouth of the Guadalete River on the Bay of Cadiz. Also famous for their beaches, bullfights, and bustling harbors, this town is THE place for Fino. To revisit our Granny visual, you can now also imagine Matadors, sailors, and sunbathing beauties sipping on sherry as their beverage of choice!
Styles of Sherry: (all are naturally dry with the exception of Pedro Ximenez and Cream Sherry)
Fino – The most delicate of the styles, with pale straw hues, notes of almond and fresh dough, with a salty minerality to finish; biologically aged, spends 4-7 years in barrel
Manzanilla – Fino produced in San Lucar de Barrameda; distinctively salty aroma and palate, with citrus zest and bright acidity; biologically aged, with more scales in solera than Fino, ages 6-8 years
Amontillado – Aged under flor for 3-8 years (biologically) and then finished oxidatively; aromas of tobacco and nuts, darker and richer in hue with a weightier mouthfeel
Oloroso – Made from the heavier musts (2nd pressing) and fortified higher for oxidative aging; walnuts, dried fruits, leather, and balsamic
Palo Cortado – A Fino to start, turned oxidative when the flor mysteriously disappears; becomes a more lightweight, delicate and nuanced version of an Oloroso; less than 100,000 bottles of this are made each year!
Pedro Ximenez – Grapes are grown even farther inland than Jerez (Montilla-Moriles) in a hot, dry climate where the fruit won’t rot as it hangs extra long on the vine to get super ripe; then dried in the sun in a process called “asoleo” to become raisinated; become more savory with age (over 30 years) with complex palates of smoke, spice, chocolate, and candied figs
Cream – The sweetest of the styles, usually used for cooking, made from the Moscatel grape.
Hopefully we’ve been able to show you some of the magic behind this complex wine style, and the very special place it comes from. Sherry should be stored stored in a fridge, basement, or cellar (not the bottom shelf of the liquor cabinet for months on end). For Fino, you want to drink it over 3-4 days max. For Manzanilla, you might be able to drink it over 5-7 days, and the others you can drink them over several weeks.
When you’re enjoying a quality version of Sherry you’ll see that it makes an excellent, and vibrant, companion to a wide range of dishes, from sushi to paella, charcuterie boards to dessert. And, maybe one day--on a beautiful, warm summer of fall evening in the Kerrytown Courtyard-- we will have a feast of Fish & Fino with our neighbor, Monahan’s. One can dream.