What is Sherry Wine? Thought to be one of the oldest wines in the world, Sherry dates back to the Moorish occupation of Andalusia in the 13th century. When Sir Francis Drake raided the port of Cádiz in 1587, he returned to England with around 3,000 barrels of Sherry wine, which is said to have started the British love affair with Sherry.
A Guide to Sherry Wine
This guide to Sherry delves into what exactly Sherry is, where it comes from, which grapes it’s made from, how it’s made, different types of Sherry, food pairings, whether Sherry should be served warm or cold, how long Sherry can last once it’s opened, and more.
What Exactly is Sherry Wine?
Sherry is a fortified wine that originates from Andalusia, Spain. There are many different types of Sherry, ranging from light table-like wine to darker and heavier styles, but all are made from white grapes, with the Palomino grape being the primary grape used in production.
Most Sherry tastes nutty or like dried fruit, though sweetness levels greatly vary depending on the Sherry type.
Where Does Sherry Come From?
Sherry comes from the D.O.P. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, which is located near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz, Andalusia, on the country’s southern coast. In fact, Sherry gets its name from the anglicization of the word Xérès (Jerez).
Jerez was designated a D.O.P. (Denominación de Origen Protegida) in 1933. In Spain, wine labeled with “Sherry” must legally only come from the Sherry Triangle, which is an area of Cádiz located between the three points of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
The climate around Jerez is largely predictable, with around 70 days of rainfall and 300 days of sun annually, and the majority of rainfall occurring between October and May. Summer temperatures can climb to 40 degrees Celsius, but ocean breezes help cool in the vineyards and provide morning moisture.
Jerez has three soil types best suited for grape-growing in relation to Sherry production. The albariza soil is the best for growing Palomino grapes and 40% of grapes used in Sherry production must come from albariza soil according to Spanish law.
Albariza soil is light and white, comprised of around 40% chalk, plus sand and clay, the latter of which helps retain moisture. Not only is this soil type absorbent and compact, maximizing Jerez’s limited rainfall, it can also reflect sunlight, which aids in photosynthesis as the sunlight is reflected up the vine.
The two other soil types are barros (dark brown, 10% chalk, high clay content) and arenas (yellowish, 10% chalk, high sand content), which are mostly used for Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes.
What Grape Is Sherry Made From?
The Palomino grape is the traditional and most popular grape variety used to produce Sherry, accounting for around 90% of all Sherry production.
This Vitis vinifera grape is native to Spain but is also grown in the Canary Islands, Galicia, South Africa, Australia, California, as well as the Douro region of Portugal. The grape is also known by other names in different places e.g. Listán in France and Fransdruif (White French) in South Africa.
In Spain, the Palomino grape is split into three sub-varieties: Palomino Fino, Palomino Basto, and Palomino de Jerez, with Palomino Fino being the most significant, as this is the sub-variety used to make Sherry.
Palomino is one of the most common grape varieties in Spain, with around 50,000 acres planted. When this grape is fermented, the dry wine produced is low in both acidity and sugar, which isn’t ideal for table wines, but is perfect for Sherry.
Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel
Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel grapes are two grapes used to make Jerez Dulce (Sweet Sherries). The grapes are dried in the sun for two days before production, which makes for a thick, dark, and intensely sweet dessert Sherry with flavors of raisins and molasses.
Pedro Ximénez was brought to Australia in 1832 and is used today to produce Apera, a Sherry-style fortified dessert wine.
Muscat of Alexandria, also known as Moscatel, is one of the oldest genetically unmodified vines still in existence. The grape is originally from Egypt and the ancient Egyptians used it for winemaking, mostly for table wines. In southern Italy, Moscatel is grown and known as Zibibbo.
In Spain, Moscatel is one of the most popular grape varieties grown, with the majority of grape-growing in Málaga, Alicante, Valencia, and the Canary Islands. The grape is also grown significantly in Australia and South Africa.
How is Sherry Made?
The process starts with the grapes being harvested and pressed immediately. The pressing is done in different stages, with different pressures and specifications each time. The first pressing produces the highest quality grape juice, while the last is only suited for distilling into brandy.
Next is the fermentation process. The musts are filtered and the pH is corrected, then the liquid is treated with sulphur dioxide to prevent bacterial contamination. Historically, the grape juices would ferment naturally in wooden barrels, but in modern times stainless steel tanks heated to 23-25 degrees Celsius are preferred, though there are still a few bodegas producing Sherry the traditional way.
A small amount of already-fermenting must is added to the juices to help speed up initial fermentation, after which the process passes through two phases: tumultuous and slow fermentation. Once all the sugars are converted into alcohol, a base wine is ready and a natural layer of flor will occur.
Fortification & Classification
The lees are filtered off and the musts are classified into fine, delicate wines and courser wines. The most delicate are fortified to 15-15.4% alcohol by adding a neutral grape spirit, then are aged biologically under a layer of flor, without any contact with oxygen.
The courser wines are fortified to 17-18% alcohol, which kills the flor and leads the wine to oxidative maturation due to contact with air, producing Oloroso Sherry (see below).
After a short maturation period, the wines are put into a solera for two years. The solera is a complex hierarchal barrel system that matures wine using a large number of casks and fractional blending. The barrels are arranged in tiers known as criaderas, or nurseries.
A fraction of wine is extracted from the oldest wine for bottling (maximum 30%), then is replaced by the same amount of wine from the next oldest, and so on and so forth. The youngest wine already in the solera is then topped up with the new wine from the latest harvest.
This takes place between four and six times a year, depending on the activity of the flor. Once done manually, now it’s more common for the process to be automated, though some traditional bodegas still go through the process by hand.
The solera y criadera method means that Sherry does not have a vintage, but is rather a mix of many vintages, so the age of the wine is often estimated. The minimum average age of a Sherry is two years, but most are older, usually around four years.
Once Sherry is taken out of the solera, it is usually filtered, cold stabilized, and sometimes fortified again to meet the required alcohol volume. It may also be blended.
Types of Sherry Wine
If you ask for a Sherry in an Andalusian bar, you may get a strange look. You need to ask for a type. Here’s what you need to know:
Fino (fine) – Fino Sherry is the driest and palest form of Sherry. It is aged in barrels under a cap of flor yeast, which protects it from contact with air. The alcohol content is between 15-17% and sugar content must be no more than five grams per liter.
Manzanilla – Manzanilla Sherry is a light style of Fino Sherry from the Sanlúcar de Barrameda area. The alcohol content is between 15-17% and sugar content must be no more than five grams per liter.
Manzanilla Pasada – This is a Manzanilla Sherry that has been further aged or partially oxidized. This gives the Sherry a richer and nuttier taste. Alcohol content is between 15-17% and sugar content must be no more than five grams per liter.
Amontillado – The Amontillado Sherry is first aged under a cap of flor yeast, then it’s exposed to oxygen. This produces a naturally dry Sherry that is darker than Fino, but light than Olorosa (see below). The alcohol content is between 16-17% and sugar content must be no more than five grams per liter.
Oloroso (scented) – This Oloroso Sherry has been aged oxidatively for a longer period than either a Fino or an Amontillado, which makes the wine dark and rich. Oloroso wines have the highest alcohol content of all Sherry types, ranging between 17-22%.
Although Olorosos are naturally dry, you may see them sold as sweet Cream Sherry, which can be a blend of different Sherries, such as Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez (PX).
- Dry Sherry must have an alcohol content of 15-22% and contains five to 45 grams of sugar per liter.
- Pale Cream Sherry must have an alcohol content of 15.5-22% and contains 45-115 grams of sugar per liter.
- Medium Sherry has an alcohol content of 15.5-22% and contains 115-140 grams of sugar per liter.
- Cream Sherry has an alcohol content between 15.5-22% and must have between 115-140 grams of sugar per liter.
Palo Cortado – This Sherry follows the aging process of an Amontillado (between three and four years), but then becomes closer to an Oloroso accidentally, either because the flor dies or is killed by the fortification and filtration.
Jerez Dulce (Sweet Sherries) – These are made from dried Pedro Ximénez (PX) or Moscatel grapes. The sherry is a dark brown or even black in color. Alcohol content is between 15-22% and sugar content must be more than 160 grams per liter for Moscatel and 212 grams per liter for Pedro Ximénez.
Cooking Sherry – This is Sherry that is strictly meant to be added to food only. It is made using a low-quality Sherry wine, then salt and other preservatives are added to make it last for months after it’s opened. The sodium level is around 180mg per serving, and gives dishes a sweeter, nutty taste.
What Foods Should I Pair with Sherry Wine?
Sherry ranges from extremely dry to extremely sweet, therefore food pairings truly depend on the Sherry type. The sweeter it is, the easier it is to drink without food. There’s a catchy saying to remember when you’re pairing Sherry: if it swims, Fino and Manzanilla; if it flies, Amontillado; if it runs, Oloroso!
Fino and Manzanilla are particularly good with salty dishes. Fino works well with tomato-based plates, gazpacho, salmorejo, jamon, queso, roasted peppers, fish in sauce, nuts, salads, and soups. Manzanilla is good with anything vinegary, such as anchovies. It also pairs well with shellfish, olives, fried fish, and raw fish.
Amontillado is a great choice for rice dishes, especially those with vegetables and chicken, particularly asparagus and artichokes. Oloroso is great with red meat and pairs well with burgers, pork, beef, lamb, ham, and aged cheeses.
Cream Sherries are sweet and pair best with fruity, creamy desserts featuring citrus, as well as cheesecakes, nut-based cakes, and arroz con leche. PX Sherries are the sweetest option and therefore work best with dark chocolate, coffee, and blue cheeses. Vanilla or chocolate ice cream with PX poured on top makes for a delicious dessert.
Do You Drink Sherry Warm or Cold?
Fino and Manzanilla should be served chilled, but with other types it comes down to personal preference.
How Long Can Sherry Last Once Open?
Fino and Manzanillas are made without oxygen, therefore the first air exposure the wine has is when you open a bottle. Therefore, Sherry should be treated like any other wine.
More Things to Know About Sherry
We hope this guide to Sherry has opened your eyes to the complexity of this fortified wine, which is often stereotyped as a cooking wine or a sweet dessert wine.
Have you tried Sherry before? Do you have a favorite type of Sherry or any brand recommendations? What do you think of our food pairings and have you any suggestions to add? Let us know in the comments below.
You may also enjoy:
- The 15 Best Wines of Spain by Region
- WHAT IS PROSECCO 101 – THE ULTIMATE GUIDE
- Top 7 Dry White Wine You Should Try
- Cheers To International Wine Days
- Exclusive Croatian Wine in Ontario Canada