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Sherry Wine Part I

Sherry Wine Part I

Sherry might just be one of the most misunderstood and least respected wines in the entirety of the wine world.  Massively popular in decades and centuries past, Sherry fell out of favor in the second half of the 20th century as table wines made huge leaps forward in quality and popularity.  Quality increases in traditional regions like Piedmont, Tuscany and Bordeaux advanced table wines to the forefront of what we think of as wine today.  New regions rose out of nowhere as wine making education spread across borders to places like the California, Australia, Argentina and Chile that were all making world class table wine by the end of the 20th century.

Sherry in the last few years has been gaining in popularity with the wine Sommelier set and wine geeks looking for something different than the same old table wines.  The cocktail movement has helped to also enhance the popularity of Sherry as it not just a food wine or aperitif.  New drink recipes and bars that specialize in Sherry based cocktails have sprouted up in all the big cities.

The Sherry venencia piercing the flor layer resting on Fino sherry wine in barrel. (photo credit: www.sherry.org)

The Sherry venencia piercing the flor layer resting on Fino sherry wine in barrel. (photo credit: www.sherry.org)

However, even with all of this new attention, I think the regular consumer seems unconvinced in my opinion and it will take a lot more education and getting the best Sherry into the wine glasses of foodies and wine consumers to make a bigger impact beyond the wine cognoscenti.  Events like the week long Sherryfest are a perfect example of a good foot forward.  Importing top quality Sherry here to the USA and allowing the consumer to taste these wines is crucial for Sherry’s future in this country.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the routine wine drinker is a good but not the best target for Sherry marketing.  The best demographic would be drinkers that enjoy cocktails and brown spirits like Bourbon and Scotch Whiskey.  As you will see in the remainder of this article there are some similarities in production and resulting character.  It’s of no coincidence that Scotch Whisky producers use Sherry butts (barrels) for aging and finishing their precious single malt Scotch.

What is Sherry?

Sherry in its most basic definition is a fortified wine from the Andalucía region of Spain.  Andalucía is in the southwest quadrant of Spain and Jerez subregion is the heartland of Sherry production where many of the best vineyards are located.  Sherry is not terroir driven in the same way most wine we know today is where the vines suck up the impacts of its growing environment and express them in the grape and ultimately the finished wine.  Before Sherry is fortified and aged in Solera it starts out as a basic, neutral wine that has little to no character.  Think of this as a blank canvas for the fortification and aging process of the Bodega which is where terroir comes into play with a Sherry.  Most spirits start out this way as a neutral base liquid before distillation.  The Solera System drives the aging process and imparts into the neutral Sherry base wine the terroir of the Bodega which is typically set near the coast and have different designs and locations near the sea to allow for the desired amount of natural humidity levels, air flow and temperature control.

Sherry flor in barrel (photo credit: www.sherry.org)

Sherry flor in barrel (photo credit: www.sherry.org)

There are many kinds of Sherry and there are laws as to how they are produced and how they can carry a name.  The most popular are the Vinos Generosos which are as follows:

– Fino
– Oloroso
– Amontillado
– Palo Cortado
– Manzanilla Fina
– Manzanilla Pasada
– Manzanilla Olorosa

Most frequently Sherry is a blend of many different vintages of wine.  Though rare (and expensive) single vintage wines do exist.  Once Sherry base wine has been made, the wine undergoes its first “classification” and will either become a Fino or Oloroso Sherry.  Manzanilla Sherry undergo identical processes as Fino and Oloroso, but are called Manzanilla because they are aged in bodega located in Sanlucar de Barrameda.  Manzanilla Sherry are typically a shade lighter in color, aroma and flavor than their counterparts from the rest of Andalucía.

Sherry Bodega, notice the placement of open windows high above the barrel stacks that help regulate the temperature and humidity of the Bodega (photo credit www.haciendadesanrafael.com)

Sherry Bodega, notice the placement of open windows high above the barrel stacks that help regulate the temperature and humidity of the Bodega (photo credit www.haciendadesanrafael.com)

Grapes, Soil & Climate

The Palomino grape makes up the majority of Sherry production and is planted in the crusty, chalk white Albariza soils.  The crust enables the soil to retain moisture in the hot and dry summers as the crust creates an impermeable cap at the top of the soil levels that blocks evaporation of moisture below the cap in the subsoils and bedrock.  To a lesser extent Pedro Ximinez (PX) and Muscat of Alexandria are also used and are typically planted in the barros (clay) or arenas (sand) soils.

The chalky Albariza soils of Jerez where the best Sherry vineyards are located. (photo credit www.sherry.org)

The chalky Albariza soils of Jerez where the best Sherry vineyards are located. (photo credit www.sherry.org)

The climate of Andalucía is hot and dry Mediterranean with summer winds that help moderate temperatures in the immediate coastal locales.  These coastal winds play an important role in moderating the Bodega and are why many are located on the Mediterranean coast.  Rain is frequent but mostly occurs in late fall and winter, ideal times for rainfall to replenish the dry soils.  In fact, rectangular ditches are dug in the dormant season of winter to collect the rain water that precipitates so it can puddle, then permeate and settle into the soil where this moisture plays a crucial role in nourishing the vine in the hot and dry summer months of the following vintage.

Ripe Palomino grapes hang from the vine. (photo credit www.sherry.org)

Ripe Palomino grapes hang from the vine. (photo credit www.sherry.org)

A bientot!

-Tom

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