Sherry in a nutshell

I wanted to share my exploits this week with Sherry. Foolishly, a couple of months back, I voiced to the person in charge of the monthly wine tasting group that I attend, that a Sherry tasting would be interesting. I was then, quick as a flash, delegated the task in hand and I have therefore spent a whole lot of time over the last couple of week’s preparing a sherry tasting for the group.

Have I ever been to Jerez? No. Do I drink a lot of sherry? No. Did I truly realise just how complicated the wine making process of Sherry is? No. I thought that it was all about the solera and then it ended there……..boy am I naive.

Anyhow, I spent a few hours (days) researching, finding a selection of wines that covered most of the styles and came up with a useful enough, factual tasting to present to the group and luckily there were some more initiated members who could fill in the gaps for me.

In a  nutshell, Sherry comes in a great load of different styles. Dry sherries are made from the Palomino grape, Sweet from either Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel. Palomino and PX can be blended to come up with some of the Pale Cream styles that I associate with my husband’s 95 year old grandfather who used to accuse us all of stealing from his well stocked sherry cupboard.  The grapes are grown in Andalucia, south-west Spain and then aged in the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanluca de la Barrameda or El Puerto de Santa Maria.

Because these grapes (we’ll ignore Moscatel today) produce a pretty boring wine and that in the old days, a lot of it went on long sea voyages (think Christopher Columbus, Sir Francis Drake etc.), the wine is fortified to a higher alcohol percentage (ABV) using wine spirit and then undergoes very specific aging processes, either biological or oxidative (or both) to become the drink Sherry.

Before I go off on one about the aging processes, some of you might be more interested in what these wines actually taste like and whether they were any good or not. Dry Sherries are excellent to drink with tapas, as the spanish would! Sherry is also making some what of a comeback, so read on and impress all your friends with your Sherry knowledge. Here’s a run down on each of the styles and those wines that for me were the stars of the tasting:

1) Fino and Manzanilla – the driest and finest of all sherries, light in colour, biologically aged. Fino is aged in inland Jerez, so hotter and drier, giving a more intense and bolder wine. Manzanilla is aged for longer than most Fino in humid and cooler, coastal Sanlucar, so expect more delicate and salty flavours.

Try: Dry and refined, Gonzalez Byass Delicado Fino, Waitrose, £13.99 50cl. Great with almond stuffed olives.

2) Palo Cortado – my favourite. A Fino gone wrong , but in a good way (in that it underwent some biological aging but will then be switched to oxidative) which gives it a bit more softness and depth.

Try: Creamy and refreshing Solera Jerezana Palo Cortado, Waitrose, £9.75. Try with salty nuts and Jamon Iberico.

3) Amontillado. Another failed Fino, but this time the biological aging never even got going. Nutty and caramel flavours.

4) Oloroso. Oxidative aging all the way to produce a dry, darker, nutty and toffee flavoured wine.

5) Pedro Ximenez. A totally different beast to the others as the PX grapes (the dry wines are Palomino grape) are dried in the sun before pressing so the flavours are intensified. This is a sweet, dark and luscious wine. Chocolate pudding in alcoholic liquid form. Also used to blend with Fino/ Oloroso to produce Cream sherries.

Try: Fernando de Castilla Antique Pedro Jimenez, Italian Continental Stores (Maidenhead), £22.73.

Now, if I still have your attention, here’s more detail (albeit still high level) on the aging process. You have my permission to stop reading 🙂 As I mentioned, I was already aware of the blending system of the ‘Solera’, where wine is aged and blended through a series of ‘criaderas’, or levels of barrels with different aged wines in. The idea is that the wine is drawn from the oldest level or ‘criadera’ of barrels for bottling. Those barrels are then topped up with wine from the next oldest set of barrels, those in turn are topped up….going right up to the brand new wine that tops up the youngest criadera. This guy, Scott Wasley of The Spanish Acquisition explains it a lot better than me.

But before it gets to the Solera, the wine has to be classified between the crisp, elegant, less fruity wine and the richer, rounder, fragrant, textured wine, which will determine whether the wine will be aged ‘biologically’ or ‘oxidatively’, respectively. Oxidative aging, is just that. The wine is aged with exposure to oxygen and is fortified to a higher alcohol content (17%) to kill off any of the yeasts and other components remaining in the wine. Biological aging however relies on the formation of a yeasty cap known as ‘flor’ that develops on the surface of the wine that protects it from oxygen and is therefore fortified to a lower ABV of 15% so as not to kill the yeasts. It doesn’t end there though – what if the flor doesn’t develop properly or it dies off early? I figured the best way to describe the aging process was with the following very simple diagram:


So there you go. Sherry in a nutshell. Yes, I’ve undoubtedly missed something, but after all of my hard work and learning, I thought I’d share. Now go and try some and let me know which one you like best!

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