Sherry is a fortified wine from Andalusia, the south-western European region established as an autonomous community of the Kingdom of Spain. Situated in southern Spain, Andalusia boasts some of the country’s most popular provinces, including Seville, Granada, Córdoba, and Málaga. The Andalusian autonomous community is officially recognized as a “nationality of Spain,” meaning it is a region, the inhabitants of which—as is the case with the Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, for example—have a strong, historically based sense of cultural uniqueness and distinctiveness of identity within the overall Spanish national construct. It is oftentimes said that what is today Spain is more a socio-political fabrication than it is a nation. But whether that is true or not, what is certain is that if there one thing that unites the Spaniards, it is Sherry, one of the great wines of the world.
Under Spanish and European law, the term “Sherry” enjoys Protected Designation of Origin status, specifying that wines may only be legally labeled “Sherry” if they come from the “Sherry Triangle,” an area in the Province of Cádiz embraced by the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. Particular to the protected area is the almost-white, chalky, marl-type albariza soil that in the summer develops a hard crust beneath which precious moisture is trapped; the hot, humid climate, conducive to the development of “flor,” a veil of yeast-like growth that forms on the surface of the barrel-aging wine, protecting the liquid—if so desired—from the ravages and discoloring effects of oxidation; and the solera system. (See below). The region is fortunate to receive rains when it is most needed in viniculture: in the autumn, after the hot, dry summer months; and during the spring, just before flowering-time. There are a total of 25,000 acres (approximately 10,000 hectares) of vineyards in the Sherry Triangle.
The word “Sherry” is an English derivation of “Xérès” (Jerez). (The wine was previously known as “sack,” which derives from the Spanish “saca,” meaning “extraction” [from the solera]. Even today, there is a popular brand of supermarket-grade Sherry known as Dry Sack, produced by the venerated Sherry bodega Williams & Humbert).
Sherry is made from three principal white grapes grown in the demarcated region: Palomino, named after a 13th-century Spanish knight; Pedro Ximénez; and Moscatel. And it is from these three grapes that the various styles of Sherry are made—from the pale, dry versions, such as as Fino and Manzanilla, which are similar to white table wines, only with a higher alcohol content, to the darker, more full-bodied wines, such as Amontillado and Oloroso, that have been allowed to oxidize as they age in the barrels. Then there are the sweet dessert Sherries that are made with the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes or from blends of wines from those grapes with wines from the Palomino grape, Palomino being by far the most prevalent variety used for the production of the celebrated wine. (In actuality, the Palomino grape,which can trace its origins to Phoenician times, is an undistinguished grape in the pantheon of grapes: It is prone to oxidation [darkening and spoiling]. But as a result of the Triangle’s magical micro-climate, the grape produces an excellent wine that exhibits none of its “flaws” that manifest in other environs. When pressed, the Palomino grape enjoys a lively fermentation, with all of its sugars being converted to alcohol, thereby producing very dry wines). Finally, there are the cream Sherries (See below).
While Sherry’s general reputation is that of a sweet dessert or aperitif wine, it is also available in dry and semi-dry styles that serve as excellent complements to food. But, interestingly, unlike Port and Vin Santo, for example, which derive their sweetness naturally, Sherries (except for a few examples of vintage Sherries) begin as dry wines. After fermentation is complete—after all the natural sugars in the grape juice have been converted to alcohol, the wine thereby becoming “dry”—the dry base-wine is then fortified with a grape-derived, brandy-like spirit in order to increase the wine’s overall alcohol content. And it is that fortification with extra alcohol that accounts for Sherry’s relatively high alcohol content and its longevity once bottled. Wines that have been classified as suitable to be aged into the pale, dry Fino and Manzanilla styles are fortified until they attain an alcohol content by volume of 15.5%. As those wines age in the barrel, a yeast-like growth—poetically referred to as “flor,” Spanish for “flower”—forms on the surface of the wine, insulating it from any exposure to oxygen that would naturally occur during its barrel-aging period due to the porous nature of wooden barrels. [Barrels containing wines destined to become Fino and Manzanilla are purposefully not filled entirely with wine so that the flor has space to form and develop]. As a result of the insulation from exposure to oxygen during the aging process, the wine retains its pale color. It was not until the 1850s that the phenomenon of the flor was discovered. But once it was revealed, it broadly expanded possibilities for Sherry: As a pale, dry wine, it could be paired with tapas, arguably the quintessential Spanish gastronomical indulgence.
The wines earmarked to be aged into the darker, dry Amontillado and Oloroso styles (typically wines that, for whatever reason, did not develop and/or maintain a significant flor) are fortified to achieve an alcohol content by volume of at least 17%. In that higher-alcohol environment, the yeast-like flor cannot exist. And, as such, the wine is exposed to the natural oxidation that takes place within the barrel environment, thereby attaining darker hues over time. Amontillado and Oloroso Sherries are known to achieve colors ranging from golden-brown to deep amber or even mahogany during their typical aging periods of eight years and beyond.
Pedro Ximénes and Moscatel grapes are used to make the sweet Sherries. But they, too, are fermented completely before being put into barrels to age. They are then typically blended with Oloroso and Amontillado Sherries to achieve the desired degree of sweetness. (See below).
The Solera System of Aging Sherry
All Sherries must attain an average age of at least three years of barrel-aging before being bottled for sale. [Unlike many styles of Port, which are bottled with a recommended drinking-age in the distant future, except for a handful of unfiltered Sherries, Sherries are expected to be drunk when bottled, even if they may endure—in excellent condition—for generations once bottled]. And the defining aging processes of Sherry is the solera system. Typically, bottles of Sherry contain a blend of the wines of several years. And because of the unique solera system, bottled Sherry (except for vintage Sherry, which is not aged in a solera system) will not indicate a vintage year. The solera system is in effect a type of fractional blending/aging of wine.
The word “solera” derives from the Spanish word “suelo,” meaning “floor.” When a solera is first established, a set of barrels is filled with wine that is to be aged and placed, lying down, upon the floor. (Before entering the solera system, the wines will have already aged for approximately two years in vats). As such, that first set of barrels is also referred to “solera.” A tier of barrels containing a younger wine is then stacked atop the solera tier. Then another tier of barrels containing yet younger wine is stacked atop the previous two tiers, and so on. Each tier above the solera tier is called a “criadera,” or “nursery.” And each criadera tier, typically named and/or numbered (e.g. “Criadera 1,” “Criadera 2”), contains wine of the same age. For stability and practicality purposes, soleras generally do not exceed five tiers high—even if the solera contains more criaderas. The uppermost criadera is called the “sobretablas.” (When a solera consists of many tiers of criaderas—some containing as many as 20—the various tiers are sometimes placed in different parts of the bodega, or are even sometimes situated in different buildings within the winery complex).
The wine to be bottled is extracted only from the ground-level solera tier, the tier containing the oldest wine. The aged wine extracted from the solera tier is referred to as the “saca,” from the Spanish verb “sacar,” meaning “to extract.” The amount of wine extracted from the solera tier is then replaced with wine from the first criadera, situated immediately atop the solera tier. Then the amount of wine taken from the first criadera is replenished with wine from the second criadera, and so on, until wine is extracted from the sobretabla tier to replenish the wine taken from the criadera immediately below it. The amount of wine extracted from the sobretabla is then replenished with young wine just entering the aging process. [The very first, virgin extraction from a “newly” established solera, then, contains only the wine that was initially put into the ground-level solera when the solera was first established. But thereafter, as each tier is replenished with wine from the tier immediately above it, the wines begin blending. It is customary, then, for several extractions from a solera to take place prior to the first bottling of the solera’s wine for market, thereby ensuring a wine that reflects the balanced nuances of the solera and the characteristics of the various vintages]. [It should be noted that in the case of premium soleras containing very old wine, wine from other soleras with similar profiles—rater than young wines—are used to replenish the wine in the sobretablas of the recipient solera]. The solera-aging process of replenishing the extracted wine is called a “racio,” from the Spanish verb “raciar,” “to wash down.” By law, a maximum of 35% of a barrel’s contents may be extracted. But normally, so as to maintain the distinctive characteristics of each tier, only about 10 – 15% per barrel (a little less from Manzanilla soleras) is extracted. The saca/racio process usually takes place several times within a year, exact figures rarely disclosed. Environmental conditions and the type of Sherry being aged also figure significantly in the amount and frequency of sacas/racios: In Jerez, for example, a Fino solera is likely to be refreshed two to four times per year; whereas in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, due to higher activity of the flor, a Manzanilla solera may undergo six to 10 sacas/racios per year. [It should also be noted that all casks in a solera do not undergo the saca/racio process at the same time; it is typically spread out over time].
The underlying rationale of the solera system is to ensure continuity and consistency of the wines: By blending various vintages, the variability of wine quality from one year to another is minimized once the solera is well-established and the wines therein have been significantly integrated. Thus, with the solera system, there are no “good” and “bad” years that so often plague wine-making. The system also ensures that the bottled wines will maintain a constant average age since new wines are only gradually integrated into the system, the older wines thereby absorbing and being invigorated by the influence of the new wine as it mixes with the proportionally greater quantities of older Sherries of the solera. In addition, in the case of the flor that is required in the production of Fino and Manzanilla Sherries, the new wine contains the necessary micro-nutrients to support the development of the yeast that serves to protect the wine from exposure to oxygen, thereby permitting the liquid to retain its pale color and distinctive flavor-profile. (Absent the regular nutritional input of the new wine, the flor would die off, thereby subjecting the maturing wine to an oxidative maturation). [In order not to disrupt the flor, the new wine is not poured into the cask from the top; instead, the new wine is gently introduced underneath the layer of flor without damaging it].
It is believed that the solera system originated in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the second half of the 1700s. Prior to its introduction, all Sherries were añadas (or yearly vintages), a system that continued into the 20th century. (See “Vintage Sherry” below). Some of the oldest soleras still in active use are at Osborne (Capuchino established in 1790/Sibarita in 1792); El Maestro Sierra (1830); Valdespino (1842); and Gonzalez Byass (1847). The purpose of a solera is to serve as a perpetual aging-system that gradually and slowly matures, thereby acquiring a unique character and personality that it imparts upon the wine that it embraces. [Some Sherry producers print the establishment date of the solera on their labels, a practice that may lead unsuspecting consumers to believe that the stated date represents the age of the Sherry contained in the bottle].
The nature of the solera system is to seamlessly blend wines from various vintages. As such, it is impossible to date the bottled wine. An average, approximate age of the wine, however, may be determined. Factors such as the starting-date of the solera, the number of criaderas, the typical percentage of each saca, and the frequency of sacas, are taken into consideration. When bottled, the “age” of all Sherries is assessed and determined by a cadre of professional tasters from the Consejo Regulador, the governing body of the Jerez D.O. (Designation of Origin), which is authorized to reject wines it deems immature. It is also that body that as of 2001 grants, based on flavor-profile, the age-statement designations of VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum/[unofficial English equivalent, “Very Old Sherry”]) for Sherries 20 years or older; and VORS (Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum/[unofficial English equivalent, “Very Old Rare Sherry”]) for Sherries 30 years or older.
Vintage Sherry, or Jerez de Añada, is today rarely produced, so much so that even aficionados are sometimes under the mistaken impression that it no longer exists, the last bottles, they think, having been brought to market in the early decades of the 20th century. Before the introduction of the solera system of aging Sherries (See above) in the second half of the 18th century, all Sherry was vintage Sherry: Grapes would be harvested and pressed; the grape must would be allowed to completely ferment, thereby becoming dry; the wine would be fortified and put into wooden casks; and years later, there would be amber-colored Oloroso and Oloroso-type Sherries, which would sometimes then be sweetened, filtered, and bottled.
But even with the rise of the solera system as the system for making Sherry, casks of Vintage Sherries continue to quietly exist, even if in proportionately small quantities, in the far corners or darkened areas of Sherry bodegas, for they serve a practical purpose: Because no new wine is introduced to the barrels aging Vintage Sherry, they age quicker; and when aged, this old wine can serve as a high-quality resource for “tweaking” and “correcting” the flavor-profiles of soleras. But once Vintage Sherries became secondary to solera-aged Sherries, Vintage Sherries, by the early 20th century, had seen their last commercial days—until their recent comeback in the 1990s when the large bodegas of Gonzalez Byass and Williams and Hubert started making their Vintage Sherries available to the public. And since then, other bodegas have followed suit.
The wines intended for Vintage Sherry are usually produced from full-bodied, sweeter musts since such musts tend to produce wines that better appreciate the characteristics derived from oak barrels. And because of the higher per-volume alcohol content (20-22%), the wines undergo oxidative maturation (since no oxygen-insulating flor will exist in that environment), thus producing Oloroso (which means “scented” in Spanish), Amontillado, Palo Cortado, or one of the sweet varieties. Also, because of the evaporation that occurs during oxidative maturation, and because the “angels’ share” (“merma”) is not replenished, the wine, over time, becomes increasingly concentrated. [On occasion, the concentrated wine is transferred to smaller barrels so as to minimize the exposure to oxygen that is witnessed as a result of empty space in a barrel].
As with solera Sherries, Añadas are available dry, semi-dry, or sweet. When the cellarmaster, called “capataz” in Spain, determines that the Vintage Sherry is almost ready for bottling, a designated quantity will be sweetened. This is typically achieved by adding naturally sweet grape must of the native Pedro Ximénez variety. After the Sherry has been sweetened, it remains in the casks for additional months or years, producing a complex, balanced wine. The word “abocado” (“smooth”) on the label denotes a sweetened Sherry. The word “amoroso” is used to indicate a sweetened Oloroso. Alternatively, Sherry is sometimes (but rarely so) sweetened on the front-end—the natural way, like Port: Fermentation is interrupted by the addition of a grape-derived spirit, thereby preserving the unconverted sugars in the wine. Thereafter, the wine is aged, producing a naturally sweet Sherry years later.
The History of Sherry
Introduced by the Phoenicians around 1100 B.C.E., wine-making has been a part of Iberian culture for 3,000 years. And throughout that long history, the town of Jerez has been at the center of Iberian viniculture. Like the Phoenicians before them, the Romans continued the wine-making legacy when they took control of the Iberian Peninsula around 100 B.C.E. But Sherry as a distinct style of fortified wine is the result of the Moorish culture of North Africa. When the Moors conquered the region in 711 C.E., they introduced the technique of distillation, which would figure significantly in the development of Sherry. During the Moorish period, the city that is today called “Jerez” was called “Sherish,” from which the words “Jerez” and “Sherry” derive. (Coincidentally in the Persian [present-day Iranian] city of Shiraz is made a wine very similar to Sherry. But the Persian name “Shiraz” has mostly been discounted as the source of the word “Sherry”).
In 966 C.E., Al-Hakam II, the second Caliph of Córdoba, in adherence with the Islamic proscription of the consumption of alcohol, ordered the destruction of vineyards. But the people of Jerez argued convincingly that the vineyards also produced grapes that went to feed the empire’s soldiers, resulting in the Caliph sparing two-thirds of Jerez’s vineyards. Thus, by the time the Moors lost control of the city of Jerez to Alfonso X of Castile in 1264, the Moors had been producing fortified wines in Spain for over 500 years. Sherry was the wine carried by Christopher Columbus to the New World onboard the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. And it is said that in 1519 when Ferdinand Magellan prepared for his journey to circumnavigate the world, more money was spent on Sherry than on weapons. The British became enamored with Sherry when, in 1587, Francis Drake sacked the the Spanish city of Cádiz, at the time site of one of Spain’s most important seaports, as Spain was preparing an armada to invade England. Part of the spoils of the famous sack were the 2,900 barrels of Sherry that had been warehoused in Cádiz pending being loaded onto the Spanish war vessels. Upon Drake’s return to England, the English delighted not only in their victory, but also in their acquired Sherry. And their fascination with the Spanish wine has endured ever since. By the end of the 16th century, Sherry had earned the reputation in Europe as the world’s finest wine—bar none.
The Major Types of Sherry
There are three major categories of Sherry: Dry, Sweet, and Cream, each with subcategories.
The Principal Dry Sherries
–Fino: Meaning “fine” in Spanish, is the driest and palest of the traditional varieties of Sherry. It is served chilled, typically as an aperitif wine, but also as an accompaniment to tapas, nuts, or any dish for which white wines would be a natural complement. Though fortified, because of its relative delicacy, Fino Sherry is best drunk shortly after it is bottled.
–Manzanilla: An especially pale type of Fino Sherry made exclusively in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where, due to higher humidity, because of Sanlúcar’s proximity to the marshlands of Doñana, the flor flourishes year-round (whereas in other areas of the Sherry Triangle, the flor tends to die down with the arrival of the dry, hot weather), resulting in the one of the palest (and some say driest) of all Sherries.
–Manzanilla Pasada: A Manzanilla that has undergone extended aging or that has been partially oxidized, giving it a richer, nuttier flavor. Favored by the natives of Sanlúcar, the wine is said to suggest hints of salt on account of the proximity of the sea to the wine’s birthplace.
–Amontillado: Named after the wine-making town of Montilla (Córdoba), this Sherry is in effect a transitional wine between a Fino and an Oloroso. Like Fino and Manzanilla, the wine is first aged under a protective layer of flor. But the layer of flor dies off, or is allowed to die off, thereby exposing the wine to oxidation, which renders it darker in color. Amontillado is a naturally dry Sherry. (But it is sometimes slightly sweetened, though, when such is the case, it cannot be labeled “Amontillado”).
–Oloroso: Oloroso is aged with little or no flor, resulting in the wine’s darker color. With an alcohol by volume content of between 18 and 20%, Olorosos are amongst the most alcoholic Sherries. Naturally dry, when Olorosos are sold sweetened, they can no longer be labeled “Oloroso.” Instead, they must be labeled “Cream Sherry.” Rich amber in color, Oloroso is usually served as an aperitif and complement to cured hams. It is also regarded as suitable match for difficult-to-wine-match foods such as asparagus, eggs, and artichokes. The best Olorosos tend to be the oldest ones.
–Palo Cortado: It is said in Jerez that Palo Cortado is not made, it happens—rarely. The wine begins its life as Fino, but, for whatever reason, the flor either does not form or forms and quickly dies. This rare occurrence results in a Sherry with an aroma similar to Amontillado, but with a color closer to Oloroso.
Sweet Sherry (also called “Jerez Dulce”)
Sweet Sherries are made from either the Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grape varieties. (The Pedro Ximénez grape, oftentimes abbreviated as “PX,” is an extremely sweet grape that can be found throughout the greater Andalusian wine region. “Pedro Ximénez” also refers to a wine—named after the famous grape). When the PX and Moscatel grapes are employed in the production of Sweet Sherry, the grapes are left to sun-dry, thereby reducing their water content and concentrating their already-high quantities of natural sugars. In effect, the grapes are dried almost until they become raisins. The grapes are then pressed to extract their super-sweet must, which is then allowed to ferment. As the region’s naturally occurring yeasts consume the sugars in the must, they emit alcohol (and carbon dioxide) as waste products. But unlike with grapes with lower sugar content, where the yeast is able to transform all the sugar to alcohol, thereby producing dry wines, in the case of PX and Moscatels—and especially in their semi-desiccated forms—the yeast consumes so much sugar that they emit a correspondingly high amount of alcohol in the process. And in that high-alcohol environment, the yeasts perish, leaving the uneaten natural sugars in the fermented liquid. And it is that leftover sugar content that accounts for the natural sweetness of Sweet Sherry. The sweet liquid is then fortified with additional grape-derived spirit and put into casks for aging. Sweet Sherries oftentimes age to a highly prized, very dark, almost black wine. When aged correctly, these wines are regarded as some of the best in the world. They are enjoyed with desserts or drunk unaccompanied, in small quantities, as meditativewines, each sip savored.
[Sweet Sherries are also sometimes mixed with dry Oloroso Sherry or other dry Sherries to create semi-dry Sherries].
Popular outside Spain, but not within Spain, Cream Sherry is in effect sweetened Oloroso Sherry (or, in the case of Pale Cream Sherry, a sweetened Fino Sherry). Such Sherries are traditionally sweetened by mixing-in Pedro Ximénez, a naturally sweet wine. Alternatively, the wine may be sweetened with sugar or a grape juice concentrate. One of the most commercially popular Cream Sherries is Harvey’s Bristol Cream. Traditionally, Cream Sherries are served as a dessert wine or as a complement to pâtés.
Pale dry Sherries, whether drunk as aperitifs or as complements to food, are drunk chilled from regular, stemmed, white wine glasses. Darker dry Sherries are generally drunk at cellar temperature from white wine glasses, but are also drunk from stemmed, tulip-inspired glasses referred to as a “copita” or a “catavino.”
When Sherry is served as a compliment to a soup—typically also flavored with Sherry—the wine is traditionally served in a small, stemmed, V-shaped glass.
Sweet and Semi-Sweet Sherries are served in small stemmed glasses.
Shelf Life of Sherries
Sherry is generally stored upright—to minimize the wine’s exposed surface area—in a cool, dark place. Once opened, pale Sherries should be drunk the same day. Darker Sherries (especially the sweet ones, since the sugar acts as an additional preservative), aged in an oxidative manner, are only minimally affected by subsequent exposure to oxygen and may be re-corked and enjoyed weeks or months after opening.
Because most Sherries are filtered in the production process, they are not decanted; they are poured directly from the bottle. (Some hosts serve them from stoppered, decorative crystal decanters for aesthetic purposes).
Like Port, properly cellar-stored dark and Sweet Sherries can endure through the decades and across the centuries, though, unlike Port, because Sherries are filtered before bottling, they tend not to improve once bottled. Pale Sherries are meant to be drunk within a few years after bottling.
The oldest wine in Crimea’s Massandra Winery collection is Sherry de La Frontera dating from 1775.