February 27, 2024

The Andalusian Horse . . . by Joel Mann, Staff Wine (And Beer) Tasting Guy


The image that comes to mind for many Americans when you say Madeira, Marsala, or Sherry is a bottle of cheap, sweet wine tucked away in a corner of the liquor department that you buy for occasional use when mushrooms, chicken, or some other such food needs a sauce or marinade. Each of these wines though is a distinct beverage with a traditional home. Each has a pedigree from the everyday to the elegant premium. The wine I want to examine this month is Sherry, a fortified beverage from Andalusian Spain.

The word Sherry is actually the anglicized version of the word Jerez, as in Jerez de la Frontera, one of the coastal towns involved in Sherry production. All authentic Sherry is produced in what’s called the Sherry triangle, an area just on the Atlantic side of the mouth of the Mediterranean in the province of Cádiz between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The region is an ancient center of wine making with viticulture dating back to the Phoenicians in 1100 BC.

Distillation for fortification came to the area courtesy of the Moors conquering Iberia in 711 AD. The modern name of Jerez actually descends from the Arabic name for the town, Sherish. Sherry became a renowned exported throughout Europe over several centuries following the recapture of the region by the Spanish in 1264. The modern industry with English influences comes courtesy of Sir Francis Drake sacking Cádiz in 1587 and transporting almost 3,000 barrels of Sherry back to England, where the wine has been a popular import ever since. There are two principle grapes used in the production of Sherry: Palomino and Pedro Ximénez (PX), with the former being the most important.

Small amounts of Moscatel grapes are also used, but are not common. Sherry is produced using a solera system of barrel aging. A solera system has several levels of aging product (typically 3-5). Wine ready for consumption is taken from the oldest barrels at the bottom level. Those barrels are then topped by wine from the barrels in the next higher level, and so on until there is empty space in the top level barrels, which is then filled by new wine from that year’s harvest. The system produces a very consistent flavor and style distinct to the barrel system of each winery.

Sherry is produced in a range of styles from light and refreshing, to thick, rich, and sweet. The two main types are called Fino and Oloroso. Most Sherry wines are low in alcohol during original vinification. Fino styles are fortified to an ABV around 15%, while Oloroso styles get fortified to over 18%. The wine is added to the solera system after fortification, and a small head space is intentionally left in the barrel. Fino style Sherries develop a layer of yeast called flor on the surface that slows the oxidation process and produces a lighter style wine. Oloroso Sherries do not support flor growth due to the higher alcohol level, and produce a darker, stronger flavored wine.

The two subclasses for Fino styles are Fino and Manzanilla. A Fino Sherry is light straw in color with a distinct almond flavor and is usually served as an aperitif with ham, olive, and cheese tapas. Manzanillas are a very light, distinctive style of Fino from the seaside soleras of Sanlúcar that develop an almost briny taste from ocean air influence. They’re rarer than Fino, should be consumed quickly, and are a great pairing with light seafood and shellfish dishes.

Oloroso styles come in the subclasses of Oloroso, Amantillado, Pale Cortado, Sweet/Dulce, Cream, and Pedro Ximénez (PX). Oloroso is a dark, rich flavored wine with distinct flavors of walnut and caramel. Amantillado is somewhat between the two main styles, starting off as a Fino, but losing its flor and developing a darker, richer flavor with a characteristic typically described as hazelnut. Pale Cortado is like Amantillado in that it started as a Fino and lost its flor, but developed a much darker color and flavor similar to Oloroso.

Sweet/Dulce Sherries are a dry Sherry sweetened with raisined PX juice, while Cream Sherries are Amantillados or Olorosos with added PX. Finally, PX Sherries are those made specifically from dried PX grapes and are dark, rich, and sweet with fig, toffee, and molasses character. To truly enjoy the full experience of Sherry with its venenciadoras and other traditions, a trip to Spain is recommended. However, a trip to your larger liquor stores will at least procure you something a little better than the cheap stuff tucked in the corner.

Drink responsibly.

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