Full disclosure, I am hooked on dry Sherry. I love the unique aroma and flavors profiles of this super historic wine and want to share my love with everyone. But I have found that there is still a lot of hesitation when it comes to getting others to drink Sherry, frankly because there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what it is and what it should taste like.
While on the rise in popularity with some inner circles of imbibers, Sherry is still a relative mystery to most drinkers. A lot of people associate sherry with a sweet beverage sipped by grandmothers or used for cooking or as a vinegar. The reality of this exceptionally diverse and unique beverage, while complicated, is well worth diving in to. From where it originates to how it’s made to why you should try it, Sherry is a definitely a drink you should get to know.
So what exactly is sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that a nuetral grape spirit (think vodka made from grapes) is added to the wine. Sherry producers first make a base wine and then add 96% abv neutral spirit to the finished product, raising the alcohol level of the wine before aging it. The aging process is the hallmark of sherry, but before we get to that let’s talk about where it comes from.
Sherry can only be made in Spain, specifically in the DO of Jerez-Xérès-Sherry. Geographically this area is located in the in the southwest corner of the country anchored by the three cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda, commonly referred to as the Sherry Triangle. Jerez has the distinction of being one of the oldest wine-producing towns in Spain. The whole region of Andalucía was actually the base of exploration for Christopher Columbus, and the port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda became of great importance to the new trans-Atlantic trade in the late 15th and early 16th century. It is possible that Sherry was the first wine to enter North America.
It’s hot in this region, and dry, and while general proximity to the Atlantic can have a cooling effect, it doesn’t reach very far inland. The main grape grown here and used to make sherry is Palomino Fino. It’s a neutral grape with moderate acidity; not much to shout about on its own, but perfect for creating a neutral base for the process of sherry-making. The process of making Sherry is really the star of the show.
So let’s chat about this process. As mentioned earlier, Sherry starts its life as a regular base wine, mostly made from the Palomino grape. Depending on where the grapes were grown for the wine and how it evolves during fermentation, the base wines are classified in one of two ways: as a Fino or as an Oloroso. After this classification the wines are fortified and begin the aging process in their designated solera.
What??? This is the key right here: solera. The word solera is used to define both a) a system and b) the elements which physically make up that system. The solera system is one of fractional blending over time, one that defines the characteristics of every Sherry made; the solera is also the name for the grouping of barrels that the wine is aged in. Think of the newly fortified wine entering the top of a pyramid made up of barrels with many layers, with the wine finishing aging at the bottom layer of the pyramid. The finished wine is drawn from the bottom layer to be bottled, but whatever amount of wine is removed from the bottom layer is replaced with the same amount from the layer of wine above it; so on and so forth all the way up to the top of the pyramid, where newly fortified wine is continuously being introduced. In this way a little bit of every addition every harvest is in every layer and constantly being blended.
So what does this process do besides blend and age the wine? This depends on whether the Sherry is a Fino or an Oloroso. Lighter colored, more delicate wines classified as Fino Sherries are only fortified to 15%abv before entering their solera. The richer, heavier wines are categorized as Oloroso and fortified to 17%abv. In both cases, the barrels are only filled 5/6 of the way full capturing air inside.
In the Fino Sherry solera this extra space of air at the top allows for a thin film of yeast known as “flor” to form over the wine, protecting the wine from the oxygen in the barrel, and feeding off of the alcohol and glycerol in the wine. Aging in solera with the presence of flor is known as “biological aging”, and this process creates lighter colored wines with delicate, nutty flavors and aromas, along with a very lean mouthfeel from reducing the amount of glycerol (glycerol is an odorless, tasteless substance naturally occurring in wine that lends a smoothness to the mouthfeel) and introducing acetaldehydes. Acetaldehydes are naturally occurring chemical compounds also found in coffee, bread, and ripe fruit, and are imparted to biologically aged Sherry through the presence of flor. The flavor profile of these wines is usually savory, austere and very surprising to someone who has never tasted it before; there is nothing quite like it, and people can be taken aback or dislike it at first. I say give it a chance😊
Now for Oloroso Sherry, no flor develops in the barrels of the solera because flor cannot survive at 17%abv. This means that throughout the entirety of the blending and aging process, Oloroso Sherry is exposed to and interacts with oxygen. This process is therefore known as “oxidative aging”. These wines take on deeply nutty and rich characteristics, are darker in color and have a fuller mouthfeel.
A third category of Sherry is Amontillado. These wines begin the same way as Fino sherry, aging biologically under flor. However, if somewhere along the way the flor begins to die off and the wine begins to be exposed to oxygen, the wine will be re-classified as an Amontilldo, and finish the aging process oxidatively like an Oloroso. Because it sees both types of aging processes, Amontillado sherry contains qualities from both: some of the bready, yeasty acetaldehyde aroma of a Fino with a richer, fuller mouthfeel, landing the final wine characteristically between a Fino and Oloroso.
Lastly, a rather elusive and highly prized category known as Palo Cortado is said to have the elegance of Amontillado and the power and richness of an Oloroso. This intermediary style occurs when flor fails to develop properly in a Fino solera, and the wine begins aging oxidatively. Typically a high quality Sherry, the production process for a Palo Cortado occurs naturally and can be very difficult to replicate intentionally.
What is important to note is that all of these wine styles are naturally dry at the end of the solera process, meaning there is absolutely no residual sugar or sweetness to them! These dry styles of Sherry are made to pair with food, which is why it is a good idea to try them with food if it is your first time tasting them. The general rule for which style to drink with what food is “If it swims – Fino, if it flies – Amontillado and if it walks – Oloroso”. While this is of course not a hard and fast rule, it is a good way to start thinking about how you might introduce a Sherry to your next meal. A classic pairing is Marcona almonds and Manzanilla (a Fino Sherry made only in the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) which also happens to be a great pre-cursor to just about any dinner.
Now, some Sherry is definitely sweet.
Sweet Sherry is made in one of two ways:
Naturally sweet Sherry made by stopping fermentation early, either by fortification or because there is just so much sugar in the must the yeast die off. Naturally sweet Sherry is usually not made with the Palomino grape, but with the other two varietals of Jerez: Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel.
Or, a dry Sherry is sweetened with the addition of naturally sweet sherry or grape must (unfermented grape juice).
Sweetened Sherries are known as cream sherries, named for the insanely popular Harvey’s Bristol Cream, a thick and sweet blended sherry developed in Bristol around 1860. The category, however, varies in style and levels of sweetness:
Pale Cream Sherry is made with a biologically aged wine – Fino or Manzanilla. Will contain between 45 and 115 grams per liter of sugar.
Medium Sherry will have between 5 and 115 grams of sugar per liter, so therefore the range is quite wider in level of sweetness. Often made with an Amontillado base.
Cream Sherry will contain between 115–140 grams of sugar per liter, the sweetest style of the three, usually made with Oloroso and sometimes Amontillado.
Sweet Sherry, like dry Sherry, can be exceedingly complex and of high quality, and it makes an excellent dessert beverage. That being said, there are many cheap, syrupy sweet knock offs that can easily turn you away from your potential new favorite after dinner drink.
I love Sherry for its versatility and uniqueness. For me, the nuttiness and austerity make it an excellent food pairing wine in all categories. It is not a shy beverage, it is bold and complex and either you love it or you hate it. The most important take away is not to be scared of it. The best way to sample it is the way it was made to be enjoyed: with food of the region. More up and coming restaurants are beginning to revive interest in Sherry through dedicated and thoughtful beverage programs. Vaca Restaurant is a great example in Orange County where the knowledgeable staff can guide you through a Sherry tasting experience with your meal. Sherry use in cocktails is also on the rise. Many new opportunities to try Sherry are popping up in our ever-progressive dining culture, and I encourage to give it a shot the next time you see it on the menu. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised.
Want some more detailed information on sherry? There is a ton of info out there. In fact, the region’s website can answer pretty much any question you may have about sherry. The website Sherry Notes is also a site full of great resources and information. Of course, if you prefer a hard copy of something to read, I would recommend investing in the book Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla by Peter Liem.
Photo credit: Deb Harkness