Sherry is a fortified wine, produced in the southern tip of Spain. The demarcated area around the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María in Andalucia, forms the Denominaciónes de Origen of Jerez-Xérèz-Sherry and Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
How is it Made?
The grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented. The lagriña, or free run juice of grapes from the albariza soils, is invariably used for finos and other musts and the remainder of the press tends to be made into oloroso. PX and moscatel grapes are partially air-dried before fermenting and the wines remain naturally sweet. Classification of the light wines follows for the next six months or so. The classification produces the following wine types:
Wines that are delicate with fine flavours and aroma—suitable for fino and amontillado—fortified to 15 %
Wines that are richer and fuller-bodied—ideal for oloroso— fortified to 17.5 %
Wines that will be allowed to develop before classifying— fortified to 15%
Wines unsuitable for sherry—to be sent for distillation
The sherry is then transferred to 500–600 litre American oak butts. These are filled to 5/6 ths capacity or two-fists from the top ; and will either grow the flor (those with 15 % fortification) and become finos or begin to age oxidatively (those fortified to above 17 %) and become olorosos.
The fortifying alcohol is a blend of 50 % high-strength brandy at 95.5 % abv and 50 % wine at 12 % abv and is known as mitad y mitad, or half and half, giving an average of about 54 % abv. At this first stage the wines are called sobretablas, and can now be used to refill the solera.
The solera system is used to age almost all sherry. The system is comprised of as many rows, criaderas, as the ageing sherry requires—but each individual set of barrels is rarely stacked higher than four on top of one another—and the wine flows down through the scales into one final layer, the solera. Less than 30 % of the solera wine may be siphoned off for blending and bottling in any year. On occasion, wines destined to be oloroso are left as sobretablas and these are known as añada wines, unblended wines of one year.
Thus, the new refreshes the old (and with finos, breathes new life into the older flor) and the old gives character to the new. In this way consistency is achieved and an harmonious balance is created between the structural complexity of age and the freshness and vibrancy brought about by youth.
Sherry Maturation and Development
It is easiest to illustrate the evolution of sherry by describing what it becomes. Wine that grows flor becomes a fino or manzanilla, these age under flor for up to 10-12 years, but can be sold as young as three years old.
Fino A wine that must have experienced flor keeping it pale, delicate and fine. A dry, fresh, aperitif wine with hints of almonds. An ideal accompaniment to fish dishes, olives or on its own. As it ages it becomes softer and can lose its flor, becoming an amontillado.
Manzanilla - A fino aged in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The cooler summer days here promote greater flor growth resulting in wines of even greater finesse and delicacy although less complexity. Lighter and drier than finos these wines quite often pick up a salty tang from the sea air. Older manzanilla becomes a pasada—literally leftovers.
Amontillado - In its true form it is bone dry ; essentially a very old fino or manzanilla. After about a decade the flor dies and the wine subsequently interacts with oxygen gaining colour and a nutty complexity on the palate. Amontillado can live for many decades.
Palo Cortado – A wine that starts off life as a fino but inexplicably loses its flor and develops like an oloroso. The transvestite of the sherry world, this wine combines the elegance of amontillado with the full-body and subtlety of an oloroso ; can age for many years developing great power and persistency.
Wine that has never seen flor is designated either oloroso or raya (inferior) often the basis for blended sherries.
Oloroso – The true oloroso reacts with the oxygen from day one and develops into a big, full-bodied, rich wine with notes of dried fruit and nuts.
Pale Cream – A light, sweetish wine made from lower quality finos and rayas. Normally decoloured to look more attractive.
Medium – A blend of sweetened rayas with the colour and body of amontillado or oloroso, often labelled as such.
Cream – A blend of sweetened olorosos with or without colour ; many of these have great balance and a velvety palate with a touch of PX flavour.
Pedro Ximénez & Moscatel Sherry’s only naturally sweet wines made by sun-drying the grapes thus concentrating the sugars, flavouring elements and acids. The resulting high-sugar level is simply too much for the yeast, which after partially fermenting the must dies, leaving high levels of residual sugar. These wines are then fortified and aged in solera in the usual fashion producing amazing, rich, unctuous, molasses-like wines of great intensity.