In the fascinating world of Sherry wines, complexity has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. The puzzling aging system of “solera and criaderas,” the mysterious “veil of flor” hovering ominously over the surface… The strange alchemy of Sherry requires a bit of patience to understand, leaving these wines to be written off as too complicated, too cerebral by those seeking simplicity in the glass...
But give Sherry a chance and you’ll discover wines that are truly distinctive, an astonishing spectrum of flavors and styles, ranging from briny and savory to caramelized, nutty and syrupy-sweet. Sherry unlocks a world of food pairing possibilities, from a Fino with juicy Spanish olives and salted Marcona almonds, to an Oloroso with a cozy, slow-cooked beef stew to a sticky sweet Pedro Ximenez with a decadent chocolate dessert…
The history of sherry wine is the history of Andalusia in southern Spain, a cultural melting pot for the past 3,000 years. The first mention of wine production in this area, situated near the city of Jerez de la Frontera, comes from a Greek geographer named Strabo in the 1st century B.C. Strabo wrote that the very first grape vines were brought to Andalusia by the Phoenicians during their occupation of this territory around 1,100 B.C. Archeological evidence, including the remains of a wine-press found at an excavation site around Gadir (Cadiz), seem to confirm this theory. Around 700 BC, Phoenicians settlers began to produce wines more inland, in an area which they named Xera, near modern-day Jerez. These wines were then exported and traded all over the Mediterranean Basin, acquiring early on their reputation as a “travelling wine.”
By the time the Romans took over the region in the 2nd century BC, these wines (which they named Vinum Ceretensis) had earned many fans across the continent. The prolific Roman agricultural writer Columella actually had a farm in this area and laid down the first set of basic rules about viticulture in Jerez. In the year 711 AD the Moors took over the area, turning Xera (now called Sherish) into a prosperous walled city. While the Muslim religion technically prohibits the consumption of alcohol, viticulture continued to flourish in the area, especially after the introduction of the distillation process by the Moors.
Following the Reconquista, King Alfonso X of Castile reclaimed the Jerez region from the Moors and made the grape vine an obligatory crop. During this time, sherry wines were still being exported to England under the Moorish name “Sherish.” They had gained the favor of Henry I, who consequentially proposed a bartering agreement: sherry wine for English wool. As demand for sherry wine grew abroad, several regulations were established by the Vintners Guild in order to control the quality of the wines from Jerez.
During the period of Spanish colonization, sherry wines were often brought aboard the ships at the Port of Seville to bring to the “New World,” and were even used to celebrate the conquest of new territories by the Spanish crown. During the 1500’s, the trade of Sherry wines expanded to the Indies, resulting in a boom of business, which transformed small producers into large industrial suppliers. At the same time, trading cargos bound for the Indies were often seized by pirates, who sold its contents to London.
In 1587, when Sir Francis Drake sacked Cadiz, he took 3,000 kegs of sherry wine, which he sold in the United Kingdom. As a consequence sherry became even more popular in London, with notable fans including Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare. This boom in demand was met by foreign investments by the British, Scottish and Irish, who established their own businesses in the Jerez region.
Towards the early 18th century, foreign palates began to change. Whereas, the market had previously shown a preference for lighter, paler wines, it was now demanding more powerful, darker, riper wines. What followed was a period of “self-discovery” for the Jerez region, where local merchants, eager to try to meet this new demand with aged wines, clashed with vineyard owners, who preferred to find a market for their last vintage instead of aging them any longer.
In 1775, the Vintners Guild was abolished, resulting in a more open-minded approach to winemaking in the region. It was during this time, that the unique Jerez aging system of Solera and Criaderas was first put in use, as a way to create a darker, more stable, aged sherry while also retaining a continuous supply of the same. Biological aging under flor yeast was also popularized during this time. The process of fortification was fine-tuned to provide the wide range of sherry styles we see today.
Following a boom in popularity for this new style of fortified, flor-aged sherry, the phylloxera epidemic reached the Jerez region in the 1890’s. Since this was relatively late in the spread of phylloxera across Europe and since a solution had already been developed in France, the Jerez region recovered rather quickly. This episode did, however, confirm the place of Palomino Fino as the principle grape variety of the region, as it proved to be the most resistant during this time. In 1933, the DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry was formed, the very first Denomination de Origen in Spain.
In the past few decades, a competitive international market has forced winemakers in Jerez to set stricter quotas, reduce yields and focus on quality rather than quantity. In the year 2000, the DO Jerez-Xérès-Sherry introduced the VOS and VORS age controls for sherry, to help customers differentiate between them. Today, dry sherry is enjoying a modern renaissance and attracting a new generation of wine lovers, especially through trendy new sherry-and-tapas bars, proof that a wine region with over 3,000 years of history can continue to reinvent itself in the modern age.
Sherry wine is produced from three grape varieties: Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. Its production is based around the Sherry Triangle, made up of the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. What truly sets the winemaking process of sherry apart is the rather complex solera system, believed to have originated in the latter half of the 18th century in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
The Solera and Criaderas System
In this system, casks of wine are arranged on top of one another in different tiers, called “criaderas,” which translates literally to “nurseries.” Casks in a single tier contain wine from the same vintage. The bottom row, which contains the oldest wines, ready to be bottled, is called the “solera.”
When some of the wine is removed from the solera to be bottled (a process known as “saca”), it is replaced (by a process known as “rocio”) with the same amount of wine from the row of casks just above it (the first criadera). The missing wine from this second row is then replaced by still younger wines from the second criadera, and so on. The final criadera, containing the youngest wine, is topped up with wine from the most recent harvest, known as “sobretabla”.
The frequency with which “saca” and “rocio” take place per year helps determine the style of the resulting sherry wine. Nevertheless, the result is that all sherry wines are non-vintage wines, or a mix of several different vintages.
Depending on how a sherry is produced, it can be divided into several different categories.
Dry Sherry Wines (a.k.a. Vinos Generosos)
While most people tend to associate sherry wines with sweetness, most sherry is actually a dry, aged white wine. All dry sherry wines are made from the Palomino grape, which has become a flagship of the Jerez region. The three forms of aging a dry sherry are biological, oxidative and a combination of the two.
Fino Sherry and Manzanilla Sherry
In the case of Fino sherry and Manzanilla sherry, an exclusively biological process is used. Inside the partially-filled casks, a thin film of yeast (called a “veil de flor”) forms over the wine, protecting it from oxidation. Fino sherry, as all sherry wines, is fortified, though only to around 15%, which does not prohibit the yeast from developing. At the time of the saca, the wine is moved down the tiers very carefully, by inserting it directly under the veil of yeast in order not to disturb the latter. As the wine is constantly interacting with the yeast as it ages, the “flor” lends its signature notes of almond to the finished wine. These wines are typically extensively filtered to get rid of any residues from the yeast, though some very lightly filtered Fino sherries (called “en rama” or “on the vine”) are also commercially available. The result is a dry wine with a pale yellow color and refreshing, crisp palate.
Manzanilla sherry is produced in much the same way as Fino, except that it comes from the specific Denomination of Origin Manzanilla – Sanlucar de Barrameda, whose particular microclimate results in a lighter structure, floral fragrances on the nose and a pleasant hint of bitterness on the palate at the finish.
Amontillado wines are produced with a combination of biological and oxidative aging. Amontillado begins its aging process in the same way as a Fino or Manzanilla, with the wine aged under a layer of flor for a period of three to eight years. A sherry becomes an Amontillado when that biological process comes to an end, when the yeast runs out of nutrients in the wine and the flor stops developing. Most of the time, the flor-aging is intentionally stopped by the winemaker, who fortifies the wine, bringing the alcohol level up to roughly 17% and killing the remaining yeast. With no flor layer present, the wine continues to age through oxidation, which lends a deeper, amber color to the wine as well as signature nutty, spicy notes to the wine.
Oloroso sherry is produced exclusively with oxidative aging, with the base wine fortified at the beginning of the process to prevent a flor from forming at all. The wine therefore ages in contact with oxygen, a contact which is further increased when the wine is moved from one cask to the next. As the wine ages, some of its water content evaporates, leading to a denser, more unctuous texture on the palate and more intense flavors of toast, balsamic, tobacco, nuts, leather and spice.
Similarly to Oloroso sherry, a Palo Cortado sherry is produced through oxidative aging. However, unlike Oloroso, Palo Cortado is made from younger wines initially destined to become Fino or Manzanilla and thus fortified to 15%. At some point in the aging process, however, the winemaker may decide to change the wine’s destiny by refortifying it to 17% and preventing the development of a flor. These wines are similar in style to Oloroso sherries, though slightly lighter in structure and marked by a certain elegance.
Naturally Sweet Sherry (a.k.a. Vinos Dulces Naturales)
When the fermentation process is halted by the addition of a wine-based alcohol, the yeast cannot metabolize all of the sugar naturally occurring in the grape and the wine is left with residual sugar, resulting in a sweet flavor in these dessert wines. It is no wonder that for these wines, the sweetest grape varieties are used, including Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. In some cases, in order to even further increase the concentration of sugar in the grape, the fruit is dried out before pressing in a process known as “asoleo” or “sunning” of the grapes.
Moscatel is a type of sweet wine produced from the Moscatel grape variety in the Jerez region. When asoleo is carried out, the wine is referred to as “Moscatel de Pasas” (or Moscatel from raisins), and is generally more of a deep, dark mahogany color than wines which aren’t made from raisins (called Moscatel Oro or Moscatel Dorado). Moscatel wines vary significantly depending on sugar content, but tend to have in common citrus aromas, as well as a certain herbaceous or floral quality.
Pedro Ximenez (PX)
Unlike Moscatel, Pedro Ximenez wines are always produced with asoleo, leading to a concentration of sugars which is never less than 250 grams/liter and even sometimes over 400 grams/liter. Pedro Ximenez wines are deep, dark, almost black in color and totally opaque, sticking to the glass and revealing a very smooth texture on the palate. Its signature aromas include honeyed fruit, dried figs and dates, along with nuances of coffee, licorice and toast over age.
Sherry wines Sweetened with Blending (a.k.a. Vinos Generosos de Licor)
The third and final category is made up of sherry which is sweetened artificially, by blending the styles listed above in a process known as “cabeceo.” The possibilities are endless and the D.O. only enforces a few broad rules, so each bodega in Jerez has its own recipe for this category of sherry. Sweetened sherry wines are classified according to sugar content and the way its base wines are aged. Pale cream sherry contains 45-115 grams of sugar/liter and is made of Fino or Manzanilla with grape must added. Medium sherry (5 to 115 grams of sugar/liter) is usually made with Amontillado. Cream sherry (115 to 140 grams of sugar/liter) is made with Oloroso (or sometimes also Amontillado), blended with PX or Moscatel.
Cream sherry wines tend to have a rich, dense, syrupy texture and a nose that bears the characteristics of an Oloroso or Amontillado, with a touch of sweetness and roasted flavors.
With its astonishing spectrum of flavors and styles, ranging from briny and delicate to caramelized, nutty and syrupy-thick, sherry wine unlocks a world of food pairing possibilities.
Fresh and dry, Fino sherry and Manzanilla sherry should be served cold (between 4°C and 9°C) in a relatively wide wine glass. On the nose these wines reveal a certain yeasty, saline profile with hints of Mediterranean herbs and almonds. With age, they develop more of a savory complexity. Fino and Manzanilla tend to be similar in style, though Manzanilla sherry is slightly more delicate with a more coastal character.
Pair a Fino sherry with plump, juicy Spanish olives, lightly salted Marcona almonds, fried fish, fresh gazpacho, Serrano ham or classic Spanish tapas like fried squid ink croquetas. Manzanilla will go beautifully with fresh sushi or sashimi and a wide range of seafood dishes, including prawns sautéed with garlic, smoked salmon or fried squid.
Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado sherry should be served slightly chilled (12° and 14° C) in a white wine glass. Amontillado sherry tend to be older and riper, with nutty aromas which help them to pair with poultry dishes, grilled tuna steaks, mushroom risotto or Spanish paella, as well as charred vegetables – asparagus or artichokes, for example. The rich mouthfeel of Oloroso sherry make it ideal with bold, saucy, slow-cooked pork or game dishes and cozy stews.
Palo Cortado sherry is refined yet full-bodied, resembling Amontillado on the nose and Oloroso on the palate. Palo Cortado goes especially well with indulgent treats like foie gras, soft blue cheeses and chocolate desserts.
On the sweeter side, Moscatel is a sherry with fresh floral aromas and a honeyed palate, best served slightly chilled (12° and 14° C). While Moscatel pairs nicely with dessert, especially fruit-based pastries like fresh fruit tarts or apple pie a la mode, it can also lend the perfect sweet touch to foie gras or a pungent blue cheese.
Sticky sweet Pedro Ximenez floods the nose with rich candied fig and date aromas, providing the perfect match for pure chocolate desserts. Like a thick balsamic, it can also be used as a syrup to drizzle over ice cream.
Finally, Medium, Pale Cream and Cream sherry will go beautifully with sweet and sour dishes, as well as salty, fatty pates and terrines.
In the past few decades, sherry has also become a favorite ingredient of mixologists, who use it in cocktails to add a sweet touch. From the classic sherry cobbler to the more nuanced Verbena spritz, the range of possibilities in the world of sherry cocktails is endless.