Leading American wine critic and expert Robert Parker once referred to Sherry as “…among the last great unknown wine bargains of the world. They must be tasted to be believed!”
My two cents: great Sherry can be amongst the most profound, intellectual, complex, fascinating, delicious and ethereal wine experiences you will find, anywhere. But what is Sherry? What does it taste like? How is it made? What foods does it pair with? And most importantly, why should you drink it?
Today, we’re going to answer these questions by pulling back to curtains and taking an in-depth look at these “unknown wine bargains”. From Albariza to Palo Cortado, from Soleras to Almacenistas, and from Palomino to Jerez de la Frontera, let us walk you through the details central to these magical wines.
So, let’s go ahead and explore the 8 things you absolutely must know about these amazing fortified wines produced in the coastal region of Jerez, in southwestern Spain. By the time you’re done this article, you’ll be a veritable expert on one of the trendiest emerging drinks categories in the world – enjoy!
[ #1. ]
Sherry is Both a Place and a Wine
Much like Champagne, the name Sherry refers to both a place and a style of wine. The word Sherry comes from the word Jerez, a city of just over 200,000 people – and wine region set about 15 km inland from the Atlantic coast. Spain is home to more acres of vineyard than any wine producing country in the world, and of the 2.9 million acres of vines across all of Spain, only a very small proportion (about 25,000 acres) are found in the Sherry-producing region of Jerez.
This beautiful city and region is home to one of the ancient wine-making cultures of the world. Records of wine production in and around Jerez date back to 1100 BC, but it wasn’t until after 700 AD that the region began producing fortified wines, similar to the Sherries we know today.
In short, Sherry is a product that’s had a loyal legion of fans for more than 3,000 years. In fact, on August 10th, 1519, Magellan departed Spain on his famous exploration around the world and a famous story cites him having spent more on Sherry inventory for this long journey than he did on weapons. Here’s hoping they had the foresight to bring some tasty tapas along too!
[ #2. ]
There Are 6 Main Styles of Sherry
So, we’ve established that all Sherries are fortified wines produced in the Jerez region of southwestern Spain, but that’s only half the story. Within the broad category of “Sherry”, we find 6 distinct styles. Each involves slightly different production methods, but the key distinguishing factors tend to revolve mainly around how and for how long these various styles are aged. Here is a brief introduction to the 6 main styles of Sherry:
Completely dry, light, fragrant and floral, more like white wine than what most of us associate with Sherry. Fino Sherries are protected from the air (and oxidation which causes the dark brown colour and nutty flavour generally associated with Sherry) by a naturally occurring yeast called “flor”. A layer of flor grows on the surface of these wines as they are made and in addition to reducing oxidation, also imparts unique flavours to the wine.
Fino generally has a lower level of alcohol than other Sherry and is usually released to market much younger than other expressions. You’ll want to pair these up with traditional simple salty Tapas like olives, salted almonds or light fish and seafood dishes.
This is Fino’s “brother from another mother” – a dry style of Sherry much like Fino, but produced in the coastal regions of the Sherry producing zone, and tends to be even lighter and fresher in profile than Fino. Because of the proximity to the ocean, the flor that grows on Manzanilla is known for imparting a distinctly salty, briny sets of flavours and smells that you’d typically associated with the sea itself.
When it comes to food pairings, this guy is pure magic with seafood and fish dishes; as far as I’m concerned, the simpler the better. Try it with white fish preparations “a la plancha” – with just a bit of oil, salt and lemon juice, and you’ll find yourself in a happy place!
Also bottled dry, this is simply a Fino Sherry which has been aged before it is released to market. Rather than bottling up the light, delicate and fresh Fino as early as possible, Sherry bodegas set aside some of the Fino, put it into barrels and allow it to age – sometimes, for a very long time – before bottling.
The aging process changes the wine, imparting a distinctly amber colour, with flavours and aromas of ripened tree fruit like golden delicious apple and pear, with more subtle wood and raisin elements. This wine is a perfect partner for umami rich foods like mushrooms or aged cheeses, and is a lovely tipple with tapas showcasing green vegetables like asparagus or artichoke.
A rarity. Palo Cortado is a dry style of Sherry that started its life destined to become Fino, including the growth of Flor on the surface of the wine. At some point along the way, the winemaker determines that this wine has a richness and profile that isn’t in line with the super-freshness that they’re looking for in the production of Fino. This Sherry is then immediately fortified (the addition of brandy – or grape spirit) which kills off the flor and the wine is put into barrel for extended aging.
This style offers the elegance and finesse of an Amontillado combined with the richness and body of an Oloroso (whose profile comes next, immediately below). The flavours and aromas are rich and complex with fragrant aromatic spices, vanilla and dark chocolate. Prepare to be amazed when you serve this style with rich charcuterie (pates, foie or terrines) or with full-flavoured soups like beef or mushroom consommé.
Here’s the final style of dry sherry. Unlike Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado and Palo Cortado, this style was not aged under flor. Rather, early in its life it was selected, for its richness and body and complexity to be set aside for extended aging in barrel. Of the dry styles of Sherry, this is the one that is generally aged for the longest period of time before release to market. It isn’t uncommon for Oloroso to be aged for 20 years or more before being bottled – and when one considers that its often sold for less than $20 per bottle, these ancient, pure, intense, fragrant wines are offer absolutely stunning value.
Oloroso offers up a dark bronze colour with smoky rich flavours and subtle dark chocolate and toasted nuts. This style of Sherry is a perfect choice with rich braised meat dishes like Osso Bucco, or served as a digestif.
Finally we come to the sole style of “sweet Sherry”. This name is a little misleading, as Cream Sherry contains no dairy product whatsoever. Rather, this style involves yet another specific production process, altogether. Wines are produced through one of two methods: (i) they are barely (or never) fermented and find their alcohol content through fortification (or the addition of pure grape spirit/brandy to unfermented or lightly-fermented grape juice) or (ii) the addition of unfermented grape juice to aged Oloroso Sherry. These blends are then put into barrel – and aged, sometimes for a very, very long time.
The result is a style of deeply flavoured, super-concentrated and decadent sweet wine that can best be described out a raising or pecan pie, in a glass. This wine is made to pair with the fullest flavoured cheese and boldly flavoured desserts – especially anything showcasing chocolate.
[ #3. ]
Not All Sherries Are Sweet – Most Are Dry
One of the most common misconceptions out there about Sherry is that it is a sweet sipper – or dessert style wine. As you can probably now see, from the summaries above, only one of the six major categories of Sherry are actually sweet. With this in mind, the various bone-dry expressions, from light, floral and delicate examples of Fino or Manzanilla, through the rich, amber well-aged Amontillado, Palo Cortado or Oloroso expressions, dry Sherries encompass an amazingly diverse range of flavours, profiles and food pairing possibilities.
[ #4. ]
Dry Sherry is Made from the Palomino Grape
Dry Sherry is made from a very specialized grape variety called Palomino, which is grown almost exclusively in the Jerez region of Spain. There are very few other places in the world where this grape is grown, and it is virtually never used to make any other kind of wine besides dry Sherry. Palomino is a thin-skinned white grape, which produces very light, delicate and not overly-aromatic juice.
Much like other grape varieties with less inherent aromatic qualities, Sherry wines made from Palomino rely on process to impart flavours and aromas. Chardonnay is an example of another grape which, like Palomino, has less aromatics than other white grapes (like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling) and hence Chardonnay is often enhanced with fermentation or aging in oak barrels to bring complexity and intrigue, a similar but unique aging process is employed in the production of Sherry with the same objectives in mind.
[ #5. ]
Sherry is One of the Best Wines to Pair With Food
Sherry is truly one of the great food wines of the world. From the lighter delicate Manzanilla and Fino style Sherries served alongside incredible fresh maritime-inspired seafood and fish dishes, to Amontillado or Palo Cortado with cured meats (like Spanish Jamon!) and rich terrines, firm cheeses like aged Cheddar or Manchego, and lovely salty tapas including olives and salted almonds, right through to full-flavoured braised and grilled meat dishes – especially beef and pork – with Oloroso, Sherry as a single category of wines offers unmatched food-pairing potential.
Celebrated and world-renowned Chef Heston Blumenthal is widely regarded as one of the most insightful culinary minds anywhere as it relates to the science of cooking, eating and drinking. In recent years, he has taken an interest in Sherry – and the way it interacts with food. Through his research, he has discovered a group of chemical compounds called “diketopiperazines” (DKPs for short) which enhance umami (the recently added fifth flavour).
Effectively, Blumenthal argues, that these DKPs in Sherry accentuate and increase the umami experience in umami-rich foods like shitake mushrooms, parmesan cheese, fish and meat. Moral of this story: Umami is known as the “delicious taste” – so if you want to super-charge your umami experience, drink sherry and life will be more delicious!
[ #6. ]
Sherry Owes Some of Its Magic to Very Special Soils
Barros, Arenas and Albariza: these are the three categories of soils within the Jerez region, each playing an important role in crafting Sherry wines. Barros and Arenas soil types are planted primarily to vineyards growing grapes to be used in the production of sweet or cream style Sherry. But when it comes to Palomino (and the grapes going into the various dry expressions), Albariza is king.
Albariza is a chalk-rich, glowing white soil which is prized across the appellation for a couple of key reaons: (i) this soil forms a sort of hard, crusty surface layer which helps the soils beneath retain moisture, and (ii) the white soils reflects sunlight back up onto the vines above and encourages vegetative growth and better fruit maturity. This Albariza soil, in particular, is quite unique, and not common in other winegrowing regions around the world.
[ #7. ]
Sherry Is an Amazing Ingredient for Use in Cocktails
So, we’ve touched on the styles, flavours, production and food pairings for this amazing wine, but we haven’t yet talked about one of the trendiest and fastest-growing uses for these magic elixirs from southwestern Spain. Dry Sherries are becoming a staple on the bars of better eating and drinking establishments across North America and are being showcases in a growing number of craft cocktails. From the use of cream Sherry in Manhattans, to Fino as an alternative to vodka in Caesars (yup, tomatoes are another umami-rich good, in case you’re keeping score), Sherry is being used in a myriad of iterations in drinks served at a growing number of establishments. Want to learn more – check out our Sherry Cocktail Recipe Directory.
[ #8. ]
Sherry is Aged in a Unique System Called a “Solera”
Solera is a term you will see commonly referenced on Sherry labels, and is the perfect place to wrap up our primer on Sherry, given the central role that the process of aging plays in the names, tastes and history of Sherry wines. A “Solera” is a blending and aging system, commonly used by producers making beer, wine, Port, Madeira, whisky, brandy, balsamic vinegar – and yes, of course, Sherry. This concept has been more literally described as “fractional blending”.
Barrels of Sherry are stacked several barrels high. Young Sherry fed into the top barrels, and the final product is pulled from the bottom barrels, where the oldest Sherries are found. Each time a Sherry producer is ready to bottle, they only take a portion of the contents of each barrel along the bottom row. A small amount of Sherry is fed down from each of the barrels above to replace the contents taken from the barrel beneath it. At the end of each year, the top row of barrels are replenished with new wine, and the process continues. This approach creates a continuity of style from year to year and is the reason why Sherry produced through this Solera system is not vintage (year) specific.
This slow aging and blending process is quite unique, and is an important art form that in many ways contributes to the final flavour profile of a given Sherry. Managing a Solera system is a skill that requires years to master, and even the slightest variation in approach and philosophy contributes to the difference in final products produced at various Sherry bodegas.