Have you ever tried sherry, or know what it is? There is a lot to sherry, which may surprise you. The quick Wikipedia definition of sherry is “Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez, Spain“. Jerez is located in the southern end of Spain which is very hot and gives the grapes in the area a very long ripening season.
We can break this down into different types or styles of sherry, which will give you a wide range of taste profiles so that you can enjoy sipping sherry on it’s own or with appetizers or a main meal, if you choose.
There are 3 main grape varieties that go into sherry production: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. The majority of sherry is produced from the Palomino grape, with lesser contribution from the other 2 varieties.
The production of sherry is a three-step process. The first step is the fermentation of the grape into a dry, white wine. The must (juice) from the first pressing of the Palomino grape is fermented in stainless steel vats till all the sugar has been used up. This takes till sometime in November.
Step number 2 is evaluating the quality of the wine produced in step 1. The wines are placed in casks and the casks are graded with a stroke (or mark). The grading process works as follows (from Wikipedia):
- / a single stroke (una raya) indicates a wine with the finest flavour and aroma, suitable for fino or amontillado. These wines are fortified to about 15 per cent alcohol to allow the growth of flor.
- /. a single stroke with a dot indicates a heavier, more full-bodied wine. These wines are fortified to about 17.5 per cent alcohol to prevent the growth of flor, and the wines are aged oxidatively to produce oloroso.
- // a double stroke (dos rayas) indicates a wine which will be allowed to develop further before determining whether to use the wine for amontillado or oloroso. These wines are fortified to about 15 percent alcohol.
- /// a triple stroke indicates a wine that has developed poorly, and will be distilled.
In Step 3, the /, /., and // quality wines are fortified with distilled wine up to a set alcohol level to allow or prevent the growth of flor and are then aged in oak barrels. The aging aspect is quite unique and interesting for sherry. The barrels are placed in a “solera” system, which consists of barrels of sherry from different vintages being stacked on each other up to three barrels high. The youngest sherry is placed in the top level and progressively older sherry is at the bottom level. What makes this unique? The process of taking some of the youngest sherry and placing it in the next row of older barrels below it. The portion of wine from this level of barrels is then placed at the lowest level of barrels. A portion of wine from the lowest level of barrels is extracted and bottled for sale. So at any one time the sherry that you buy has a mix of wines from many different vintages, in theory from EVERY vintage ever produced from that solera.
The other interesting thing about sherry is the layer of “flor”, a natural yeast, that grows on the top of the wine for fino or amontillado, keeping oxygen away from interacting too much with the wine. To exist, the flor feeds on oxygen, alcohol and glycerine, which reduces the overall acidity of the wine. It also increases the level of acetaldehyde, which gives sherry it’s unique flavour. Flor is affected by temperature, so is less active in the summer and winter, and more active in the spring and fall. This change in temperature and amount of flor activity helps to give sherry, from each bodegas a individual style. Oloroso style sherry are also affected by the change in temperature but are not protected by the flor due to the higher alcohol content and thus oxidize. Fino sherries are aged in a solera for on average 3-5 years, and up to 10 years for Amontillados and Olorosos.
You may have heard of Cream Sherries. These are sherries that have had Pedro Ximenez wine added before bottling to sweeten the sherry. Pedro Ximenez grapes are typically used as a dessert wine produced from sun-dried grapes before they are fermented. This provides a very concentrated grape flavour and raisins. There is much more to say about the different styles of sherry and I will leave that to Part 2 of this blog.
I hope that this peek into the production of sherry has peaked your interest to try the different styles of sherry, both on your own, and at the upcoming Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Fair. There is a sherry and tapas event you may want to attend. Here is the link to the sherry and tapas event. Cheers!