Three Facts About Sherry Wine and Why You Need to Try a Bottle

Amontillado Oloroso Palo Cortado Jerez Xeres sherry

This month the World Wine Travel group of writers virtually visit Andalusia, Spain where one of the oldest wines in the world is made- sherry. Although many types of wine are found in the region, it is the sherry of Andalusia I feature here. Thank you to Martin (a practiced sherry lover himself) at Enofylz Wine Blog for choosing this colorful region. Filled with information about Andalusia, find his overview post here. And scroll down for a list of #WorldWineTravel articles heavy on food and wine!

The question of the hour was why don’t I drink more sherry? It’s not common on wine lists and most likely, not in personal cellars either. It certainly wasn’t in mine for the mere reason I didn’t know much about it.

This fortified wine made from white grapes in the solera method (blending and aging in old barrels) is rather misunderstood yet very approachable and food friendly!

Location Matters

A total of nine municipalities make the base wine for sherry in Andalusia yet just three cities, together known as the “Sherry Triangle”, age it. Or at least historically.

These three, Jerez de la Frontera (also simply called Jerez), Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, will continue to be historical epicenters yet new rules established August 2021 allow the maturation of sherry within any of the nine municipalities. The production zone equals the aging zone now. The rules will be effective this year yet we probably won’t see any changes until 2022.

According to sherry expert Ruben Luyten of SherryNotes, this change “…ends one of the most symbolic elements of sherry, its famous ageing triangle.”

Andalusia and the sherry region is located at the bottom, almost center of Spain. You can also see the famous Albariza soils for which sherry is famous for in the white areas. Map courtesy of Sherry Wines.

Notice ‘sherry’ is not on the label?!? Photo courtesy SherryNotes.

 

Another peculiarity with sherry is labeling. Until this rule change, only those in the sherry triangle could label as D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, with the word ‘sherry’ on the label. If outside in the other six areas you could list the type, e.g., Oloroso, Fino, etc., but not ‘sherry’.

 

 

My sparse, early experiences centered around one sherry type I purchased only if it said ‘sherry’– the luscious Pedro Ximenez or PX. This style is sipped mostly for, or with desserts. Thankfully I didn’t lump all sherry into the sweet category yet many folks do.

First Fact: Most sherry is made dry.

The Grapes

When the D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry was founded in 1933, three grapes were allowed in sherry production. Palomino Fino (one of three Palomino variants that makes up about 95% of sherry grapes) was/is used for dry styles, while Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel (Muscat) were/are used to make sweeter styles. But historically, even before the D.O was established, dozens of grapes were used including  several indigenous now referred to as ‘lost’ varietals. And even in the decades after 1933, some of these other grapes most likely ended up in sherry wines.

That regulation mentioned above? They’re now reverting a decision about the grapes, allowing the additional indigenous varieties previously devastated by phylloxera: Mantúo Castellano, Mantúo de Pilas, Vejeriego, Perruno, Cañocazo and Beba. Exciting it will be to see how these grapes are incorporated into the different styles of sherry!

The Vinification

When it comes to winemaking, the production process is complicated, involving several steps and decision points after the base wine finishes. Below is a simplified version.

Grape picking is done in stages. The free-run juice plus the first pressing is used for delicate types of sherry (Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado) and the second pressing is used for oxidative types (Oloroso). Subsequent pressings (anything over the maximum yield of 70 litres per 100 kg of grape) is used for non-classified wines and distillation like brandy.

Flor Fino Manzanilla

A layer of flor growing on top of the wine in a sherry barrel. Photo source: Sherry Wines

Fermentation in wooden vats or stainless tanks follows. When complete, the lees are filtered off and the juice classified a first time. The finest are fortified to 15-15.4% abv by adding grape spirit. These go the Fino or Manzanilla route, aging biologically, where a layer of flor develops as seen on the left. Flor is a naturally occurring cap of yeast that protects and transforms the wine from oxygen while it ages.

The less elegant (nothing to do with quality) are fortified to 17- 18% abv and age oxidatively (in contact with oxygen in the barrel). They become Oloroso. Finally, juice from the Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes is fortified to 17- 18% abv before fermentation completes. This makes them sweet.

What happens when the flor starts to die? It is possible during the aging of Fino or Manzanilla when the nutrients in the wine that feed the flor are all consumed. The cellar master will fortify slightly higher and reclassify the wine as either Amontillado or Palo Cortado.

The fortified juice for all sherry types is called the base wine or sobretabla.

The sobretablas are classified a second time. At this point, they go into barrels in their solera, based on classification.

Basic Sherry Classifications (This list is not complete as there are derivative sherry):

  • Fino – Flor aging. By far the driest, Fino reminds me of puckering up after a first sip of Loire Muscadet or zero dosage (Brut Nature) Champagne.
  • Manzanilla – Flor aging – dry. Only made and aged in Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
  • Amontillado – Starts under flor, finishes oxidatively – dry
  • Palo Cortado – Starts under flor, finishes oxidatively – dry (The rarest style!)
  • Oloroso – Oxidative aging – dry
  • Pedro Ximenez/Moscatel – Mixture of sun-dried grapes and solera with oxidative aging  – sweet

Solera Aging

What makes sherry so unique is the process and aging barrel, both called solera.

The solera is a complex arrangement where wine travels through layers of barrels (commonly referred to as butts or casks) stacked in a precise manner for aging. The sobretabla is the top level followed by the third, second and first criaderas, then the oldest sherry at the bottom, or bottom level called solera.

The above is true to an extent but it doesn’t really work that way. And don’t think the barrels are arranged in a pyramid!

sherry solera system

Sobretablas, criaderas and the solera system. Photo source: Sherry Wines

Up to a third of the wine in each barrel may be removed each year and transferred to another barrel  for feeding (fractional blending), a process starting from the top and working down and to the right. Wine passing through a solera system is composed of several vintages with the oldest at the solera. The solera level is never fully emptied.

 

Yet another kind of true, but, it is different at sherry bodegas. If you want to know the truth, Amber at SpitBucket busts several myths about the solera process.

This version of sherry winemaking barely scratches the surface. The whole process is much more complex!

For a detailed look at the sherry wine process, I recommend the discussion on SherryNotes, also my source.

Second Fact: Making sherry is a very involved process.

Tasting and Pairing Sherry

While I thoroughly enjoyed tasting the nuances of each sherry, I had an eye-opening fantastic time pairing them with foods. Here are three dry styles I chose from Grupo Estevez and the dishes, which also pair nicely with this time of year!

Amontillado begins as a Fino aging under flor. After 4 to 5 years, it is actively killed off by adding alcohol (to around 18% abv) and continues life oxidatively. They can retain Fino characteristics (tangy salinity, iodine) yet tend towards richer nuttiness and umami flavors. The fusion of two aging processes makes Amontillado extraordinarily complex and intriguing.

Del Principe Amontillado sherry Amontillado del Princípal – Marques Del Real Tesoro Bodega – D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry| 15€ | 18.5% abv

Aromas: Medium toasted hazelnuts and walnuts combined with browned apple, dates, non-sweet caramel, tobacco and hints of old barrels; light varnishy hints remind me of Armagnac, Cognac or Brandy.

On the Palate: Dry, medium-bodied with a good balance of medium acidity, and a lightness and ease. Pronounced nutty, non-sweet caramel, spiced orange peel, and dried fig flavors; Elegant, smooth, and round mouthfeel with a long finish and bitter almond hints.

Pairing: Fig and Polenta Salad with Warm Vinaigrette.

sherry pairing Browned polenta disks are topped with goat cheese (Crottin de Chevré) and served as a base for dressed mixed greens, fresh figs, walnuts and a warm crispy bacon (or lardons) vinaigrette. Everything here jived- a bite stressing the polenta, bacon, fig and walnuts together with a sip of Amontillado was just glorious, amplifying the flavors of each.

At just 14.95€, and aged fifteen years, this is an amazing sherry. So expressive and smooth at the same time and spectacular with this fall salad. Make it while figs are still available! Average age: 15-years. Best consumed within a few days or up to a few months after opening, especially if stored in the refrigerator.

Oloroso ages with oxygen giving it rich, complex oxidative qualities. Long aging result in smooth richness and an unctuous quality, as well as a full body and great length. They are always dry yet if sweet wine (usually Pedro Ximénez is added, it is called Medium or Creme Sherry.

Almirante Oloroso sherryOloroso Almirante – Marques Del Real Tesoro Bodega – D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry | 15€ | 18.5% abv

Aromas: Pronounced mixed nuts, juicy pear, dried cooking herbs, toffee, and tobacco.

On the Palate:  Medium acidity and body; Powerful yet round and balanced; pronounced flavors of toasted hazelnut, dates, toffee, cedar, nutmeg with hints of salinity; Smooth with a bit of power on the long finish.

Pairing: Crispy Duck Crepe Wraps with Chinese 5-Spice Fig Sauce.

Almirante Oloroso 15 years sherry

Caramelized onions and crispy, shredded duck confit are the base topped with fig sauce then baby greens dressed in a lighter version of the sauce, then all wrapped in homemade crepes.

The umami flavors in both the crepe and sherry were exceptional together. A whole lot of sapidity for just 15€. 18.5% ABV. Average age: 15 years. Best consumed within a few days or up to a few months after opening, especially if stored in the refrigerator.

Palo Cortado, the rarest of all sherry, starts as a dry Fino under flor. Along the way, the flor starts to die in some barrels and the winemaker notices nuances which set it apart. Those barrels are designated as Palo Cortado. The nose retains the clean, tangy influence of flor while the body becomes richer as it oxidatively ages.  

Palo Cortado sherry Valdespino Viejo C.P. Palo Cortado Viejo CP – Valdespino | 32€ |20% abv

History abounds in this sherry! The Valdespino family and their bodega near Jerez dates to 1264. In the late 1990’s, they sold to Grupo Estevez.

Average age estimate: 20 – 25 years.

Aromas: Prominent toffee, almonds, dates and coffee beans roasting. After an hour, mixed citrus and vanilla bean surface.

On the Palate: Surprisingly light and dry with a velvety smooth feel and medium tangy acidity. Nutty (hazel and walnuts), mixed citrus peel, and olive bread flavors where the bread is packed with briny olives. Overall it is brighter yet maintains an elegantly regal character and a medium long finish that reminds me of sitting at a recently polished table eating figs.

Palo Cortado food pairing Bolognese

Vegetarian Bolognese pairs well with Palo Cortado Sherry!

 Pairing: This was wild, crazy and fantastic! I riffed on Nigel Slater’s Really Good Bolognese, substituting tempeh for meat and pancetta. Since I cannot eat tomatoes, using carrot puree with lemon juice works brilliantly. You can easily make it vegan by using cashew cream or another cream alternative and vegan cheese.

A pairing hit where the nuttiness of the tempeh, sweetness of the carrots and earthiness of the mushrooms jived on all levels with the earthy and briny notes in the Palo Cortado. Mark said “Make sure to write this one down so you can make it again!”.

Best consumed within a few days or up to a few months after opening, especially if stored in the refrigerator.

Third Fact: Dry sherry pairs incredibly well with a wide variety of food.

My pairing research paid off- each of the pairings went incredibly well with the selected sherry type. Did we have a favorite? No, not even close- the character of each combination was unique. The only thing that didn’t work was a blue-vein goat/sheep cheese pulled out to snack on with the Amontillado.

I hope I piqued your interest in trying dry sherry. They are incredible values that will please many a palate!

World Wine Travel Tackles Andalusia

Check out discoveries from other #WorldWineTravel group members below. Join us chatting live on Twitter today, Saturday, October 16th at 8am Pacific and 17:00 Central European Time.

Our November theme centers on the wines of Castilla-La Mancha!

9 thoughts on “Three Facts About Sherry Wine and Why You Need to Try a Bottle

  1. Karen Grove

    Love this post! We spent some time in the “sherry triangle” of Andalusia in 2015 (lodging with a sherry-making family in Jerez de la Frontera), and were amazed to learn about the many varieties of sherry. Probably like most people in the U.S., we were only aware of cheap, and pretty terrible, versions such as “cream sherry”. Thanks for the food pairing suggestions—fabulous!

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      Oh glad you enjoyed this Karen! Staying with a sherry-making family must have been a great experience. If you feel like making any of the dishes I’m happy to send recipes.

      Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      Good to hear! And you two love good food so I hope these pairing ideas come in handy. Thanks for your comment Allison 😉

      Reply
  2. MARTIN D REDMOND

    I’m set to take the CSWS from Lustau in December. I wonder if there will be any mention of the new regulations (though the new wines can’t be labeled as “Sherry”). Like you, I think it’ll be interesting to see how other indigenous varieties are used to make the new wines.

    I love your pairings. Great piece Lynn!

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      I’m taking the same course/test in December! I hate to say good luck as I’m sure with your sherry knowledge you’ll ace it! I went back and reread the regs this morning and made a few updates to correct items. Whew, sherry is a tad complicated.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Burrows

    Welcome to the sherrylover ranks! Did you end up with a favorite? I’m partial to Oloroso and Fino. And secretly, I enjoy a good quality (important) cream sherry. shhhhh!

    Reply
    1. Lynn Post author

      Thanks Jeff! Of these three, I preferred the Oloroso and Mark, the Palo Cortado. In fact the other night he asked if we had any. I need to find a ‘good quality’ cream now!

      Reply

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