What is Sherry?
When you think of the drinking culture in Spain, your mind probably goes straight to Sangrias, and that’s okay, it’s just a little basic isn’t it? For a country with the same (probably if not more) history as France and Italy, Sangria doesn’t really fit as their national drink or spirit (though there are some killer recipes out there) and that’s because it is not. It’s actually Sherry wine or Jerez as Spaniards call it.
Sherry is a fortified white wine made from a variety of grapes but the most popular one is the Palomino grape making up for 90% of all Sherry production. It is produced near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in the beautiful city of Andalucia, Spain. Sherry is fortified with a specific spirit made from grapes, the spirit itself is aged in old Sherry casks called Brandy de Jerez. There are 7 different kinds of Sherry from sweet to dry and young to aged- Fino de Jerez, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Olorosco, Palo Cortado, Cream Sherry, and Pedro Ximenez.
Sherries can be only be made from white grapes, Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez. The grapes have to go through specific fermentation, in the case of Palomino, they have to be harvested in early September. They’re pressed lightly to release the must, AKA “primera yema”, which is used to produce Fino and Manzanilla.
The second pressing, AKA la segunda yema, produces the must used for Oloroso. If there are additional pressings, the must is used for “lesser wines”, distillation, and/or vinegar.
But anyway back to the wine… The must is fermented in stainless steel vats until the end of November. The final product is a dry white wine with 11-12 percent ABV. Back in the day fermentation and the initial aging was done in wood; according to our research, it is now almost exclusively done in stainless steel, with the exception of one or two high-end wines.
The aging and blending process is called, “solera y criadera.” The solera part ages liquids by fractional blending so that in the end the product is essentially a mix of ages, only a little at a time can be extracted from the solera, which is also the term for the bottom layer of the caskets.
The criadera part is formed by the casks containing the Sherry cradled above, it passes into the solera via fractional blending and then it is bottled directly from the solera. The dryer Sherries get a little extra loving from “flor” an added layer of living yeast that forms on top of young wines.
As meticulous of a process as it is, as specific as the tools used are, the most important aspect of aging Sherry is air. According to Annie B Spain, a good example of this is how Manzanilla tastes differently to Fino due to the maritime air of Sanlúcar. In Sherry country regions like Poniente and Levante, the winds keep the barrels cool, a detrimental step in their process.
The lack of oxygen is a step in the process of making Fino and Manzanilla, which means when the bottle is opened for the first time, that’s the first breath of air the wine is exposed to, like normal wines. Orosco is the only exceptional Sherry considered a vintage in the group. It’s important to note, 98% of all Sherry is non-vintage; it is a blend of different vintages.
Much like Champagne, Sherry is specific to the region and city, it can only be made in Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda. The three towns geographically form a triangle known as the “Sherry Triangle.”
The flavors vary but in general, Sherry is going to be one of two things: light and dry or heavy and super sweet. Each kind has a specialty:
Fino- literally means “fine” in Spanish, is the driest and palest of them all. It is aged in barrels under a cap of flor yeast to prevent contact with the air.
Manzanilla- technically still Fino but a very especially light variety. It is made around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Manzanilla Pasada- is a Manzanilla that has undergone extended aging or has been partially oxidized, giving a richer, nuttier flavor.
Amontillado - aged under flor and then exposed to oxygen. It is darker than a Fino but lighter than an Oloroso. Naturally dry, they are sometimes sold lightly to medium sweetened but the name changes if you overdo it.
Oloroso- the name translates to “scented” in Spanish. Aged oxidatively for a longer time than a Fino or Amontillado, making it the most alcoholic sherries with a whopping 18-20% ABV. It is a darker and richer wine compared to the rest. They are naturally dry, they are often also sold in sweetened versions but again the name changes thanks to a law passed in 2012.
Palo Cortado- aged like an Amontillado, but it develops a character closer to an Oloroso. This either happens by accident when the flor dies or commonly the flor is killed by fortification or filtration.
Jerez Dulce- made either by fermenting dried Pedro Ximénez (PX) or Moscatel grapes, which produces an intensely sweet dark brown or black wine or by blending sweeter wines or grape must with a drier variety.
When Sherries are extra sweetened the name changes to Cream Sherry, thanks to a law passed in April of 2012 that banned the use of names like “Sweet Oloroso" and "Oloroso Dulce.”
The drinking traditions surrounding Sherries vary, but a lot of people have the misconception that it is an after-dinner drink or pair it with dessert. The variety of flavor actually makes Sherry pretty pairable. A good way to know what to pair with which Sherry is to repeat this saying:
If it swims: Fino and Manzanilla.
If it flies: Amontillado.
If it runs: Oloroso.
Of course, you can always enjoy the multitude of Sherry cocktails out there, you’ve probably already had it and didn’t realize it was Spanish wine. If you thought Sherry is a multinational product, you’re not totally wrong. The name "sherry" is considered a semi-generic in the United States, but it must be labeled with a region of origin like American sherry or California sherry. So while we get crazy lucky here with all these sherries available in the US, poor old Spain is NOT allowed to import any wine from the US with “Sherry” in the name.
Should you find yourself in Spain please don’t just ask for Sherry at the bar, it is too broad of a term and you’ll give away all the tourist vibes you were keeping to yourself.
A Brief History-
Sherry has been around since the Moorish occupation of Andalucia back in the 1200’s making it one of the oldest wines in the world. But Jerez has been the center of viniculture since wine-making was introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. The Moors conquered the region in AD 711 and introduced distillation, which led to the development of brandy and fortified wine. Then, the town of Jerez was known as Sherrish. Under the new Muslim rule, wine production thrived for five centuries and on.
The ruler in 966, Al-Hakam II, the second of Caliph of Córdoba, decided to order the destruction of all vineyards. In an outcry from the citizens of Jerez, Al-Hakam II changed his mind when they appealed the production of raisins that feed the empire's soldiers. In the end, Caliph spared two-thirds of the vineyards.
In 1264, the hero known as Alfonso X of Castile, took back the city and from then on production of sherry and its export throughout Europe increased significantly. It gathered the reputation of being the finest wine in the world by the end of the 16th century.
It was so fine that even Britain’s King Henry I proposed a bartering agreement to promote national produce: English wool for sherry wine. The Jerez vineyards then became an important source of wealth for the kingdom, so much so that King Enrique III of Castile prohibited the uprooting of even a single vine by Royal Decree in 1402. Even going as far as to forbid the placement of bee-hives in close proximity to the vineyards in case the bees should damage the grapes.
The growing demand for sherry wines from English, French and Flemish merchants led the town council to establish the Regulations of the Guild of Raisin and Grape Harvesters of Jerez on 12th August 1483. These were the first rules governing our Denomination of Origin: regulating all the details of the harvest, the characteristics of the butts, the aging system, and commercial procedures.
In 1519 Ferdinand Magellan set sail to the East Indies and you can bet your sweet butt he wasn’t making that trip sober. In fact, Magellan purchased 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of Sherry before setting out on his long voyage, which means that Sherry was the first wine to complete a voyage around the world.
Hungry for more of the new world, Jerez wine growers Jerez region saw an opportunity when a provision that stipulated that, “a third of the cargo space in each ship on each vessel trading with America be reserved for goods from the Cádiz area.” In 1680 when the head of the fleet moved to Cádiz and brought forth the end of any monopoly overall trade with the Indies held until that time by the Port of Seville. During the voyages in between Seville and the Indies, pirates raided ships and stole the caskets of Sherry and sold them in London. However, it would be a British subject himself to get away with the most amount of Sherry stolen-ever.
Sir Francis Drake ransacked Cadiz in 1587, he took with him 3,000 butts of Sherry, back to England and everyone, even Shakespeare fell in love, he even put it in many of his plays: Richard III, Henry VI, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV. Sir Francis Drake introduced Sherry to Queen Elizabeth I even went as far as to recommend it to the Count of Essex as the best of wines. As a consequence of this rapid increase in the consumption of sherry and limited supply, her successor, King James I decided to set an example to his subjects by ordering that the Royal Cellars should limit the amount of sherry brought to his table to a modest 12 gallons (48 liters) per day.
The demand by 1625 was so high that Lord Wimbledon attempted another attack on Cádiz, this time unsuccessful. It forced Scotland, England, and Ireland to get their Sherry the old fashioned way- by establishing businesses in the Sherry Triangle and making it themselves. Between 1825 and 1840 the sales of sherry increased by 4 fold, thanks to the talent of winemakers and lucky favorable conditions.
When Britain's palette changed from favoring light pale wines to dark sweet ones, the market in Jerez faced some troubling views against the Vintners' Guild’s code. However, in 1775 a lawsuit against the guild dissolved the strict rules winemakers were pressured under and made way for a new liberal production of Sherry. Winemakers got creative and invented the Solera and Criadera method to give the people what they wanted- quality and age. Great aging bodegas were built to provide optimal architectural conditions for aging wine known as Sherry Houses. It was the best of times until the Black Plague hit Europe in the 19th century.
Thanks to an insect imported from America, vineyards all throughout Europe suffered the worst blow the industry has ever seen. It destroyed the Jerez vines entirely and even worse, blocked their roots. By sheer luck, the bug had hit other parts of Europe before Jerez so the solution was to uproot all the vines and replant with American rootstock varieties, resistant to the insect.
Thankfully, this sped up the recovery process for Jerez, though other regions in Spain weren’t so lucky, and at the beginning of the 20th-century things were pretty much back to normal. Until everyone and their mother decided to start making Sherry Wine.
The reputation of Sherry grew fast and imitators began to arise, some didn’t even bother changing the name. Giving birth to names such as "Australian Sherry", "South African Sherry" and "Canadian Sherry". The concept of Denomination of Origin was the solution to the problem.
In 1933 the first Spanish Wine Law was published and it acknowledged the existence of the Denomination of Origin Jerez and its Consejo Regulador, the first to be legally constituted in Spain.
During the shipments of Sherry to the UK in the late 1400s and early 1500s Scots would use the sherry barrels for a higher purpose- aging Whisky.
If you’ve noticed labels on Malts they refer to the cask as being Oloroso cask-aged, PX cask-aged, etc.
To think Sherry Wine has shaped history with wars, expansion, and winemaking in general just absolutely blows our minds. We hope you learned as much as we did and can now enjoy Sherry Wine a little more seriously.
Thanks for reading, and as always…