‘Sherry’ is an English corruption of Jerez (pronounced ‘Hereth’), an Andalusian town on the Atlantic seaboard near the crossing of the seas. The three major centres of the sherry trade, which together form the ‘Sherry Triangle’, are Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Sherry is made in a number of styles, the main ones being fino and oloroso. With the exceptions of Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, all the sherry styles are made from the Palomino Fino grape. Unlike port or madeira, sherry is not fortified by mutage, but only once fermentation has been completed. It is then matured in a solera system, which involves a continuous process of fractional blending across several vintages.
According to the 1st century Greek geographer Strabo, the Phoenicians, founders of nearby Cádiz, planted the vine in the region of Xera as far back as 1100 BC. By the time the Romans took over from the Carthaginians in 206 BC, the region that they renamed Ceret had acquired a reputation for winemaking. Under the name of Šeriš (‘Sherish’), it continued to produce wine throughout the Moorish period of 711-1264, with vineyards being maintained for trade, raisins, medicinal purposes, and other pretexts.
During the reign of Henry VIII, Anglo-Hispanic relations deteriorated (think Catherine of Aragon), and exports of sherry (or ‘sack’) to England declined. In 1587, Sir Francis Drake, whom the Spanish still refer to as el pirata (‘the pirate’), captured the harbour of Cádiz together with 2,900 pipes of sherry destined for South America. Drake had the pipes delivered to Elizabeth I, and sherry returned to favour in England. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff say, ‘If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.’ However, sack in those days was unfortified and in other ways quite unlike modern sherry.
The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and later Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) along with the increasing popularity of port left many sherry merchants with a large excess of stock. This wine sat around in barrels, which the merchants regularly topped up with younger wines. In this proto solera system, the wine began to acquire characteristics of ageing and oxidation under a layer of flor yeast, the growth of which had been stimulated by the repeated addition of younger wines. Emulating their rivals in the Douro, the merchants began experimenting with fortification, which sometimes had the effect of killing off the flor and promoting further oxidation—resulting in yet another style of sherry.
In the latter half of the 19th century, after a second golden age, sherry struggled to compete with poor imitations from France, Germany, and across the seas. At the close of the century, phylloxera took its toll and the vineyards required replanting. Despite the creation of the appellation in 1935 (the first appellation in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe) and subsequent efforts to protect and promote it, sales have struggled to take off, with sherry seemingly unable to shake off its ‘cheap and fusty’ image. However, change, at last, may be afoot.
The lie of the land
The climate in the sherry region is Mediterranean with 300 days of sunshine a year and just 600mm of rainfall concentrated in the winter months. The mean annual temperature is a balmy 18°C. Summer highs often exceed 30°C, and the south-easterly levante, which rises out of Africa, periodically delivers temperatures of around 40°C. At the same time, Atlantic breezes can exert a cooling effect of as much as 10°C on more coastal areas. Differences in temperature and humidity within the sherry triangle are such that flor in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, thrives all year round, whereas that in inland Jerez de la Frontera, with its hotter summers and colder winters, recedes seasonally, partially exposing the wine to oxygen.
During the parched summer months, the vines are supported by the region’s white, reflective albariza soils. Albariza is a unique compact of chalk, clay, and sand that is able to store up moisture during the winter and release it throughout the summer. It is largely derived from organic sea deposits, and most pure or prevalent at higher elevations and on hilltops. There are several subtypes of albariza, including the cement-like Tosca cerrada, the softer lentejuelas, and the stratified barajuelas. The blanduras, very fine dews that form in certain areas of the sherry region, are an additional source of summer moisture.
In the wake of phylloxera, the number of varieties cultivated declined from over one hundred to just three: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria), with most outcrops of albariza replanted with Palomino. These albariza outcrops are designated Jerez Superior, and cluster around Jerez de la Frontera with smaller patches around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria, and a number of other centres. The other soil types are barros, which is dark brown with a high ferruginous clay content, and arenas, which is yellowish with a high sand content. Pedro Ximénez, which is harder to cultivate than Palomino, and lower yielding, tends to be planted on lesser albariza and barros. Moscatel tends to be planted on barros and arenas, especially around Chipiona.
Jerez counts ~2,400 growers working severally in vineyard zones called pagos, with the larger ones such as Balbaina and Macharnudo (both sub-divided into alto and bajo) best regarded as entire areas or even sub-regions. Palomino accounts for more than 90% of plantings in the sherry delimited area. It is high-yielding, although DO regulations impose a maximum yield of 80hl/ha. Vines are planted at a density of around 4,000 vines/ha, typically on gently sloping ground, and are either free standing (en vaso or en cabeza, with the head of the vine trained downwards) or, increasingly, wire trained. In either case, the vines are pruned according to the vara y pulgar, or ‘stick and thumb’, method. This is similar to the Guyot system, with a single cane of some seven buds and a short replacement cane of a couple of buds. The Palomino harvest takes place around late August, at which stage the grapes have a potential alcohol of roughly 12%.
Method of production
It is often said that Palomino is fairly neutral, a blank canvas on which the winemaker can express him- or herself. However, if yields are controlled, and the terroir is right, Palomino is capable of considerable interest. The grapes are hand-harvested in September and usually destemmed prior to pressing. The primera yema, that is, the free-run juice together with the first press, accounts for 65% of the maximum extraction of 72.5l/100kg, and tends to go into making finos. Any subsequent presses go into making olorosos, table wines, brandy, or vinegar. The more delicate the must, the more it is likely to go into making finos, with the most delicate must coming from albariza soils in cooler coastal areas. The musts are low in acidity, and tartaric acid is usually added at this stage along with the selected yeast culture.
Fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats, with must destined for finos fermented at a cooler temperature. Fermentation can also take place in traditional American oak butts (600-650l barrels), not to impart oak flavours but to season the butts for later use as maturation vessels—some of which are more than a hundred years old. In either case, the end result is a fairly non-descript pale, dry wine with an alcohol of 11-12%. This añada (young or single vintage) wine is fortified (encabezado) with rectified wine alcohol. The resulting wine, the sobretabla, is placed, unblended, into clean butts, which are filled to about 5/6 to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. After 6-12 months, the cellar master, or capataz, reassesses the wines for style and quality. The presence of a thick, healthy layer of flor, consisting of Saccharomyces beticus and other yeasts, confirms that a wine is able to continue its life as a fino, with the finest casks chalk marked with one raya (/). Otherwise, the wine is sent down the path of an oloroso.
Flor only forms if the alcohol ranges from 14.5 to 16%, for which reason wines destined to become finos are fortified to 15 to 15.5%. Under these conditions, flor metabolizes aerobically, breaking down alcohol and producing acetaldehyde and other compounds that contribute to the characteristic aromas of dry finos. Flor also metabolizes glycerol, accounting for the light body and intense dryness of finos. Dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the butt to form fine lees—another factor, along with chalky soils and blending, that has led to comparisons with champagne. If the alcohol drops below 14.5%, the flor begins to produce acetic acid, turning the wine to vinegar. This can be prevented by entering the wine into a traditional oak butt and then into a solera: the butt allows just enough evaporation to maintain the right level of alcohol, with the solera periodically alimenting the flor with younger wines with more alcohol and nutrients. Temperature and humidity are also important, which is why flor thrives all year round in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda but seasonally recedes in Jerez de la Frontera. To maintain temperatures within the ideal range of 14-20°C, traditional bodegas, or ‘cathedrals’, are built with thick walls and high roofs, with small windows aligned so as to funnel the prevailing Atlantic, or poniente, winds. The windows are draped with esparto grass blinds to keep out sunlight and insects, and the south-facing wall may be screened by vegetation. The ground is covered with albero, the same compound of sand and chalk found in bullrings, which can be irrigated to decrease temperature and increase humidity towards an ideal of around 70%. There is, perhaps, no other wine region in which the cellar conditions are more important to the elaboration of the wine. A cathedral may contain a sacristía for the storage of the most venerable wines, not unlike the sacristy of the cathedral of Toledo with all the mystical El Grecos.
Wines that are directed or redirected onto the oloroso track are fortified to 17% alcohol or more, making them hostile to flor. In contrast to finos, olorosos are aged in a deliberately oxidative style and may be left in solera for a decade or more. Cellar conditions matter less: in some cases, the butts may even be left outdoors under the hot sun. In time, they brown and develop concentrated aromas of nuts, dried fruits, caramel, and much more. Gentle evaporation during the ageing process results in a high alcohol of up to 24% for older olorosos.
A solera is a fractional blending system consisting of stacked rows of oak butts in which older wines ‘teach’ younger wines to take on their refined character. After having been assessed for style and quality, the sobretabla is poured into the top row, or criadera, of butts, which are filled to about 5/6 of total capacity to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. Wine for bottling is withdrawn (saca) from the lowest criadera, which, confusingly, is also called the solera—solera being cognate with suelo and meaning something like ‘earth’ or ‘ground’. The solera level is refilled (rocio) with wine from the above, or first, criadera, which is in turn refilled with wine from the second (often also the top) criadera. The solera level contains the oldest wine and the weakest flor, and benefits most from the higher humidity and lower temperature at floor level—which helps to explain why soleras tend to be arranged in the way they are. The net effect of operating the solera, or ‘running the scales’, is to blend the wine both vertically across vintages and horizontally across barrels, producing a consistent yet highly complex wine. Although pumps and pipes have been introduced, the process remains very labour intensive. A maximum of one third of the wine in a butt on the solera level may be withdrawn at any one time, and only three times in any given year. This ensures that any sherry inevitably contains a small amount of stuff dating back to the foundation of the solera—in some cases, more than two hundred years ago.
Finos must spend a minimum of two years in cask although top examples tend to spend much longer, typically four to seven years. Finos require a high flow of nutrients to aliment the flor, such that large amounts of wine (often the maximum) need to be withdrawn from the solera level. Thus, fino soleras can have up to 14 criaderas compared to just three or four for olorosos—which, for the finest, may flow by no more than ~5% a year.
Prior to bottling, sherry undergoes cold stabilization to remove tartrate crystals. Finos are also filtered and clarified to remove yeast cells. Finos that undergo minimal filtration and clarification are referred to as en rama (‘on the vine’, ‘raw’). En rama sherry is a recent trend that seeks the best possible compromise between flavour intensity and stability, enabling punters to drink sherry as they might out of a bodega butt. The implement used to transfer sherry from barrel to glass, consisting of a small cylindrical cup at the end of a long flexible shaft, is called a venencia, and its manipulation by a venenciador is in itself an art form, with many adepts in Japan! The venencia minimizes flor disruption, and the long pour from a giddy height serves to aerate the wine. Traditionally, venencias were made from silver and whalebone, except in Sanlúcar, where they are still fashioned from a single piece of reed.
Prior to bottling, a true fino spends its entire life under flor. It is pale, elegant, and dry, with a final alcohol of about 15.5%.
A fino that spends some time under flor followed by a period of oxidative ageing is called an amontillado. This style results if the flor dies down, either naturally after a number of years or by deliberate fortification. Such ‘true’ amontillados may be aged in dedicated soleras, and ought to be distinguished from mere blends of fino and oloroso. True amontillados are yellow-brown in colour, with rich nutty notes, yet a lighter, drier body than olorosos. An amontillado that has undergone only a short period of oxidative ageing is sometimes called a fino amontillado. The word ‘amontillado’ may originate from a time when finos were carted down from Montilla, with the hot, bumpy ride disrupting the flor and resulting in a more oxidative style.
After having been assessed for style and quality, a young wine with flor development may be fortified to around 17% and redirected to age oxidatively. This results in a palo cortado, an uncommon style with the body of an oloroso but the aromas and finesse of an amontillado. The boundaries between the various styles are somewhat blurry, and a wine might be called different things at different times and by different people. To recap, the styles are, in increasing order of body or glycerol: fino, fino amontillado, amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso.
Most fino hails from inland Jerez de la Frontera, where it undergoes a small degree of oxidation as the flor recedes in the summer and winter. This is less the case in coastal Puerto de Santa María, and even less so in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which lies at the broad mouth of the Guadalquivir. A fino made in Sanlúcar is called a manzanilla, and can also fall under the DO of Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is typically lighter, drier, and fresher than a fino from Jerez, with notes of citrus fruits and seaspray. Interestingly, grapes for a Manzanilla need not come from Sanlúcar, suggesting that the ‘terroir’ of the bodega is deemed more important than that of the vine itself. Manzanilla pasada, manzanilla amontillada, and manzanilla olorosa are the Sanlúcar counterparts of, respectively, fino amontillado, amontillado, and oloroso (though the terms ‘manzanilla amontillada’ and ‘manzanilla olorosa’ have no legal standing). A fino from Puerto de Santa María is called a Puerto fino, with a character in between that of Jerez fino and manzanilla.
The greatest incarnations of the above styles are all dry, but many commercial styles are sweetened with Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, or concentrated grape must (arrope). The sweetest style, ‘cream’, was created by Harvey’s of Bristol for the British market. ‘Pale cream’ is either cream that has been discoloured by charcoal treatment or a fino that has been sweetened with arrope. Less sweet than cream is ‘medium’, and while most mediums are less than ordinary, there are some very serious standouts.
The naturally sweet dessert wine Pedro Ximénez, or just ‘PX’, is made from 100% Pedro Ximénez. Very little Pedro Ximénez is grown in Jerez DO, and most of the requirement is (legally) imported from hotter and drier Montilla-Moriles DO. The grapes are picked late and left on straw mats for one or two weeks to raisin further. Once fermented, the wine is fortified and entered into a solera for oxidative ageing. The end result is something unique: a dark, syrupy, intensely sweet wine redolent of sultanas and molasses, and just perfect with, or even on, a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Moscatel, though very different in style, is made in a similar way to PX.
While it is impossible to put a precise age on a sherry, the finest specimens can spend several decades ageing in solera or in a lone cask. The designations Vinum Optimum Signatum (Very Old Sherry, VOS) and Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (Very Rare Old Sherry, VORS) designate blends that are, respectively, at least 20 and 30 years old on average. Old sherry, such as the widely available Gonzalez Byass Apostoles, can be mindblowing, and represents very good value for money.
When it comes to food pairings, there is an old Andalusian adage: fino and manzanilla if it swims, amontillado if it flies, and oloroso if it walks. But this, of course, is much too rigid.
The present and the future of sherry
The sherry delimited area counts ~7,000ha of vineyards, of which about half are owned by small growers associated with co-operatives. In 2016, 34.4m litres of sherry were sold, versus 46.5m in 2010. Sweet styles, which are mostly destined for export, accounted for just over half of production. Fino accounted for a fifth of production, and manzanilla for another fifth, while amontillado, oloroso, and palo cortado together made up just 3-4%.
Between 2010 and 2016, exports fell from 33.7 to 22.4m litres, although the higher and drier ends of the market are doing much better than these overall figures might suggest. As of 2016, the largest export markets were the UK (29% of production), the Netherlands (17%), and Germany (7%). These three markets plus Spain (35%) together accounted for over 85% of sales.
Prior to 1996, a bodega had to have a stock of at least 12,500 hectolitres to obtain a shipping licence. In 1996, this was reduced to just 500 hectolitres, enabling boutique bodegas—often former almacenistas, who had been selling on their wines—to enter the fray. Many shippers are diversified with an important, and more profitable, brandy business, which can be used to subsidize their sherry business.
Some favourites among the 44 shippers include former almacenista Gutiérrez Colosía, El Maestro Sierra, Emilio Lustau, Emilio Hidalgo, Hidalgo la Gitana, González Byass, Valdespino, Delgado Zuleta, Rey Fernando de Castilla, Bodegas Tradición, and Williams and Humbert, which is notable for its añada or vintage (non-solera) sherries.
Since 2005, independent bottler Equipo Navazos has been hunting down exceptional sherry butts with the aim of revealing the region’s true potential. Over the years, Equipo Navazos has become increasingly involved in different aspects of production, and in different projects such as terroir-driven Palomino, unfortified, naturally fermented in cask, and aged under flor (Florpower, Navazos Niepoort). Luis Pérez specializes in such ‘vinous’ sherries, with the quality of the fruit and expert cellar handling obviating the need for fractional blending or fortification. His friend Ramiro Ibáñez is doing similar work in Sanlúcar, albeit in a fresher, Sanlúcar style. Their wines have a strong sense of vintage and terroir, and, hand in hand with the more standard styles, may point the way to a brighter future for the region.
Adapted from the The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting