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A Primer on Sherry Wines

In our May/June 2019 issue, we explore the Sherry Triangle—the region in southwestern Spain that marks sherry’s historical home. Like Champagne from France or Prosecco from Italy, sherry is created with a specific method of production in its native country. Thanks to globetrotting sommeliers and bartenders inspired by Spanish drinking traditions, fortified wines have enjoyed increased popularity in American restaurants and bars over the last decade, but sherry still frequently suffers from an underdog effect. “I teach a lot of sherry classes, and I think people over-think it,” says Mindy Cook, beverage director at Toro Bravo in Portland, Oregon. “I always tell our staff, ‘It’s just wine.’ ” From the vineyards’ unique soils to the centuries-old solera systems, here’s a quick primer.

The albariza soils of a vineyard in the Sherry Triangle. Photo courtesy of the Consejo Regulador for Sherry Wine.

The Region Hugging the Atlantic shore in Spain’s Andalusian region, there’s a small pocket of land where the soils and history have come to produce a wine like nowhere else on earth—the Sherry  Triangle. Under centuries of Moorish rule, Andalusia became a hub for Mediterranean trade and culture. The city of Jerez de la Frontera became known as Seris in Arabic, pronounced Sherish and the origination of the anglicized term Sherry. Beginning in Jerez, the area’s largest city for which the Denominación de Origen (D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry) takes its name, the triangle extends northwest about 15 miles to Sanlúcar de Barrameda and then south another 10 miles to El Puerto de Santa Maria. The triangle marks the aging and production zone. However, many of the appellation’s vineyards extend beyond the bounds of the triangle.

It’s the vineyards that set the region apart with a visibly striking characteristic—the soil. “The region of Sherry has these amazing chalky soils called albariza soils,” says Cook. “The only other place in the world with soil similar to this is Champagne.” Most of the region was originally covered by an inland sea, which left behind marine sediments that became chalk. Mixed with limestone and clay, the stark white soil is visible even in satellite views of the earth. As the D.O. does not allow for irrigation, one of the primary benefits of the albariza soil is its ability to soak up water like a sponge, delivering it to the vines during the hot, dry summers.

The Styles Sherry is a fortified wine made primarily from Palomino grapes, as well as some Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, in a range of styles from crisp and dry to syrupy sweet. Though perhaps contrary to common notions, more sherry styles are dry than sweet, and include Fino, Manzanillo, Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado. Some of these, such as Manzanilla and Fino, are matured beneath a flor, a layer of wild yeast, and will be lighter in color with floral aromas, light acidity and notes of salinity. Others, such as Amontillado and Oloroso, only receive partial aging under the flor or none at all in order to oxidize, creating darker shades and nutty, earthy aromas.

Naturally sweet sherries include Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, made with the grapes of the same name, and tend to be full-bodied with flavors of sweet dried fruits. Sherries intentionally sweetened through blending are called cream sherries. “It is such a unique product with so many different variations of flavor,” says Cook. “I think for a long time people thought of sherry as their grandmother’s sherry—like the cream sherries and sweet sherries. They don’t expect the huge diversity of styles.”

The System Sherry really becomes sherry during its meticulous aging and blending process. Within the bodegas (sherry houses), aging occurs in a solera system—rows of tiered barrels, also called butts, that allow the newer wines on top to be fractionally blended as they are gradually moved to the barrels below to create a consistent product year after year. Two primary types of aging occur, depending on what style of sherry is being produced. Oxidative aging allows the wine contact with oxygen and creates a stronger influence from the barrels and surrounding conditions, such as climate. Biological aging occurs when the sherry ages beneath a flor—the layer of wild yeast that forms on top of the sherry, both protecting it from oxygen and imparting its own flavor characteristics.

Sherry production was long broken into several stages, from base wine production to aging and bottling, each performed by different bodegas. It wasn’t until 1996 that the almacenistas (smaller sherry producers that sold wholesale to larger bodegas) were allowed to bottle and sell sherry under their own name, many of whom had already been operating for centuries. “Because of the age of solera systems, a lot of the sherries we see are upwards of 30, 40, 50-plus years old,” says Cook. “There are even soleras that have been continuously operating since the 1800s, so you might still get a little taste of that wine. That’s why sherry is such an amazing product, because there is nowhere else in the world where you get to taste wines of that age.”

For more information, visit the website for the official Consejo Regulador for sherry wine.

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