It’s believed that the first vine cuttings were brought to modern-day Jerez nearly 3000 years ago. Throughout its long and convoluted history, the wine didn’t always resemble the wine we now know as sherry. But, this delicious wine traveled the world with the help of distilled wine fortification. In fact, many historians believe that sherry was the first wine to be exported to the new world shortly after Columbus made his discovery. And, when Magellan set out on his famous quest to find the spice islands, it’s said that his expenditures for sherry were greater than those for weaponry for the entire voyage! Aside from the Spanish, the British are the world’s greatest consumers of sherry, courtesy of Sir Francis Drake, who raided the Spanish fleet at the port town of Cadiz. He made off with thousands of gallons of sherry intended for the Spanish navy, and so established it as a popular beverage at home.
There are wines made all over the world that borrow the name. In fact, for a while it seemed that any sort of white wine with fortification was called sherry. But, the original, authentic sherry is made in the regulated area called Jerez in the southwest of Spain. Within the European Union only wine from the designated area called the Jerez Denominacion de Origen (D.O.), or appellation, may be called sherry.
The sherry varieties, with the exception of Muscat Alexandria, aren’t often found outside of Jerez. The Palomino grape, also known as Palomino Fino, is the mainstay. It hasn’t succeeded elsewhere, probably because it doesn’t make very good table wine. The juice oxidizes easily and it’s also prone to flabby acidity, but those qualities, especially the tendency to oxidize, make it very suitable for sherry and Palomino accounts for almost 95% of the plantings in Jerez. The rest of the acreage is shared by Pedro Ximenez and Muscat Alexandria, which are most often used to make sweet wine either for bottling or for blending into dry sherry.
Making the wine is a fascinating process for two reasons: the special yeast called flor and the solera aging system. As harvest begins, the winemaker has two options, stylistically: fino sherry or oloroso sherry. Most producers make both. The vineyard lots that are likely to make the most light, elegant wines are selected to make fino sherry. Fino is often made of free-run juice only and is cold fermented to retain fruitiness. The coarser lots are better suited to make the oloroso sherry. If there’s any barrel fermentation at all, it’s most likely to be for the heavier oloroso wine. And, more than for any stylistic goal, it’s done to break in and neutralize the new American oak barrel. These barrels, which are called butts, are about three times larger than the barrels you see at most modern wineries. They’re only bought new out of necessity – oak flavor is not considered a virtue when it comes to sherry. When the fermentation is finished and the wine is about 11-12% alcohol, it’s time for fortification, so distilled wine is added. The amount is determined by the intended style of the finished wine. The potential fino lots are only fortified to up to about 15%. The fino wines are bone dry, light, by sherry standards, and very elegant in style. The oloroso lots are fortified to about 18% and are will make the dark, full-bodied, nutty styles.
Fino Sherry Production
The lower alcohol level for the fino is crucial because of the special flor yeast, which thrives in the bodegas of Jerez. It’s used in the initial alcoholic fermentation but its metabolism changes, afterward, and it uses the alcohol and oxygen to form a filmy, curd-like layer on the surface of the wine. It can only survive in an alcohol solution under 16%. The new sherry is moved into butts, for aging, but it’s important to fill them to only about 5/6′s full. The next spring, as the cellar warms up, the winemaker will begin to notice the little curds expanding until they cover the entire surface of the wine. The flor protects the wine from oxidation by using the oxygen in the headspace. But, the protection isn’t complete and that limited amount of oxidation gives the wine complexity. The flor also produces acetaldehyde which plays a significant role in giving the sherry the nutty smell and taste you expect. All wines have a small amount of acetaldehyde, but when it’s detected in table wines, it’s usually considered a flaw and makes the wine seem rather flat.
Unattended, the flor yeast will use up the wine’s nutrients and die, but periodic replenishing with younger wine and yeast nutrients keeps it alive for years.
The Solera System
Which brings us to the solera system. The butts are stacked up with the oldest wine in the bottom butt and progressively younger wines in the butts above it. Each year a little wine, no more than one third, by law, is drawn from the bottom butt for bottling. The wine is replaced by the younger wine in the barrel above it – and so on and so on. Theoretically, there can be some very ancient wine in the blend of extensively-aged wines, but the amount is negligible. The old wine lends nuance to the blend and the young wines help maintain a sense of freshness. Finos usually spend about five years in the solera system before bottling, but if the wine is refreshed at least a few times a year, the flor may live as long as ten years.
When the winemaker sets out to make oloroso, he uses the heavier lots and includes press wine. He’ll fortify it up to perhaps 17 or 18% alcohol because he isn’t looking for the protective flor covering. The press wine and higher alcohol contribute to the wine’s weight and texture. Without the flor to protect it the wine oxidizes to become deeper in color and gains a wonderful toffee-like richness. The wine is aged extensively in the solera and is blended with even older wines during that time, deepening it even further. The evaporation loss during those years will further concentrate the wine and increase the alcohol. When the oloroso is finally removed from its butt, even though it’s remarkably caramelized in character, it’s bone dry. A certain percentage of the wine may be bottled as dry oloroso, but it’s more common, in recent times, to sweeten it by adding a little Pedro Ximenez. If it’s sweetened a great deal it’s called cream sherry.
How do you know what you’re buying when you go to the wine shop? Styles can vary from bodega to bodega so it’s always smart to ask questions. Here are the best-known styles you’ll find on the shelves.
In the fino group, or at least for wines that started as finos, you’ll see wines called Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado and Palo Cortado.
The Fino is made as described and is pale, light and dependably dry. Served well chilled, it’s an excellent aperitif. It’s also a delicious partner for olives, salty nuts, Serrano ham or prawns.
Manzanilla is the ultimate in fino style – the most elegant, refined and refreshing. Manzanilla is only produced in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The cool, marine air allows the flor to live vigorously year-round where, in the interior region, it can nearly die off completely during the warm summer months. A slightly earlier harvest means the wine is often a bit lower in alcohol and higher in acid than other finos and the thick coating of flor makes for slower aging. The sea air seems to give the Manzanilla a very subtle salty, briny tang. This is another one to serve well chilled on a warm day. If the Fino or Manzanilla is sweetened substantially, it may be called pale cream sherry.
You could say that an amontillado is a fino sherry gone deliciously awry. Or, more accurately, it’s an aged fino. If it has gone awry, it began as a fino and became amontillado because the flor died. If the wine begins to take on amontillado character the best thing to do is fortify it up to around 16% alcohol and let it oxidize so that the color deepens and it becomes richer and nuttier. When the winemaker sets out to make amontillado, from the beginning, he lets the fino-style wine work its way through the solera, fortifies it further and ages it again – sometimes for many, many years. Amontillados are classically dry, but there are some that are sweetened with a little Pedro Ximenez these days. Unfortunately, the label won’t necessarily tell you one way or the other. The Spanish drink their amontillado chilled with fowl, Serrano ham or aged cheeses. If you see a wine called Palo Cortado, it’s an amontillado that’s begun to take on oloroso character. So, it’s quite voluptuous, but also dry and somehow graceful at the same time. Serve this very lightly chilled, around 50 degrees, with a piece of Manchego, a mushroom omelet or some paté.
With oloroso sherry we enter very rich territory. After the fermentation the wine is fortified to 18-20% alcohol so there’s no question about the flor yeast. This is aged extensively and the long exposure to oxygen gives it an even deeper color than the amontillado. It’s extremely nutty and concentrated. Those that age the longest often creep up as high as 24% alcohol due to evaporation loss. Most olorosos are sweetened with Pedro Ximenez and a rare few are dry. If it’s called oloroso dulce, you know it’s quite sweet and sun-dried Pedro Ximenez was added. This is served at cool room temperature with dry, aged cheeses. Dry oloroso is often served with game.
The best wines called cream sherries are olorosos that have been sweetened substantially with Pedro Ximenez. The inexpensive, everyday wine called cream sherry is usually an ordinary blend that’s been colored and sweetened. The cream sherries are delicious with pastry for dessert.
Pedro Ximenez, or PX, is made of the Pedro Ximenez grape. This is the richest of the rich – almost like drinking molasses. You can sip this slowly as a rich dessert unto itself or include some good blue cheese, dates and nuts. It’s very common, in Spain, to serve PX over vanilla ice cream. Salud!