Sherry. The Cathedrals of Wine

Sherry. The Cathedrals of Wine

I was a kid the first time I went to a Sherry winery. I still have a blurry memory being with my parents in a big fresh building full of big barrels (they call boots) stacked till the ceiling. I´ve come back many times and I have always the feeling, when I left, of having been travelling backwards in time, then I promise myself to come back as soon as I can.

The singular and genuine character of these wines are not only because the exceptional natural conditions of this area, the southern wine area of Europe. In its essence there is also a long history, thousands of years of unstopped production under different cultures that left their footprint, and allow us to enjoy these great wines.

The trip starts 3000 years ago when the Phenicians arrived to this part of Spain from Middle East, bringing among other things, the first vines and practices to make wine. Actually they were the founders of Xera the primitive Jerez (Sherry) in 700 bc. These wines have been known and appreciated for centuries, from the Roman Empire to the “Spanish” America after Columbus arrived there. It wasn’t until the XIX century when, in order to keep the wines in good shape in transportation and standardize the quality, they develop the “Criaderas” and “Soleras” system that I´ll explain later.

Located close to the ocean and the Guadalquivir river outfall, 300 days of sun a year. The hot summers and warm winters make the ocean breeze, which moderates the temperatures and gives humidity, key in this process. The soil is called “Albariza”, high Calcium Carbonate content but poor in Nitrogen and organic compounds. Its porosity keeps the water.

The basic wine got after the fermentation is white, dry and with low acidity. I have tried this wine and I can tell I would never buy it. But after they have been separated from solids (desliar) they are ready for the first classification into two groups: those wines with a particular paleness and finesse will later be aged as finos o manzanillas, and those which present signs of greater structure are earmarked from the very start for the production of oloroso sherry.

The sherry wines employ a unique multi-vintage aging technique called a Solera. Solera are tiers of barrels (boots) of 600 liters capacity (filled to 500 liters) with 3 to 9 steps called Criaderas or scales. New wine goes into the top scale and finished wine is taken in small portions from the bottom scale. Wines “run the scales” for at least 3 years up to 50 years (or more). There is also a rare vintage Sherry, Añada, that doesn’t use a Solera.

But let´s talk about the Sherry wine styles:

The dry Sherrys are made with Palomino Fino grape and the range of styles depend on the winemaking method:

  • Fino & Manzanilla: Very light styles with salty fruit flavors. These wines are fortified to 15 vol. where the biological aging is possible. This biological aging means the spontaneous generation of a layer of yeasts (flor) that protect the wine from the oxygen. The difference between Fino and Manzanilla is only the place where the wine is aged. Manzanilla can only be aged in Sanlucar de Barrameda (25 km from Jerez) that gives them the typical marine salty flavor.
  • Amontillado: Slightly bolder hazel nutty style in between Fino and Oloroso. After 6-8 months aging in the boots Finos and Manzanillas are checked again. Those which flor (yeasts layer) is not in good shape are fortified to 17 vol. and changed to oxidative aging.
  • Oloroso: Rich with roasted flavors of coffee, tobacco and nuts. The basic wines are fortified to 17 vol., the spontaneous yeasts doesn’t show up so the aging is oxidative and the color gets darker.
  • Palo Cortao: It´s an intermediate type of sherry and probably the most ambiguous of them all. It combines the aromatic refinement of Amontillado combined with the structure and body of an Oloroso. Compared to an Amontillado, it will have spent less time under the yeasts (flor, one to three years) and its base must would have been a little more delicate. In short, It´s a Fino that started to deviate: unplanned yeast activity, specific characteristics of the grape juice or certain ambient conditions that influenced the yeast lawyer (flor). These boots would then be taken out of the Fino solera: its Fino mark, a vertical line or palo, would then be crossed or cortado by a diagonal line, that´s why the name. Its flor would be killed by fortifying the wine to 17-18 degrees and it would continue aging oxidatively.

The Naturally Sweet Sherry wines are those obtained from must produced from over ripe or sunned grapes, generally of Pedro Ximenez (PX) or Moscatel varieties. Then, the high-content sugar must is partially fermented.

  • Moscatel: Chestnut color. Nice floral aromas of jasmine, orange blossom. Also citrics notes. It has a balanced sweet palate with all the varietal hints finishing lightly dry and bitter.
  • Pedro Ximenez: Really dark color. Intense in nose and palate: raisings, dried figs and dates, jam. Tints of coffee, dark chocolate, liquorice….To me, it’s a fantastic wine but too intense, impossible to pair. Better to use it as ingredient for food or cocktails, or for creating other wines like we will see now.
  • The Generous Liquor Wines are blends of Dry Sherry with Naturally Sweet Sherry or, in in certain cases, with concentrated must. They are relatively new comers, included in DO legislation in the 1960s, linked to trade with Britain.
  • Pale Cream: Blend of Fino or Manzanilla with concentrated must. The result is a yellow straw to pale gold colored wine, light and fresh but with a delicate sweetness that relax the typical bitter aftertaste of biological aged wines.
  • Medium: Generally a blend of Oloroso dry Sherry with PX. The result must have a sugar content between 5 and 115 gr/l.  I really think this invention works. The blend gives a wonderful mix of flavors and notes like pastries, baked apple, caramel, etc. but perfectly balanced.
  • Cream: The same as Medium but sweeter. The percentage of PX is higher so the sugar content is higher than 115 gr/l. The same tasting notes but sweeter…

You could find also VOS (Very Old Sherry) and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry), more than 20 and 30 years ageing respectively. I will talk about them in another post.

I highly recommend a visit to that area. Enjoy these wonderful wines that pair perfectly with the local food. Visit a winery (or more) and feel the history in the air. Enjoy the weather and the landscape. I almost forgot! Avoid august….

Some recommended wineries: In Jerez: William & Humbert, González Byass, Lustau, Pedro Domeq and Sandeman. In Sanlucar de Barrameda: Barbadillo, Hidalgo, Delgado Zuleta and Yuste.


Pablo Romero