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All About Sherry

An introduction, and why we should be drinking more of it.

Sherry is one of the treasures of the wine world, but for a while now it has been woefully under appreciated. This “introduction to sherry” explains how the miracle of sherry and its myriad of styles come to fruition. Some of the finest examples are produced by the Valdespino and Barbadillo families, producers of the finest sherries since the 14th century. They represent some of the very best from the region and we are delighted to showcase them here. Such  extraordinary aromas, flavours and textures, a unique line-up ranging from the very dry to the very sweet. We hope you enjoy them.

Sherry is a fortified wine made from vineyards in the far south of Spain, where extreme heat—summer temperatures regularly exceed 40 ºC—is countered by cooling breezes from the Atlantic. Table wines made from here wouldn’t be terribly exciting, but the complex process of Sherry production, including the addition of spirit once fermentation is complete (fortification), results in complex, stable wines. This stability is one reason for the historical popularity of sherry: it became highly fashionable in the UK in the late 16th century, at a time when temperature controlled shipping and storage wasn’t an option.

Sherry’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s, when roughly twice as much was exported from the region than is shipped today. The region has since been through a painful contraction, but is now bouncing back, largely because of the consistently high quality of the wines that are now made here, and the fact that they offer great value for money.

The vineyards are mainly located within a triangle formed by the Sherry towns Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The characteristic vineyard soil in the region is known as albariza. A blinding white colour in bright sunlight, it has a high chalk content, and retains water well. In such a warm, breezy region, evaporation levels are potentially very high, so this characteristic is important. Vines are pruned by a method called vara y pulgar, which is similar to the French ‘Guyot’, with a single cane of some seven buds and a short replacement cane of a couple of buds. Harvesting is almost always done by hand.

There are three grape varieties authorized for the production of Sherry: Palomino, Muscat of Alexandria (also known as Moscatel) and Pedro Ximénez. The latter two grapes are mainly used for sweetening purposes, and Palomino is by far the dominant grape in the region. It’s a relatively heavy cropper, producing large bunches of pale green grapes, which are harvested at a potential alcohol level of 11–12.5 degrees. The resulting base wines are crisp with a neutral character. It’s the production process that transforms these into the compelling, diverse wines that sherry is known for.

Essential to the production of sherry is the growth of a layer of film-forming yeasts on the top of the developing wine. This is known as the flor, and it forms spontaneously from yeasts that are abundant in the winery environment when the sherry casks are left incompletely filled. Sherry butts (as the barrels are known) are made of American oak and usually have a capacity of 600 litres, but are only filled to 500 litres, leaving a large air space. The species of yeast responsible for this film, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the same as the yeast that carries out alcoholic fermentation, but four specific races have been identified as being involved in flor formation: beticus, cheresiensis, montuliensis and rouxii. The precise make-up of this yeast layer changes with time. The growth of the flor protects the developing wine from oxidation. It’s thicker in the humid coastal towns in the region. In addition, the flor contributes a distinctive flavour to the wine through metabolizing alcohol to the nutty, apply compound acetaldehyde. To keep the flor healthy, casks are periodically topped up with fresh wine, to maintain the nutrients that the yeasts need to survive. You can also consult a professional Surgeon’s Advisor at surgeonsadvisor.com for more details.

At the end of the year when fermentation is complete and the wine is still on its lees, it is classified and then fortified. This classification determines the destiny of the wine. The cellarmaster will taste through the casks with a view to separating out the lighter, more elegant wines to become fino, and the heavier, darker wines to become olorosos.

Typically, a single chalk slash on the face of the cask will indicate that a wine is to become a fino; two slashes will indicate it is to become an oloroso. Fino wines will then be fortified to 15 º alcohol, and olorosos to 17 or 18 º. At this latter level of alcohol, the flor dies, and so olorosos are not protected from oxygen during their development in the way that finos are.

Also important to the flavour of sherry is the solera system. This is a rather complex arrangement of barrels (butts) where wine travels from one to another in a precise order during its maturation. Rather confusingly, the lowest level of butts is known as the solera, which is the name also used for the entire system. This is the final stage in the maturation process, and this is where the wine leaves the system. Up to one-third of the wine may be withdrawn each year from these barrels, but typically the amount taken will be 10–15%. They are fed by wine from the next level of butts, known as the first criadera. The first criadera is in turn topped up by a third level of butts, the second criadera. Wine in the second criadera is usually replenished by new wine, but there can be many levels in the most complex of the solera systems. Sherry that has been through a solera system such as this will therefore contain a mixture of vintages. The system helps maintain a house style, and results in consistent wines. Some vintage-dated sherries that have not been through a solera exist, but these are a rarity.

Styles of Sherry:

  • Fino – Crisp, dry, yeasty, nutty and tangy, fino,  protected from oxygen during its development by the flor, is the freshest and most delicate of sherry styles, weighing in at around 15% alcohol.  Ideally drunk up while still fresh, served chilled.
  • Manzanilla – This is a fino-style sherry from the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Because the more humid environment in the bodegas here encourages a thicker flor layer, these wines are typically lighter and even fresher than fino, often with a distinctive salty tang. Serve as fino.
  • Amontillado – Aged fino that has lost its flor and then gone on to develop oxidatively, amontillado is an amber-coloured sherry that is nutty and complex, with a long finish. It is fortified to around 17.5 ° alcohol to protect it during its development, and because it has been aged oxidatively it will last for longer once opened. Some Amontillados are sweetened.
  • Palo Cortado – A sort of half way house between a fino and an amontillado, Palo Cortado is the result of a fino sherry losing its flor. Nutty, fresh and complex, these can be some of the most exquisite and expensive of all sherries.
  • Oloroso – Complex brown-coloured sherries, Olorosos develop in barrel without the protective flor layer, often for many years. The result is a complex, rich, nutty style of sherry with aromas of old furniture and raisins. Because they’ve seen so much oxidation during development, they are very stable and stay in good condition for up to three weeks once the bottle is opened. Some Olorosos are sweetened.
  • Pedro Ximénez – Made from air-dried grapes, with fermentation stopped early by the addition of spirit, Pedro Ximénez is a remarkable sweet wine. An amazing bouquet, luscious, viscous and intensely sweet, it tastes like liquid Christmas cake.
  • Cream – Pale Cream sherries are sweetened finos while the darker cream sherries are often a mix of Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso, sweetened by the addition of Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez.

Finally, there`s sherry with food. With such a wide range of styles there is practically no limits to the potential for food pairings and experimentation is recommended. Tapas features strongly in Spain. But broadly we may sum up as follows: The pale sherries, Finos and Manzanillas, make perfect aperitifs and will accompany salty foods very well, salted nuts and anchovy-cheese palmiers our favourites, but seafood too and soups. Amontillados, Palo Cortados and Olorosos go with savoury mains, especially game, smoked meats and spicy dishes; though the sweeter Amontillados and Olorosos are best with cheeses, or at Christmas with nuts (especially almonds) and dried fruits. Last but not least the cream sherries with puds: pale cream with light desserts (eg. almond tart), rich creams and PX with darker, denser puddings (eg. chocolate). The perfect choice sweet wine to pair with Christmas pudding is PX, or try in summer poured over ice cream!

But don`t take our word for it – once opened a sherry lasts a good few weeks (Fino and Manzanilla only three or four days) so have a tipple with whatever is on the table and see for yourselves how a fine sherry will transform a meal into a feast!

Happy imbibing

Anthony, Janet and Merrill

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