Spanish sunshine in a bottle: a collector’s guide to sherry
Where does sherry come from? How is it made? And what’s the difference between a Fino, a Manzanilla, a Palo Cortado and an Oloroso? Specialist Charlotte Sère explains all
On the gentle slopes of Andalusia in southwest Spain, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Sierra de Cádiz mountains, lies the home of sherry: the winemaking region of Jerez. Named after its largest city, Jerez de la Frontera, it has been a centre of wine production since the Phoenicians occupied this part of Spain more than 2,500 years ago.
Sherry is a fortified wine made by taking a neutral base wine and ageing and blending it to create an incredibly wide range of flavours and aromas. Given the variety of styles produced, anyone who likes wine is sure to find a sherry to suit them.
The grapes for sherry must come from a 7,000-hectare area called the Zona de Producción. It is divided into two parts: Jerez Superior, which contains the better vineyards and accounts for 90 per cent of the plantings, and Jerez Zona.
The three principal grape varieties are Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez. Palomino, which makes up almost 99 per cent of sherry production by volume, is a mid- to late-ripening variety well suited to dry, sunny weather, which can produce large yields. Its neutral flavour makes it perfect for the production of sherry. Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez are used in sweet sherry.
The vineyards of Jerez are divided into areas known as pagos, each of which has its own particular aspect, location and soil to give its wine a unique character. Though it is uncommon, sherry producers can choose to make wine from a single vineyard, and legislation is being discussed to allow producers to name a pago on their labels.
Around 90 per cent of vines in Jerez are planted in a type of soil called albariza, made up of varying proportions of limestone, silica and clay. It is well adapted to the hot Spanish climate, as the clay retains and gradually releases water from winter rainfall and forms a crust when dry, which reduces evaporation. The soil is also chalky in colour, so it reflects light back into the vine canopy, helping the grapes to ripen.
Sherry is made in four distinct styles: dry, naturally sweet, sweetened and age-indicated.
The types of dry sherry are Fino, Manzanilla, Manzanilla Pasada, Amontillado, Palo Cortado and Oloroso.
A crucial aspect of dry sherry production is the flor, a layer of yeast that forms on top of the wine while it ages in barrels, and which can only grow naturally in the specific climate of southern Spain.
The flor has several effects: it protects the wine from oxidation, keeping it light in colour and ensuring a fresh flavour; it consumes alcohol and releases organic compounds called acetaldehydes, which give aromas of bruised apple, hay and camomile, and sometimes a slightly bitter taste; and it consumes glycerol, giving the sherry a lighter body and contributing to its dry character.
Fino and Manzanilla must be kept under flor for their entire ageing. They are usually pale lemon in colour and light- to medium-bodied, with low acidity.
Manzanilla is the same as Fino, but with the distinction that it must be matured in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Manzanilla Pasada is subjected to an additional short period of oxidative ageing (exposure to oxygen in the atmosphere), usually by letting the flor die: when all the nutrients have been consumed, the barrels are not refreshed with new wine.
Amontillado must undergo both biological and oxidative ageing. The wine starts off in the same way as Fino and is then re-fortified to 17 per cent ABV to kill the flor, and aged with exposure to oxygen.
Palo Cortado is made in the same way as an Amontillado but aged for longer.
Oloroso has no flor and only undergoes oxidative ageing, giving it dominant aromas of toffee and walnut.
Naturally sweet sherry is aged oxidatively and will typically be full-bodied and syrupy, with low acidity.
Sweetened sherries are dry sherries that have either RCGM (rectified concentrated grape must) or naturally sweet sherry added to them.
Age-indicated sherries are categorised as VOS (Very Old Sherry), VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry), 12 Year Old and 15 Year Old. VOS must be made up of wines with an average age of 20 years or more, which increases to 30 years or more for VORS.
The first stage in deciding which style of sherry to produce is the grape-pressing process. The lightest pressings are generally used for wines that will be aged under a layer of flor and not exposed to oxygen, producing the most delicate styles.
The juice extracted later, under greater pressure, contains more compounds that would interfere with the growth of the flor, so it is used for wines that are aged oxidatively, which are generally richer and rounder in style.
Dry sherries undergo two classifications to determine their ultimate style. First, each batch of wine is tasted after fermentation and sent for analysis to determine whether it should be aged biologically (protected from oxygen) or oxidatively.
Next, the base wines are fortified with a 95 per cent neutral grape spirit, which doesn’t add any aroma or flavour, to either 15-15.5 per cent ABV (the optimum alcohol level for the growth of the flor) or 17 per cent ABV (for sherries that will be aged oxidatively).
Once fortified, the wines move to a stage called sobretablas, where they are either kept in tanks or moved to wooden barrels. After several months, the wines marked out for biological ageing are tasted and analysed. Those with a full layer of flor yeast, and which have remained fresh, are potential Fino or Manzanilla; slightly less delicate wines are used to produce Amontillado; and those that are even more full-bodied and intensely flavoured go to make Palo Cortado.
The wines then enter their respective solera systems. A solera system is a stacked formation of barrels. A proportion of young wine is added to the top layer of barrels, and then, depending on the style the producer is making, every so often a little wine will be taken out of each top barrel, blended, and divided up to be added to the barrels in the next layer down, and so on until the last layer is reached.
This ensures that the final wines are uniform. It also creates a high level of complexity, with the blending of younger and older wines, and wines from every barrel. Young wines also refresh the nutrient levels needed to keep a thick layer of flor alive.
As Oloroso is aged with exposure to oxygen, its colour gradually darkens over time. Its alcohol content also increases slightly as water is lost faster than ethanol, and this evaporation causes the glycerol level to rise, giving the sherry a fuller, rounder body. Aroma and flavour compounds increase in concentration.
Naturally sweet sherry is made from Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes that have been laid out in the sun for a few weeks after harvest to allow the water to evaporate and the sugar to concentrate. Fermentation naturally stops at around 4-6 per cent ABV due to the high sugar content, and the wine is fortified to 15-16 per cent ABV.
Sherries are released from the winery ready to drink and are best served chilled, although it is not necessary to chill an Amontillado, Palo Cortado or Oloroso quite as much as a Fino or Manzanilla.
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You can expect a feast of flavours, from bread dough and almonds in the bone-dry Fino, via Oloroso’s caramel notes, to sweet raisins, molasses and liquorice in the Pedro Ximénez.