Gastronomy - Jerez Sherry

Sherry from Jerez de la Frontera. © Michelle Chaplow
Sherry from Jerez de la Frontera.

Spanish Sherry

Few things can beat Sherry as a pre-meal aperitif. Ever since Sir Francis Drake ransacked the port of Cádiz in 1587 and made off with 3,000 barrels of Sherry, the British have been addicted to the stuff, and continue to be the main international clients. But they favour the so called "cream" Sherry, to which sugar or grape juice is added as a sweetener, while Spaniards prefer the bone-dry, crystal-clear fino, consumed with particular enthusiasm at feria time. Other types of Sherry include oloroso, amontillado, palo cortado, and sweet Pedro Ximenez.

Sherry can only be made in one place, the area lying between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María and San Lucar de Barrameda in the province of Cádiz, the so called Sherry Triangle. The secret is the combination of soil (the chalky, crumbly, moisture-retaining albariza), the damp climate which encourages the growth of the flor (a coat of yeast that forms on the aging wine and prevents it from oxidising) and the solera system used to blend the different vintages.

Within the category of dry Sherry there is Manzanilla, which is made exclusively in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Some drinkers swear they can detect a hint of sea in this wine, due to the proximity of the ocean (though this is more true of the variety known as Manzanilla Pasada, which locals favour but which is rarely available elsewhere). In fact, the higher humidity in San Lucar, which is next door to the marshes of Doñana, allows the flor to flourish year round. In other areas of Jerez, the yeast often dies down with the arrival of hot dry weather. Thus, Manzanilla is even drier and paler than other Sherries.

In all there are more than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of vineyards in the Jerez region, where the predominant grape is the Palomino, named after a 13th-century Spanish knight. Grown elsewhere, the Palomino is a singularly undistinguished grape and is prone to oxidation (darkening and spoiling), but due to the magic combination of soil and the prevailing humidity which allows the growth of the protective flor yeast, Sherry acquires its exceptional dryness and earthy aroma.

Like Port, Sherry is a "fortified" wine, meaning that extra alcohol is added to bring its alcohol content up to around 16 percent volume.

After the grapes are harvested in early September, they are crushed to make a still white wine. This ages for about two years before being put through the criadera and solera system, by which the sherries of different years are blended to ensure that the finished product is of consistent quality. Put in its simplest terms, rows of barrels are stacked in layers. A portion of wine, destined for bottling, is drawn off from the bottom row, called the "solera", which contains the oldest blend. These barrels are topped off with wine from the row immediately above, and so on to the top row of barrels, which are replenished with the most recent wine, that which has aged for a couple of years. For this reason, most Sherries are not vintage wines, being blends from different harvests. In exceptional years, some wine might be set aside for aging separately as Vintage Sherry, which is rare and correspondingly expensive.

HISTORY OF SHERRY

History of Sherry – An interesting article on the history of sherry.

Sherry – An overview of Sherry by Mark Little.


Types of Sherry

Fino: clear and perfectly dry, with an earthy aroma of almonds, fino is served chilled as an an aperitif wine, often accompanied by nuts or tapas such as jamón serrano (cured ham). Fino sherry is best drunk shortly after bottling, so buy from a reliable source. The top selling brands are Tio Pepe (Gonzalez Byass) and La Ina (Domecq).

Manzanilla: this is the fino Sherry made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is even drier and paler than other finos, and within Spain it outsells other dry sherries. The best known brands are La Guita (from Hijos de Rainer Perez Marin) and La Gitana (Vinícola Hidalgo). Manzanilla Pasada, favoured by locals in Sanlúcar, is slightly darker, saltier and less refined.

Oloroso: The layer of flor yeast is thin, or absent, in this Sherry as it ages, and thus there is a partial oxidation which accounts for the wine's darker colour. Oloroso is a rich amber, with an aroma of hazelnuts, and it makes an exceptional aperif, especially with cured ham. It is also one of the few wines which can stand up to such difficult-to-match foods as eggs, artichokes and asparagus. The best olorosos - that is, the oldest - include the legendary Matusalém (González Byass) .

Amontillados: Named after the wine-making town of Montilla (Córdoba), this Sherry is often described as being mid-way between a fino and an oloroso, with some of the qualities of both. It starts out the same as a fino, but the layer of flor yeast is allowed to die off. It is therefore darker in colour. The better ones can be extraordinary. Well known labels include Amontillado 51-1 (Domecq) and Amontillado del Duque (González Byass).

Palo Cortado: In Jerez, they say this is a wine that you can't make - it just happens. It starts out as a fino, but the flor yeast fails to develop. A rare treat, it has an aroma reminiscent of an amontillado, while its colour is closer to oloroso. One of the best is the 60 year old Sibarita (Domecq).

Cream Sherry: This is a big favourite among drinkers outside Spain, especially in Great Britain, Holland and Germany. It results when you take oloroso Sherry (or fino, in the case of pale cream) and sweeten it. This is traditionally done by mixing in a measure of Pedro Ximenez, a naturally sweet wine, but many creams are made with fructose or grape concentrate. It makes an interesting dessert wine, and is a good companion for pâtés. The best selling brands are Harvey's Bristol Cream and Crofts.

Pedro Ximenez, or PX: This naturally sweet wine is named after the grape variety, which is widely grown in other Andalusian wine regions. At worst it can be overly sweet and cloying, but when made and aged with care (factors which are reflected in the price) it is elegant and velvety, great with dessert and even better on its own. Gran Orden PX from Garveys is considered one of the best wines in Spain.

Brandy de Jerez: Jerez produces 90 percent of the brandy in Spain. It is made by aging wine spirits in casks which have previously been used to age Sherry. The spirits are not made from grapes grown in Jerez, but come from other regions, especially Extremadura, La Mancha and neighbouring Huelva. It is sweeter and more caramelised than French brandy, syrupy if of the basic variety, warm and mouth-filling at its best. Price is a good indicator of quality.