All About Sherry
“Have you made your trip to Jerez yet? I’d be interested in your impressions.
I’ve just had a lunch of salty, mature goat cheese and a 2017 En Rama Tio Pepe — civilisation in a bottle!
I suppose the danger of living in Jerez might be that one could become blasé about wine like this, whereas at the other end of a seven hour drive it’s a rare treat and the pleasure is all the more intense.
Hope all is well,
And so, of course, I had to try the Tio Pepe en rama…. In my case I paired it with a Pavé Cobble, an unpasteurised sheeps’ cheese….and not doing anything by halves I watched the first installment of Civilisation while I enjoyed the two.
But my love affair with sherry really began many years ago whilst on my honeymoon. We toured Spain in an old Volkswagen Karmann Ghia drophead, staying at paradors along the way. In Arcos de la Frontera we arrived in time for a fiesta. While little boys queued to have their photograph taken in our car, we sipped cold sherry in the warm evening air as we looked down the spectacular ravine there.
After my en rama experience I decided I needed to know a lot more about sherry, so I visited the Lustau bodega in Jerez, and followed that up with hours of research (much of it practical!). Below is the distillation (oh dear) of what I discovered.
A brief history of sherry
The Phoenicians founded Cádiz in around 800 BC, and then another town, inland, called Xera. They came originally from the Lebanon where they’d got the hang of wine making in a basic sort of a way. The concept was developed by further visitors…Carthaginians and Romans…. and then the wine growers were blessed with the blossoming of an enthusiastic market – England, who took the idea to the colonies (sherry keeps well, so is ideal for long sea journeys). After Sir Francis Drake (who we also have to thank for the mojito, go to this post to find out why) conquered Cádiz the English became even more in love with the drink, buying vineyards and bodegas.
Popularity everywhere led to competition, much of it dire – in Germany they made a version out of potato distillate, but thankfully now sherry is protected by all kinds of regulations, and the labeling is also clear, and not misleading as in the past.
To get a real feel for what was happening in the sherry industry in the 1860s read María Deuñas’ fascinating and epic novel, The Vineyard.
There are five different types of sherry:
- Those matured with the use of ‘flor’, a type of yeast
- Those matured with the use of oxygen
- Hybrids of the two above
- Very sweet sherries made using different grapes to the three types above
- Blended sherries
1. Sherries matured with the use of ‘flor’, aka finos
Sherries which are matured only with the use of yeast, of ‘flor’, are known as finos. The flor is very delicate, and it needs very specific conditions to flourish. The temperature needs to be just right, and so does the alcohol content.
The flor acts as a seal, it protects the sherry from oxygen (the alternative maturing agent), and this lack of oxygen is the reason for its pale straw colour – the colour will not deepen as the sherry matures.
The crisp, elegant dryness which I appreciate so much is also thanks to the flor which eats the sugars in the sherry.
The maturing process also gives depth and complexity: as time goes by dead yeast cells fall through the sherry to the bottom of the barrel. They add a moreish umami flavour to the whole. So the longer the sherry is allowed to mature, the deeper the flavour. To qualify for its DO (go to ‘Confused by PGIs….’ to find out more about what this means) fino sherry must have matured for at least two years; but many of the best are given as much as a decade.
Sherry for bottling is taken out of the oldest barrels – those at the bottom of the pile (see, The maturing process for sherry, below) and it contains a certain amount of sediment. Normally this is filtered out in order to produce a clean, clear liquid. However, connoisseurs have been asking for less enthusiastic filtering in order to retain a bit more character – mush as whisky connoisseurs eschew the practice of chill filtering for whisky (follow this link for more on that). Some of the yeast makes its way into the bottle, so the sherry remains ‘alive’ up the moment of the first sip. When it comes to whisky I like peaty…smokey; when it comes to sherry I like yeasty…gutsy…. I honestly think the Tio Pepe en rama is a wonderful drink.
En rama sherries pair well with:
• Kidneys and liver
Fino has an alcohol content of only (in sherry terms) about 15% (more would kill the precious flor) so, once open, it needs to be drunk, ideally within the week. It will keep up to 18 months in the unopened bottle.
There are three types of fino – and they are defined by their geography:
Fino is made in Jerez.
Pairs well with:
• Most tapas
• All kinds of canapé including the simple type…almonds (in fact, fino itself has a slightly almondy taste), olives etc
• Jamón Ibérico de bellota
• Feta or manchego (or some of the excellent British alternatives)
“There’s a reason why Tio Pepe is the best selling Fino in the world. It’s terrific. Crisp, clean and fresh. …If you have never had proper sherry before, this is where you start.”Kay Plunkett-Hogge, A Sherry and a Little Plate of Tapas
Manzanilla is made in exactly the same way as fino, except that it’s made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in a special microclimate all of its own. Sanlúcar is right on the coast, with salt from the Atlantic blowing in. A further dose of salt comes from the salt marshes which have formed on the old river delta. And the river Guadalquivir forms a natural barrier to the north of the town. The result is that this is an area where humidity is higher and temperature lower than in other parts of the sherry triangle.
The resulting wine has, as you would expect, extra salinity. The flor likes the conditions here and it develops a thicker seal – and contributes a slightly stronger yeasty flavour. There is more flor to nibble away at the alcohol sugars, so Manzanilla offers some of the very driest of sherries. Manzanilla in Spanish means ‘chamomile tea’, and the flavour of this sherry is said to have some of the flavour of chamomile.
Manzanilla pairs well with:
“What is the perfect wine to take to the beach, asks Susy Atkins in The Daily Telegraph. My choice may surprise you. It’s not rosé, or English fizz. It’s sherry. Not just any old sherry, but the palest, most refreshing sherries of them all: fino and manzanilla.
These two “both start life in Andalucia, southern Spain, as simple white wines made from the Palomino grape”. After being fortified with spirit, they are rested in barrels, where they develop a “doughy, savoury complexity”. Super-fresh, bone-dry and immediately palate reviving, they are the “vinous equivalent of jumping in the sea” – hence why they make sense on the beach. Added to which, they are great with seafood: if you haven’t tried fino with fish and chips, you’re missing out.”Quote from The Week, July 2021
3. Fino del Puerto, or Puerto Fino
This sherry is made in Puerto de Santa Maria. Like Sanlúcar de Barrameda it’s also on the coast, but further south and in a slightly more protected position. It’s a gently proposition than a Manzanilla, and not as well known, very few bodegas remain.
Fino del Puerto pairs well with the same foods as Manzanilla.
2. Sherries matured by oxygenisation – Olorosos
Some sherries are matured entirely by oxygenisation, being fortified from the start to a minimum of 17%. Like whisky (see Confused About Whisky) Olorosos pay a hefty tribute to their angels – some 5% volume per annum. And each time it’s topped up under the solera system, it gains in strength.
Because of the high alcohol content Oloroso sherries can be matured for a very long time. A VOS (Vinum Optimum Signatum) is a minimum of twenty years old; and a VORS (vinum Optimum Rare Sigantum) will be over thirty years old.
Flors thrive on glycerol, and their absence from the maturation process of olorosos, means more glycerol, and thus greater viscosity. Olorosos are sweet on the nose, and although dry on the tongue (with the bitterness of walnuts), the syrupy texture gives a feeling of rich sweetness. Nevertheless, under the restrictions of the Consejo Regulador, an Oloroso should not contain more than 5 grams of sugar per litre.
You can buy a Lustau oloroso, the Añada Vintage 1998 for about £20 from Marks & Spencer. It’s described in Decanter Magazine: “this rich, honeyed wine has matured for many years in a sealed 500 litre, old-oak cask rather than entering the solera system. Both beautifully evolved, yet still piercingly fresh and vibrant. Marmalade, a touch of furniture polish, orange blossom and a hint of herbs are found on the nose.”
Olorosos which don’t make the grade are used for blending.
Pairs well with:
• fatty but robust meats such as pork and ham; or lamb
• foie gras (a suggestion of Heston Blumenthal, in The Art of Matching Food and Sherry Wines From Jerez)
• gruyère or Comté
3. Hybrid sherries, matured both under flor, and then with oxygen
These sherries will keep up to six weeks in the fridge, and three years in the unopened bottle.
Amontillado is a sherry produced first, for a minimum of two years, under flor; and then the bodegueros deliberately add more alcohol (a minimum of 17%) in order to kill off the yeast and allow oxygen to take over the task of maturation. It’s slightly tangy.
The raison d’être of the Amontillado is the result of the delicate balance between the biological and the oxidative ageing processes. These sherries will be older, and some, Very Old Sherries are old indeed.
Amontillado will keep up to three weeks in the fridge and three years in the bottle.
For some of the top-rated amontillados, go to the Decanter site.
Wellington is the best known fan of Palo Cortado sherry. Palo Cortado translated into English means ‘cut stick’. Sherries destined to be matured under flor (finos and amontillados) are marked with a short white stroke, but if the delicate flor fails the symbol is cut by a short horizontal stroke. The failing flor allows the wine below to become fat, ‘gordo’. The barrel is taken to a new, specifically Palo Cortado, solera. It’s fortified to a minimum of 18% alcohol. Palo Cortado has a slightly nutty, toasted taste. It smells a bit like an Amontillado, and has the body of an Oloroso. Lustau’s Almacenista Palo Cortado was recently reviewed in Decanter Magazine by Sarah Jane Evans as “Gloriously roasted, honeyed aromatics to match the golden, glinting colour of the wine. Long savoury palate, full of orange marmalade and with a salty, savoury edge.”; while Tina Gellie’s opinion was “great concentration and complexity of walnut skins, toffee apples, salted caramel and furniture polish. Savoury saline length and brilliant orange peel freshness.”!
It’s rare – originally because it was formed by accident, nowadays perhaps for more sanguine marketing motives – Palo Cortado forms less than a hundredth of the total sherry production.
A further source of confusion is the fact that a Palo Cortado made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda is known as a Jerez Cortado.
Palo cortado pairs well with:
• duck or chicken liver paté
• fish stews
4. Very sweet sherries
There are two basic types of very sweet sherries produced, distinguished by the different grapes they are made from.
Pedro Ximénez (PX)
This is a supersonically sweet confection of a wine; dark, licquorishy and luscious. It’s produced from very sweet grapes (originally eating grapes), further sweetened by being laid out to dry in the sun.
Originally these sherries were only used for blending, but towards the end of the last century (as blends began to become less popular) it was used to produce its own, very special dessert wine. For more on Pedro Ximénez follow this link.
Moscatel is the less well known sweet sherry produced using Moscatel di Alejandria grapes, also dried in the sun but not for quite so long. It’s lighter and more floral than PX, and most of it is used for blending. A bottle of pure Moscatel is a rare find.
Both of these sweet sherries pair well with (that means you can drink it with, or pour it on top of):
These sweet sherries will keep up to two months in the fridge and four years in the sealed bottle.
For a wonderful cocktail made with Pedro Ximénez, go to Spain In A Glass.
5. Blended sherries
Avid readers of Agatha Christie will remember the sherry which appears throughout the Miss Marple series. In In A Murder is Announced, sherry is mentioned on fifteen separate occasions, and it’s also suspected of being a vessel for poison. The fusty image is of sweet and stale sherry being offered to hapless visiting vicars to middle class houses in middle England. Thankfully, these day, the DOC system makes it a lot easier to know what’s what with blended sherries, and the quality has improved by leaps and bounds.
• Dry: 5-45 grams/⅛ – 1½ oz sugar per litre (not all that dry then)
• Medium: 5 – 115 grams/⅛ – 4 oz sugar per litre
• Pale cream: 45 – 115 grams/1½ – 4 oz sugar per litre (the main component of a pale cream is usually a fino)
• Cream: 115 – 145 grams/4-5 oz sugar per litre
• Dulce: contains a minimum of 160 grams/5½ oz sugar per litre
Cream sherries will keep up to six weeks in the fridge and three years in the unopened bottle.
The maturing process for sherry
The capataz is the master sherry maker, the man (or woman) who controls the maturing process of the sherry. He is the person responsible for deciding, for example, that a fino should morph into a palo cortado. Or that it hasn’t made the grade and should be used instead to make vinegar, or brandy; or used for blends.
The sherry enters a criaderas (nurseries) and solera (floor) system, a process of fractional blending very similar to that used to make balsamic vinegar. New wine is put into barrels at the top of a stack – the criaderas. Wine for bottling is taken out of the oldest barrels on the floor, the solera. The process of moving some wine (never more than 30%, more frequently less) from one tier of barrels down to another is known as correr escalas, or ‘running the scales’.
New wine doesn’t just replace old wine; new wine will top up a barrel depleted by evaporation (the angels’ share) in the case of oloroso; or it will feed the flor in a fino.
General pairing advice regarding sherry – remember:
“If it swims – Fino. If it flies – Amontillado. If it runs – Oloroso.”
For more ideas for food pairings with sherry go to the infographic on the Lustau site.
What temperature to serve sherry
Finos and Manzanillas should be served chilled – there’s nothing so refreshing on a hot evening. Other sherries don’t need to be quite so cold, but still less than room temperature. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a cellar, keep all your sherry in the fridge.
Further reading on sherry:
For more about sherry in literature follow this link to the Sherry Wines site.
For Sherry Basics for the Whisky Drinker follow this link to the Whiskyrific site.
“More surprising still is the sharp rise in sherry sales. Could it be that people are tucking in earlier in the day, and this feels an acceptable way to do it? Unsurprisingly, given the lack of social gatherings, sales of sparkling wine – and especially champagne – have plummeted.”James Tanner, Tanners Wine Merchants, writing about the effects of the Coronavirus
Music to listen to
Bruce Springsteen, singing Sherry Darling