Sherry. A product as delicious and interesting as it is difficult to interpret. The production process is characterized by being long and extremely meticulous. Barrel aging, which also varies in length, is a delicate and decisive moment. The formation of the so-called “Velo de Flor,” the interaction of the wine with oxygen that creates a continuous enrichment especially in complexity. A unique versatility that makes Sherry a perfect match for numerous dishes, from appetizers to desserts. And these are just some of the characteristics we will explore shortly. There is a hidden world inside the word Sherry and today we will try to explore it to discover all its secrets.

What do we mean when we talk about Sherry?

Let's start from a fundamental point: what is Sherry? We're in Andalusia, the southernmost point of Europe. It's a land of passage for great merchants and travelers who, as early as the 1500s, exported and introduced Jerez wine, also known as "Sherris Sack," especially in England. "Jerez-Xeres-Sherry" refers to a fortified wine, more or less sweet, of which there are numerous types that we'll delve into shortly. It's an extremely versatile wine that can be paired with a wide variety of dishes, certainly desserts but also fish-based and others. The world of Sherry is vast and intricate, so it's best to proceed one step at a time. Let's start with the production zone.

Production zone, soil characteristics, grape varieties

The origin region of Sherry, Jerez, is located in the southern part of Spain and northeast of the province of Cadiz.

There are 9 locations that can boast the Denomination of Origin: Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Chiclana de la Frontera, Chipiona, Puerto Real, Rota, Trebujena and Lebrija.

Each of these locations, with its particular climatic conditions, influenced by the sea and the Guadalquivir and Guadalete rivers, gives Sherry its own peculiarities and different characteristics.

The main ones are undoubtedly Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Due to their geographical position, they form what is called the "Sherry Triangle".

The climate of this region, being in the southernmost part of Europe, is characterized by relatively high average temperatures throughout the year, with hot springs and summers and mild winters with plenty of rainfall, which positively influences vine growth.

The composition of the soils in the Jerez region is also peculiar and crucial in Sherry production. "Albariza" is a white soil composed mainly of Calcium Carbonate (about 40%), but also clay and silicon. Albariza has a high water absorption capacity. During the winter, with the numerous rains, good water reserves are created, which are fundamental during the hot and dry summers for the survival of the plants. The grape varieties allowed in Sherry production are Palomino (the most used, including the sub-variety Palomino Fino), Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. Palomino has a long, cylindrical-conical cluster, of medium compactness. The berries are spherical, medium-sized, with thin skin and a greenish-yellow color. They are juicy, fragile berries, with lightly colored juice, sweet, and flavorful. It is a variety well adapted to the area, being less vulnerable to different pests. Pedro Ximénez, on the other hand, is a variety characterized by higher acidity and sugar content. It is very suitable for the production of sweet wines. For this purpose, the grapes are often subjected to the practice called "Asoleo," which consists of exposing them to the sun to concentrate their sugars. Moscatel also has a rather significant sugar content, making it perfect for the production of sweet wines. This grape develops best in areas closer to the coast and the sea.

Winemaking process

The production and winemaking process, at least in the initial stages, follows a rather "normal" development. After the harvest, the grapes are generally selected and pressed.

Pressing yields the must called "yema" in Spanish. The "Primera Yema" or flower must is of superior quality and has the necessary characteristics to produce wines suitable for biological aging, known as "crianza" in Spanish. The subsequent must, or "de segunda yema", is generally more structured and richer in solid parts, making it suitable for wines that will undergo oxidative aging.

It is during the fermentation process that the first peculiarities emerge.

  • DRY WINE: In general, when fermentation is fully completed (which is the case for Palomino grapes), the resulting wine is dry and low in acidity. This can be marketed as regular wine or, after undergoing a fortification process, become Generoso or dry Sherry.
  • SWEET WINE: Sweet wines are produced from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grape varieties. Unlike Palomino grapes, these grapes undergo a process called "Asoleo", which involves sun-drying the clusters. As the grapes lose water, they undergo a concentration of sugars. It's a delicate process, conducted with extreme care: the clusters are manually rotated every day to ensure uniform drying, and at night, they are covered to prevent moisture from affecting them. Once dried, the grapes are pressed, and the dense, viscous must begins its slow fermentation. In this case, the fermentation process is not completed but stopped through fortification. Fortification involves increasing the alcohol content (which inhibits the action of yeast) by adding alcohol, always of vitivinicultural origin. The result is a wine with a significant sugar content.

Fortification

The fortification of the musts, done by adding alcohol, is carried out based on tastings by expert tasters called "Bodegueros" who will divide the products into two groups:

  • The lighter and more refined wines, usually from the early pressing stages of the grapes, are mostly destined for aging as "Finos or Manzanilla". The reference barrels for these wines are marked with a typical sign, which is a slanted vertical line. These wines are fortified until they reach an alcohol content of 15°.
  • The other wines, generally more structured, are destined for aging as "Olorosos". The reference barrels for these wines are marked with a typical sign, which is a circle. These wines are fortified until they reach an alcohol content of at least 17°.

This operation plays a fundamental role in the subsequent aging period of the wine. An alcohol content of around 15° prevents the development of harmful microorganisms but instead promotes the growth and spread of beneficial yeasts, which are responsible for the formation of the typical "Flor veil".

On the other hand, reaching an alcohol content of 17° or higher inhibits the formation and activity of any microorganism, and the wine will be exposed to the action of oxygen in a type of aging called "Crianza Oxidativa" or oxidative aging.

Aging or Crianza

We've talked a lot about "Crianza", but what does it mean? In short, "Crianza" refers to aging. The wine has been transferred to barrels after tastings by the Bodegueros, and here two scenarios unfold.

The first scenario refers to those wines destined for biological aging, conducted in contact with the "flor veil" that protects them from contact with oxygen.

The "Flor veil" is a true veil, a layer that forms on the surface of the wine and is made up of microorganisms, especially yeasts. These are not the same yeasts that conduct fermentation but rather yeasts that, over the long history of Jerez wines, have established themselves in the environment, in the cellars, and in the barrels.

These particular yeasts tolerate the alcohol in the wine, indeed they exploit it, in combination with oxygen, to survive. This metabolism results in the reproduction of the microorganisms themselves and the formation of additional compounds such as acetaldehydes, which are imparted to the wine.

The ideal conditions for the proliferation and "blooming" of this veil are the right temperature and the right level of humidity in the environment. The environment is crucial, which is why wines from Jerez, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda are extraordinarily different.

The other type of aging is called "Crianza Oxidativa", or oxidative aging, and it occurs when the alcohol levels are higher and do not favor the development of flor yeasts, and the wine remains in contact with oxygen. In any case, aging must last for at least two years, but in most cases, this period is much longer.

The traditional aging system to which Jerez wines are subjected is also peculiar. It's called the "Criaderas y Soleras" system and involves blending different masses of wine from different vintages. Let's use the image here to help.

The barrels are stacked as shown in the picture. The barrels positioned lower form the so-called "Solera" and contain the wine destined for sale. This wine is the result of blending the wine from the barrels on the "upper floor," or "1st Criadera". The barrels from the 1st Criadera, from which the wine was taken to fill the Solera, are in turn filled with those from the 2nd Criadera... and so on. As we move up, we find younger wine.

The result is a very complex blend of different vintages. 

Classification of Jerez wines

If the discussion so far has seemed complicated, wait until you read about how many types of Sherry exist. The classification is based primarily on the sugar content of the wine, but not only that. The alcohol content is also important, and above all, the aging process.

  • Fino: as with Manzanilla, Fino is a dry wine obtained exclusively from Palomino grapes and undergoes biological aging under the flor veil for at least two years. The chosen barrels are those made of American oak. Fino Sherry is extremely versatile in pairings, perfect as an aperitif but also alongside raw fish and dishes with notable acidity.
  • Oloroso: Oloroso Sherry, from the beginning of the vinification process of Palomino grapes, shows its full structure, making it perfect for oxidative aging. For this reason, after fermentation, the wine is fortified to 17% and then left to age in the traditional Criaderas y Soleras system. The long exposure to oxygen ensures that the wine concentrates and gains structure and complexity

"GENEROSO" or DRY WINES

A dry wine, which has undergone complete fermentation. The starting grapes are of the Palomino variety. We can distinguish:

  • Manzanilla: the fermentation is complete, and the wine is fortified to 15% alcohol. Aging is carried out under "flor veil" and can extend for long periods, exclusively in the cellars of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanilla is a dry, fresh, and delicate wine, with a slight acidity and a slightly bitter finish. Perfect as an aperitif or paired with seafood dishes.
  • Amontillado: despite sharing many characteristics with Manzanilla, the aging process for Amontillado wine is divided into two phases. The first phase occurs under the Flor veil and extends for a long time until the veil, tearing apart, allows the wine to oxidize, thus completing the aging process with oxidative aging. The result is an amber-colored, dry, and structured wine, perfect for pairing with fish dishes but also with smoked meat and aged cheese.

They are amber wines (even darker depending on the length of aging), round, characterized by toasted notes, tobacco, and dried fruit. The important complexity of Olorosos calls for pairings with high-level dishes. They pair well with red meats and game, stews, and even very aged cheeses.

  • Palo Cortado: is a wine that, at least initially, is directed to aging under flor veil but then shows the characteristics to undergo oxidative aging. It is fortified to 17% to continue its aging in contact with oxygen. Intense colors, fruity aromas reminiscent of citrus. Deep and structured, these meditation wines are perfect for aged cheeses, meat dishes such as stew.

WINE "GENEROSO DE LICOR"

When we talk about Liqueur Sherries, we refer to Sherries that are created by blending Generoso wines with sweet wines.

According to regulations, the sugar content must always be greater than 5 g/L. In this case, the following types exist:

  • Pale Cream: Pale Cream Sherry is a sherry resulting from the addition, to a Fino or Manzanilla wine (from biological aging), of rectified concentrated grape must or sweet passito wine. Pale Cream Sherry is usually light and delicate, sweeter than Olorosos (sugar content ranging between 50-115 g/L). It's worth trying with foie gras but also with blue cheeses.
  • Medium: liqueur Sherry that arises from the union of a Generoso wine, usually Amontillado (or one that has undergone oxidative aging), and a sweet wine or rectified concentrated grape must. In this case, the sugar content, according to regulations, ranges from 5 to 115 g/L. The perfect pairing? Ethnic dishes, such as Indian or Thai cuisine, for example.
  • Cream: Sherry Cream is obtained from the blend of a sweet wine or rectified concentrated grape must with an oxidatively aged Generoso wine, usually Oloroso. The sugar content is greater than 115 g/L. It is served cold, perfect with an ice cube and a twist of orange peel. Ideal for pairing with ice cream and fruit, for example.

NATURAL SWEET WINES

The last, but not least, category of Sherry is the sweet ones.

Usually, the starting grapes are Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which in most cases are subjected to the technique called "asoleo", meaning they are sun-dried. Fermentation is partial to maintain high sugar levels, and aging is oxidative. In this category, we find two types:

  • Moscatel: From the homonymous grape, this sweet Sherry (with a sugar content greater than 160 g/L) presents fruity and floral aromas typical of Muscat. It is perfect alongside fruit-based desserts or ice cream.
  • Pedro Ximénez: This sweet Sherry (with a sugar content greater than 212 g/L) is complex, even aromatically, yet refreshing. It features notes of dried fruit, dates, and honey, typical of oxidative aging. It's a versatile Sherry, perfect for pairing with chocolate but also with blue cheeses.

Mind the pleasure, please! Taste different!

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