I have a love named Sherry. Don’t worry, it’s not a woman. It’s a wine. Truth be told, it’s one of the most underrated wines in the world, which causes me to love it even more because it’s cheap. Not cheap like a frying pan from the dollar store, though. Perhaps inexpensive is a better word for it.
Either way, I’m not sure why more people don’t drink Sherry. It could be that it has a reputation, much like Marsala, of being nothing more than a cooking wine. It could also be that it’s an incredibly confusing wine that comes in many shapes and sizes and people, including many wine professionals, just don’t have the time or patience to unravel its mysteries. In fact, there are so many wines covered by the name “Sherry” that telling someone you had “Sherry” is like saying you bought a new pair of shoes. What kind of shoes? Tennis shoes? Slippers? High heels? Some people may love tennis shoes and hate high heels. The same holds true for Sherry. You may hate one type and love another.
If you’re reading this, though, I assume you’re willing to spend at least a little time getting to know this lovely wine. I’ll try to keep this as short and sweet as possible, but it won’t be easy…
Sherry is a fortified wine, like Port. Unlike Port, it is made from white grapes, the main variety being Palomino. It can also contain Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes, but their use is less common. The grapes must be grown in an area of Spain known as the “Sherry Triangle,” which is a roughly triangular geographic region formed by three cities; Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. The soil in this region is very unique combination of chalk, limestone, clay and sand. Locally, it is called Albariza. The soil is white in appearance and serves the dual function of reflecting sunlight back to the vines, which helps with ripening, and preserving moisture for Spain’s hot summer months.
Another difference between Sherry and Port is that Sherry is usually fermented dry. In other words, brandy or some other neutral spirit is added to the Sherry only after most of the sugar in the juice has been converted to alcohol. In contrast, Port is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process before all of the sugar is turned into alcohol and gives that wine its characteristic sweetness. The fact that Sherry is fermented to dryness gives the winemakers a lot more flexibility in creating different styles, which probably contributes to much of the confusion existing in the marketplace.
The main distinction of which you need to be aware when it comes to tackling the confusion surrounding Sherry is that there are essentially two types of wine from which all the others are produced; Fino and Oloroso.
Fino, which literally means “fine” in Spanish, is a dry, white Sherry. It often looks like white wine in your glass and should be served slightly chilled. This is where the parallels to other white wines stop. Fino is made via a process that is very unique to this region of Spain. It is aged in barrels under a cap of indigenous Spanish yeast called Flor. This yeast forms a cap on top of the wine, which prevents it from coming into contact with the air and oxidizing. The Flor cap only forms, however, if the alcohol by volume (“ABV”) of the wine is between 14.5% and 16%. If the ABV is under 14.5%, acetic acid bacteria can grow and turn the wine into vinegar. If the ABV is above 16%, the Flor cannot form and the wine will oxidize to become Oloroso. Thus, the winemaker has to be very careful when adding spirits to wine meant to become Fino.
A sub-type of Fino is called Mazanilla. Fino and Manzanilla are almost always produced in a dry style. The difference between these two isn’t so much the contents of the wine as it is where the wine is made. Fino can be produced anywhere in the Sherry Triangle, but Manzanilla is only produced near the port city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Some experts claim Manzanilla is a better version of Fino, being lighter and more delicate, but the average wine drinker will be hard pressed to tell the difference in a blind tasting. There’s also Manzanilla Pasada, which goes through extended aging or is partially oxidized.
Normally, oxygen is a bad thing when it comes to Fino and Manzanilla. The unique flavors imparted by the Flor deteriorate very quickly once oxygen is introduced. Accordingly, you need to drink a Fino or Manzanilla within a few days of it being opened. This is not the type of wine you can shove in the back of your refrigerator for two weeks. Further, you should actually try to drink the wine within 6-12 months of it being bottled. How do you know when it was bottled? There is usually a lot number stamped on the back label that should give you some indication of the wine’s age. If you want to know more about the various Sherry lot number codes, read this article or maybe this one.
Between Fino and Oloroso there lies a middle ground, primarily occupied by a Sherry called Amontillado. Another Sherry, Palo Cortado, which is perhaps the rarest of all Sherries, also resides here. Both Amontillado and Palo Cortado begin their lives as Fino, but something magical happens during the aging process. For some reason, the wine will lose its Flor and begin to oxidize. Amontillado will develop a richer, nuttier flavor and the body will become slightly heavier than a fino as the wine darkens due to oxidation. Palo Cortado is typically only made from the best Finos/Amontillados, which accounts for its rarity, and is taken a step further than Amontillado. It eventually develops characteristics very similar to Oloroso.
Speaking of which, Oloroso is not allowed to develop a cap of Flor, due to its higher alcohol content after fortification. The lack of a protective covering exposes the wine to oxygen and causes it to turn dark brown and to develop its rich, characteristic style. The flavors typically associated with Oloroso are walnuts, vanilla and caramel. The finish of an Oloroso is notoriously long and it can be served as an aperitif or, if sweetened, with dessert. Which bring us to the next distinction of which you should be aware.
Sweet or Dry?
Unlike Port, most Sherry is sold as either a “Dry” or “Medium Dry” wine. Thankfully, Sherry producers are pretty good about labeling their wines in an easy-to-understand manner. You won’t be staring at a bottle of Sherry wondering what “Extra Dry” or “Demi Sec” really means. Instead, it will usually say “Dry,” “Medium Dry,” or “Sweet.”
Sweetness in Sherry is achieved after fermentation through the addition of unfermented juice or lightly fermented wine from the Pedro Ximénez grape. This addition will darken the wine and spike the sweetness. If copious amounts are added, you can end up with a very sweet wine. To make things more confusing, some of these sweetened Sherries will not be labeled as “Sweet” Oloroso or Amontillado. Instead, they’ll be given names like “Cream Sherry” or “Amoroso.” These are the Sherry region’s true dessert wines. They will remind you of Port or Madeira. If what you’re looking for is a sweet, Port-styled dessert wine, these are the Sherries you’ll typically find in the dessert wine aisle at your local wine shop.
One final type of Sherry bears mentioning. It is perhaps the finest of all sweet Sherries. It is made from 100% Pedro Ximénez grapes and labeled as such. The grapes for this wine are harvested very late in the season, so the sugar content is incredibly high. The grapes are then allowed to dry on straw mats, much like Italy’s famous Vin Santo or Amarone wines. This drying process turns the grapes into raisins and concentrates the sugars and flavors even more. When the wine is produced, its consistency is almost like molasses and it is nearly as sweet. The wine smells of burnt sugar and raisins. People have been known to pour it over vanilla ice cream, which I’m betting is delicious. There are dry versions of Pedro Ximénez Sherry, but they are uncommon, especially on this side of the Atlantic.
Unlike Italy’s Vin Santo, which can easily cost $50 per half bottle, Pedro Ximénez Sherry can often be found at $20. Accordingly, it is well worth the search and a must try wine for anyone who, like me, truly loves Sherry.
Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry
- This wine is hazelnut brown in color, fading to a deep golden yellow at the rim.
- Considering how inexpensive this wine is, the nose is delightfully complex. The bouquet smells of vanilla, caramel, toasted almonds, raisins and dried figs. There’s also a fair amount of alcohol present on the nose.
- On the palette, this wine is medium in body. The finish is a little shorter than I would’ve expected. Overall, it’s fairly well balanced, though there’s a spike of heat in the mid-palette.
- In addition to the aromas present in the bouquet, I taste candied apples with hints of chocolate covered cherries.
- Conclusion: At $12 a bottle, this is a great introduction to sweet Sherry.
Domecq Medium Dry Amontillado
This Sherry is probably one of the wines prone to confusing people. There’s just something strange about drinking a fortified wine that isn’t overtly sweet. There is a touch of sweet Pedro Ximénez wine added prior to bottling, but I feel like this wine has an identity crisis. It’s definitely not for dessert. I picture drinking it with a creamy soup or perhaps with an olive, nut and cheese platter. It goes for around $14 per 750ML bottle.
- In appearance, this is about the same as the cream sherry, though perhaps just a touch lighter.
- The nose is more restrained than the cream sherry. I get more nuttiness and some leather.
- The wine’s subtle sweetness is evident immediately, but quickly fades. It is overpowered by alcohol. Unbalanced is the word that comes to mind.
- I’m starting to wonder if this bottle is old. The lot number is an indecipherable combination of letters and numbers that tells me nothing about the wine’s age.
- I do get notes of almond, mocha and oak on the palette.
- Conclusion: This isn’t really my thing, but I am willing to give it another chance based on my belief the bottle may be too old.