What Is Sherry?

A definition of Sherry, its origins and where and how it is made.

Sherry is a famous fortified wine produced in the Andalusia region of Spain. The original Sherry is produced near the city of Cadiz. Other Spanish regions, Rueda, Condado de Huelva and Montilla-Moriles make similar fortified wines, but nothing quite matches the excellence of genuine Sherry.

The real Sherry vineyards are situated around three towns, namely, Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. Although some of the vines are cultivated in clay (barros) and sand (arenas), the best quality grapes are grown in the finest albariza chalk soil.

The two grapes used for producing Sherry are Listan (Palamino) and Pedro Ximénez (PX). Approximately 85% of the vineyards are under the Palamino vine. This grape variety yields a basic dry white wine, whereas the PX grapes are used to enrich the heavier and sweeter styles of Sherry, destined for export. All Sherry is originally dry and sweetness has to be added.

The first stage of Sherry production involves putting the new wine in nursery casks or cradles, known as criaderas. The content is carefully monitored. By springtime, a yeast-like substance (flor or Saccharomyces beticus) starts to develop on the surface of some of the wine. This is the best indication that the wine will develop into the highly desirable, quality Fino Sherry. If there is no flor on the surface, it means that the wine is destined to be made into Oloroso Sherry.

The next stage is to fortify the Finos with up to 15.5% volume of alcohol by adding a local high strength brandy. Olorosos are topped up to 18%. It is common practice to further fortify both Sherry styles before sale. The sweeter styles are more heavily fortified. Finos are normally topped up to 16% and Olorosos up to 21%.

Before bottling, however, all Sherries are put through the maturing and blending system of the solera. The solera is a series of casks that are placed on top of each other, often five or six scales high. Wine for sale is taken from the bottom scale of casks. The amount that can be drawn off each year is restricted to only one third of the volume. The gap is filled by wine from the scale immediately above. This system continues upwards, with the more mature wines being topped up by younger wines. The youngest of the wines are positioned at the top.

Finally, the wine for sale is blended and its colour, sweetness and alcohol content adjusted. The task of blending is highly demanding and requires great skill.

Sherry Styles:

Fino - a delicate, extremely dry Sherry, pale in colour, fragrant, with a powerful bouquet.

Manzanilla - a dry type of Fino made from grapes grown by the shores of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and matured in local cellars. It has a pleasantly salty tang.

Amontillado - fuller and deeper in colour than Fino, with a delightful nutty flavour.

Palo Cortado - somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso. Although it is popular in Spain, it is not well known internationally.

Oloroso - sweetened by Pedro Ximénez grape concentrate called dulce. Oloroso has a deep colour and is full flavoured. The name Oloroso covers all cream and brown Sherries on the market.

© High Speed Ventures 2011