Sherry is Spanish fortified wine made only from white grapes, and to be able to be called Sherry the grapes and the production should take place in the Sherry triangle in the Andalucía region of southern Spain.
It is the weather, or to be more precise, the combination of the sun, the wind and the soil, that makes the Sherry triangle (Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria) and the surrounding areas such a great location for both growing grapes and storing them. The area gets almost 300 days of sun each year and around 70 days of rain. During the dry, hot summers, the wind from the ocean brings enough moisture to the vineyards and the clay in the soil keeps the water under the surface. Each area has its own microclimate, which adds further to the characteristics of the Sherry produced and stored there. The sea wind in Sanlúcar, for example, can add fresh salty notes to the final product.
There are three different grape varieties used for Sherry production: Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. Palomino is the most commonly used of these and is mainly used for the production of dry Sherry. Palomino’s neutral characteristics are better suited for Sherry production than wine making as the wine would taste bland.
When Palomino is used, the grapes are harvested fresh and pressed almost immediately. The first juice is used for Sherry and the last for Brandy. Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes are left in the sun for hours, or even days, so they lose some of the moisture and gain more sweetness. It goes without saying that these grapes are used for the sweeter Sherries. The grapes start to look like raisins after losing moisture and pressing these will require higher-pressure methods.
After the pressing, the grape juice is stored in stainless-steel vats where it starts to ferment naturally. When the juice from the Palomino grapes has used all the sugars to process alcohol the result is a base wine similar to dry white wine. The fermentation for Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel is cut short as these varieties will need some of the sugars later on in the process.
After the fermentation, the wines are sampled and marked. The cellar master will taste through the wines and separate the lighter wines from the heavier, more full-bodied wines. The master will mark each cask to indicate which Sherry the base wine should be used for. Below are the markings used:
/ indicates a light base wine which is to be used for Fino and Amontillado
/. means heavier wine and is used for Oloroso
// indicates that the wine needs to develop further and it will be decided later which Sherry it is to be used for
/// indicates that the wine is poor and should be distilled
Each base wine is fortified with Brandy. Brandy is mixed with aged Sherry, usually in a 50:50 ratio, before it is added to the new wine. The more delicate wines are fortified at around 15% ABV. This allows the yeast, flor, to grow and protect the wine. All the other wines are fortified up to 17–18% ABV, which kills the yeast. These wines will be aged with air.
The fortified wine is stored in 600 litre American oak barrels. The barrel is never filled to the top as the wine will need room to breathe or to develop yeast. There are two way to age Sherry wines, biological and oxidation. Biological ageing means that the wine is only fortified up to 15% ABV to allow yeast to develop. The yeast then grows a layer on top of the wine to protect it from the air. Oxidation means the wine will age by being in contact with the air. Normally when you make wine the final product is ruined if it come in contact with air, but when you let it mature for years or even decades the final product is well balanced and rich in flavour.
Some Sherries are made using both methods. Sometimes the flor is disturbed and removed so that the wine will be in contact with the air to become Amontillado. In this case, the wine needs to be refortified to up to 18% ABV to avoid more yeast growing. But when the lack of flor is unexpected the Fino will have to be refortified and aged with air to become another type of Sherry, Palo Cortado. Palo Cortado only develops accidentally, therefore it is not widely available. The taste is somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso.
Blending – Solera method
Blending is the most important part of the whole production and should always be made the same way to keep the quality consistent. Different ageing levels are blended together in a special way. This specific blending method is called solera.
The barrels are arranged in groups on top of each other, in tiers called criaderas. Each criadera contains wine of the same age. They take a small amount from the bottom barrel to be bottled – this is the oldest liquid. Then the same amount is replaced with wine from the next oldest barrel, and that one is then replaced from the next criadera, and so on until the youngest one. The youngest criadera contains the new wine, which is called sobretabla.
Each time the wine is taken using a specific tool, a canoe, whose purpose is to disturb the flor as little as possible. The flor will then close the hole on its own soon after the wine has been taken. By law, the maximum amount that can be taken out at one time is 35% of the barrel size; however, normally 10–15% is taken out and replaced. This movement normally happens only a few times a year, although the wine cellars, bodegas, keep the exact numbers a secret. It also varies according to each Sherry type.
It is the bottom barrels that will contain the final Sherry to be bottled. Confusingly, the bottom tier of barrels is also called the solera. The bottling will be done from one solera at a time, rather than taking some from all of them at once, so this process is spread over different times. Please see the picture below that I’ve made to clarify the movement.
The number of tiers on the solera system depend on which Sherry is being made. Fino criaderas, for example, varies from three to seven, and Manzanilla normally starts from nine. The final bottled Sherry will be a blend of many different ages. By law, the minimum age is three years; however, pretty much all the Sherries are much much older.
Fino – very dry, fresh, nutty, aged two to ten years, pale colour
Manzanilla – dry, light, fresh, fruity, slightly salty, similar to Fino
Amontillado – dry, darker in colour, nutty, rich taste
Oloroso – dry, spicy, dark in colour, rich taste, raisins, aged from five up to 25 years
Pedro Ximenez – sweetest Sherry, dried fruit (raisin, fig, date) flavours – think Christmas; grapes are partially dried in the sun before pressing
Cream – blended Sherry (Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez) brown colour, sweet but fruity
Each type has more sub-categories, for example Manzanilla may be Manzanilla Pasada, Manzanilla Amantillada or Manzanilla Olorosa, depending on the length of maturation.
Sherry should be stored in a cool, dark place standing up, as the high alcohol content may break the cork. The Sherry type will affect how long it can be stored, but it is recommended to consume it as soon as possible after bottling. Once opened, it won’t last long – lighter Sherries should be consumed within a week of opening, while darker, sweeter ones can last up to two months. Please see the Getting lost in Spain’s Sherry triangle article for more details on how to store and serve Sherry.