Still today, some think of Sherry as that old-fashion wine that only Granny likes to drink once a year for Christmas. Some others though ensure it is the ‘next big thing’ in the world of trends. Who is right and who is wrong it is not for us to decide, but perhaps these polarized opinions only come to show how little we know about these fascinating wines.
Sherries have been around for thousands of years. And during all this time they have enjoyed fame and glory but also resisted incomprehension, oblivion and even contempt.
Few wines provoke such extreme and passionate opinions. The reason? Possibly the fact that sherries are radically different to anything else you might have ever drank.
This is our small contribution to throw some light into some of the best but also most unknown white wines in the world. Welcome to our ‘Beginners’ guide to Sherry’.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS SHERRY?
Sherry (from the Moorish Sherish, name that later evolved into the current Xerez or Jerez) is a lightly fortified dry white wine produced in and around the town of Jerez de la Frontera, in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia.
It encompasses several wine varieties, from the very dry Fino and Manzanilla to the very sweet Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.
Only three types of grapes are used in its elaboration: the indigenous Palomino grape and the very sweet varieties of Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.
All sherries are aged in American oak casks using a centenary aging system known as criaderas and soleras.
WHERE DOES SHERRY COME FROM?
According to Spanish law, all wines labeled as ‘Sherry’ must be vinified and aged in the small region of Andalusia known as the ‘Sherry Triangle’, which includes the area confined between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Located near the mouth of the Guadalquivir river, the westerly winds contribute to generate a privileged microclimate with soft temperatures and high levels of humidity, making this region unique in the world at producing this type of wines.
TYPES OF SHERRY
At its most primary level, we could categorize sherries into two main groups, depending on whether they have been aged under Flor or not.
The Flor is a yeast-like layer that grows inside the cask, on top of the Sherry, protecting the wine from excessive oxidation. That is why wines ageing under Flor (biological ageing) are dry and clear, whilst wines ageing without Flor (oxidative ageing) present darker colours and flavours developed by the oxidation that happens when the wine is in direct contact with the air.
Flor is therefore an important factor on the elaboration of sherries because it influences some important aspects of the wine such as the colour, the sweetness or the percentage of alcohol.
Beyond this basic way to split the sherries, a more exact way to categorize sherries is based on the above and also on the different blends, the ageing process, fermentation and the type of grape that it is used in its making:
Made of Palomino grape and aged under Flor for 3 to 6 years. This is the driest and the palest of the Sherry wines. Straw-coloured, soft, intense and very light. It is best served chilled at 7ºC to 9ºC. It has an alcohol percentage that goes from 15% to 18% and a sugar level of less than 5 grams per litre.
This wine goes through an initial ageing phase under Flor, followed by another phase of oxidative ageing, with no Flor and in direct contact with the air. The result is an amber-coloured wine, darker than Fino and with delicate hazelnut and herbs aromas. It has an alcohol graduation ranging between 16% and 22% and a sugar level of less than 5 grams per litre. It is best served at a temperature of between 13ºC and 14ºC.
Made from Palomino grapes and aged without Flor, this wine is oxidised from the start. It has a darker colour going from rich amber to deep mahogany and a nutty bouquet that reminds of walnuts, toasted aromas and balsamic notes. Olorosos have an alcoholic content of between 17% and 22%, with sugar levels always lower than 5 grams per litre. It should be served at a temperature ranging from 13ºC to 14ºC.
This is an extremely complex wine that it is said to ‘happen’ accidentally rather than being ‘made’ intentionally. The reason is that this wine is initially aged under Flor to become Amontillado. Due to a phenomena of uncertain explanation, its Flor layer progressively disappears, beginning to age oxidatively as an oloroso.
The result is a rare and elegant wine that combines the aromas of amontillados and the mouth structure of olorosos, with an alcoholic content ranging from 17% to 22% and a sugar level of no more than 5 grams per litre. It is served at a temperature of between 13ºC and 14ºC.
GENEROUS LIQUEURED WINES
This wine is the result of adding concentrated rectified must to either fino or manzanilla, in order to sweeten it and mitigate the original dry bitter taste on the palate. It usually shows a yellow straw to pale gold colour and it is best served chilled at around 10ºC. The alcohol content ranges from 15.5% to 22% and the sugar levels are high at 45 to 115 grams per litre.
This wine is obtained by blending generous liqueured wine and naturally sweet wine. This time, the base wine is usually amontillado instead of fine or manzanilla. The result is a darker wine than the Pale Cream, with a chestnut colour and an aftertaste that resembles quince jelly or baked apple. Alcohol content ranges between 15% and 22% and sugar levels go between 45 to 115 grams per litre. It should be served at a temperature of 12ºC to 14ºC.
Similarly to the other two generous liqueured wines, Cream is obtained by blending different wines aged by oxidative process (no Flor). Usually a base of oloroso is blended with either a naturally sweet wine or concentrated rectified must. The color varies from chestnut brown to dark mahogany and its appearance is way more syrupy, like a dense ‘cream’, hence its name. This full body and nutty wine has an alcohol content of between 15.5% and 22% and a sugar level of 115-140 grams per litre. It is best served at 13ºC and it can also be served as a cocktail or as an aperitif.
NATURALLY SWEET WINES
Also known as PX, this oxidative aged dessert wine is dark, intense, very sweet and slightly syrupy. It offers a strong ressemble to raisins and other dried fruits, delivering aromas of honey, candied fruit, toasted coffee, dark chocolate or liquorice.
It is made of Pedro Ximenez grapes which undergo a process whereby the fruit is dried under the sun until turning into raisins, which drastically increases the sugar levels of the grapes up to 180 to 500 grams per litre. It has an alcohol content that ranges between 15% and 22% and it is best served at 12ºC. It is also worth noting how much this wine is used for cooking, especially to prepare sauce reductions to go with pork meats.
Perhaps the sweetest of the sherries, Moscatel undergoes a similar process to Pedro Ximenez. However, the result is a darker wine than PX with strong aromas of jasmine, orange blossom, honey and citrics. Similarly to PX, it has an alcohol content between 15% and 22% and a sugar level ranging from 180 to 500 grams per litre. It should be served at a temperature between 12ºC to 14ºC.
Made in an almost identical way to Fino (aged under Flor for 3 to 6 years and with an alcohol graduation going from 15% to 19%), the Manzanilla differs with Fino in that it can only be produced in the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, where the unique microclimate of its cellars give this wine a very distinctive flavour and aroma. Ideally, it should be served chilled at a temperature ranging from 7ºC to 9ºC.
HOW IS IT MADE?
Once the Palomino grape is harvested in early September, is lightly pressed to extract the primera yema, which is the name that receives this first must that will be used to produce Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado. A second pressing called the segunda yema will be used to produce Oloroso.
The must is then prepared, cleaned and transferred to casks – although nowadays modern stainless steel tanks are also used – where it will go through a first fermentation process.
After this first fermentation, the resulting wine is sampled and the casks marked – traditionally using chalk – with a symbol that determines the evolution of the wine fermentation and whether the wine is thought to be more suitable for biological (under Flor) or oxidative ageing (without Flor).
The wine is then fortified with distilled wine and stored in 500 litres American oak casks which are filled up ⅚ of their capacity, allowing for a space of ‘two fists’ of air at the top to help develop the Flor yeast.
The casks are laid in rows – also known as scales, usually 3 to 9 – which are set at different heights, ones on top of the others. This system is known as criaderas and soleras and its objective is to produce wines with uniform properties.
The process consists of periodically extracting part the wine (never more than ⅓) from the lowest row of barrels (the soleras) and replace it with that same amount of wine from the barrel immediately above and so on. That way the youngest wine always starts at the very top and progressively makes its way down to the lowest barrels, which contain the oldest wines and are the only ones from where the wine is extracted to be bottled (saca). The age of the bottled wine is determined by the number of different barrels the wine has gone through and also by the amount of time the wine has been aged in the solera, which in the case of Sherry has to be a minimum of 3 years.
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