Sherry – Please Give It a Chance!

‘Off The Beaten Track’ Part Three

By Nick Adams, Master of Wine

Frankly, Sherry should not be considered “off the beaten track” as it is one of the finest and most traditional wines of the world – and has been exported to the UK since 1340! For many reading this though I imagine sherry is something they drink only occasionally, but I would really encourage you to relook at this wine – something which works surprisingly well in its proper, dry form with food (but with a superb sweet twist) – and with the increased interest in tapas style cooking and dishes lends itself perfectly to these in particular. 

In the early days, the style was often heavily fortified, mainly sweet, and certainly oxidised in character. By Elizabethan times it was a highly popular drink in England. The renowned Bodega of Gonzalez Byass has records which indicate that the first ever dry – Fino – style was first exported to London in 1844. However, in 1897 the vineyards of Jerez (which gives its derivative name to anglicised “Sherry”) were devastated by the phylloxera nematode. Fortunately, stocks were high, and replanting took place rapidly, and the region – over time – recovered.

Yet again, Sherry was to be confronted with more (market) challenges as domestic sales stalled and prime export markets such as the UK desired to drink sweeter and cheaper styles – including the then “bastardised” sweeter versions of British “Sherry” which contributed unfairly to the demolition of its image.  Now, by law, “sherry” can only come from the delimited area Jerez/Xérès from the province of Cádiz in AndalucÍa. This region was defined by the Spanish authorities in 1932 and today around 7,000 hectares are under vine.

What makes this region so interesting geographically is both its levels of warmth and sunlight (on average only 70 days of rain in a year!) and the amazing chalky soil which is called Albariza (please see picture). This soil not only acts as a reflector in the summer, but also holds vital moisture during the long and very dry summer months – overall it suits the main sherry grape – Palomino – perfectly.

Palomino grapes growing in Jerez albariza chalk soil – at least 40% of its composition is pure chalk, the rest a mix of sand and clay

Palomino is the most important and widely planted variety, followed by Pedro Ximénez (often referred to as “PX”) and Muscat (which is much more rarely used these days). Historically, PX was sun dried prior to fermentation to make an intensely sweet wine – initially for blending with Palomino to make sweeter styles, but in time it became a semi-cult dessert wine in its own right – famously poured over vanilla ice cream as a pudding.

But the magic of sherry comes more from how it is made than the pure grape and vineyard origins. Once the Palomino is harvested and fermented out as a dry table wine it is then fortified to about 15.5% abv and placed in large old casks where a deliberate ullage gap is left at the top of the barrel.

This space creates the perfect environment for the magical formation of a local yeast called flor. This lies like a duvet crust on top of the wine acting as a protector against oxidation. In addition, it feeds on the glycerol in the wine and imparts flavour notes of bread, camomile, and green olive over time. Part of the process includes cross blending between barrels adding newer, fresher wine to older casks to keep the flor yeast well fed. This aging and blending regime is called the Solera in Jerez. This process can last for up to 7 years before the flor eventually dies and the wine is then bottled and labelled as a Fino (dry) sherry. As a footnote any fino made in the sub region near Sanlúcar de Barrameda (please refer to map) can label itself as a Manzanilla. These finos are particularly strong in flor character.

There is though and option at this point to refill the cask and increase the level of fortification and continue to age it in a semi-oxidative manner for many more years. These aged finos are called Amontillado. These wines take on notes of nuttiness and citrus peel in the process but also retain their yeasty flor notes. In some cases, flor does not form at all, and these sherries are refortified, topped fully up and aged oxidatively from the beginning. These sherries are called Oloroso. They are also dry wines and are particularly nutty, tangy, and savoury but without any flor yeast character. Some of these aged sherries can be incredibly old – to ensure that these are of reliable age, or “age dated sherries”, the Sherry regulating council has set up a system that accurately tracks the average age of the wines as they move through their solera. Two average age-dated categories are recognised formally: VOS (‘Vinum Optimum Signatum’ – 20 years old average age minimum) and VORS (‘Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum’ – 30 years old average age minimum). By definition – due to the blending process – the vast majority of sherry is Non-Vintage.

Finally, by contrast a pure Pedro Ximenéz – from sun dried grapes – is made as fortified intensely sweet sherry. Originally designed to add to dry sherry to make medium or sweeter styles prior to bottling (such as Cream Sherry), on its own it is a hedonistic style which has amazing flavours of liquid caramel and raisins.

A classic shot of a Solera – here at Gonzalez Byass. These” butts” are typically 500 litres in size and are made from American oak, which is more porous than French
A venenciadora pours sherry into a copita (the ideal size and shaped glass to enjoy sherry in) at head height – a great skill!

Some Important Offshoots  

The Sherry industry also makes important contributions to the culinary world and whisky – especially Scotch Whisky. 

  • Sherry Vinegar – one of the finest vinegars on the market which when mixed with nut oils (eg Hazelnut, Walnut) makes for a fabulous dressing with salads
  • Many of the finest Scotch malt whiskies are “finished” in specially prepared old Oloroso butts which impart a magical component to these great spirits
  • Sherry has featured in many films, books, and plays from Shakespeare; Edgar Allan Poe; James Bond; Frasier; Yes, Prime Minister and even Monty Python’s Flying Circus
  • Sherry is frequently mentioned in the John le Carré novel Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy and plays an important role in the narrative, when Jim Prideaux is alerted to the presence of a double agent within his division when Russian KGB agents can correctly identify the brand of sherry that was consumed during a secret meeting of MI6 personnel!

Enjoying Sherry

Sherries work well, poured in a copita glass (as in the picture – by that the glass, not expecting you to use the process!) about half full – apart from PX which due to its sweetness I would pour about half as much as this. Serve all Fino sherry chilled from the fridge and PX very well chilled. Amontillado and Oloroso are best enjoyed served “cool” rather than chilled. The great thing about Sherry is a little goes a long way. If you Vacu Vin and fridge a Fino it will least easily for 7-10 days. Likewise, with PX this will last for a month due to it level of residual sugar. Amontillado and Oloroso – because they have an oxidative character can be just re-stoppered and kept cool in a cupboard and enjoyed over a period of 2-3 weeks.

Finos work well as an aperitif but also match vegetable and fish Tapas style dishes perfectly – such as stuffed red peppers, anchovies, calamari. They universally match with sushi dishes and Thai fish soup.

Amontillado and Oloroso work very well with richer tapas style dishes – classically the Ibérico ham croquettes – also richer soups (such as pea and ham) and savoury dishes such as aged Ibérico ham itself. Also try with mature white cheese (including Manchego of course)

PX works ideally with any rich desserts – especially anything with has caramel or caramelised sugar in the ingredients. It also can take on dark chocolate puddings. Rich cakes too work well – such as Christmas cake and mince pies.

I do hope you can find a space and time to give sherry a chance to show its paces to you. I love sherry but wouldn’t want to drink it every day, but equally would never be without a bottle (of some style) in the wine cupboard. Please find a selection below from Wine Trust which you can enjoy in complete confidence – some seriously good producers here …  

Valdespino’s single vineyard Inocente is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all finos – and perfect in the dinky ½ bottle size.

Lustau are another highly regarded Bodega. With the Oloroso an ‘Almacenista’ sherry refers to the small family-owned business operations that traditionally sell their wines to the established Sherry houses (like Lustau), rather than bottle it themselves.

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