I recently took the examination for the WSET Diploma focussing exclusively on fortified wines. It was a high-pressure rush to study and internalise a lot of facts and information in the last few months, which is why I’ve been quiet here for that period.
In the old days, once you finish an exam you breathe a huge sigh of relief, shout loudly that you will forget everything and proceed to burn your study notes in a bonfire.
While I was relieved that this particular stage was over, I have no desire to forget anything. I want to keep this extra knowledge fresh in my mind to better share with other people.
So let’s start by having a look at Sherry.
What is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine made in a region called Jerez in South-West Spain, close to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a region that’s very sensitive to climatic influences, with cool, humid winds coming in from the ocean (the poniente) fighting against the hot, dry winds blowing up from Africa (the levante). Depending on where you are on the map, the environment could be moderate, or can venture into the extremes of heat and cold.
The main variety of grape here is Palomino Fino. It produces wines that are neutral in flavour and low in acidity, which sounds uninteresting for a still wine but actually suits the purposes of making Sherry perfectly. From this bland, unremarkable beginning fortified wines of many interesting expressions are developed.
There are two more varieties, Pedro Ximinez (usually shortened to PX) and Moscatel (also know as Muscat of Alexandria), that account for around 5% of grapes grown in the Jerez region. These wines are mainly used for blending with Palomino-based wines to add colour and sweetness, but some single-variety expressions do exist. Quantities are so low that producers do also bring in PX grapes from the separate neighbouring region of Montilla-Moriles, which produces PX in abundance. As Montilla-Moriles is further from the ocean, the levante winds dominate, and the hot environment is taken advantage of by drying out the grapes to concentrate the sugars before turning into wine.
Styles of Sherry
There are two key styles of sherry: Biologically-Aged and Oxidatively-Aged. All other styles fall in between these two extremes.
Biological ageing is unique to Sherry, because the wines are aged under a layer of yeast called flor. The yeast protects the wines from oxidation, feeds off the nutrients and glycerol in the wine and produces aldehydes that contribute nutty flavours to the final product, which is usually a light, dry wine with a briny tang, suitable as an aperitif or with some tapas.
Oxidative ageing does not use any flor, and so is heavily influenced by the air around it. Just like a cut green apple, exposure to oxygen turns this light-coloured wine into a gold, tawny, finally brown-coloured product with the associated aromas of dried fruits and chocolate. It can be dry, but it’s weight and intensity on the palate can make it seem sweeter than it really is.
Fino and Manzanilla
These are the styles that typify biologically-aged sherry. If you see either of these words on the label, you will know to expect a light, dry wine with characters of lemon, bread and iodine. This may sound like a strange combination of flavours, but fans of the style will extol it’s food-matching potential.
Manzanilla is basically Fino that is produced exclusively in a town called Sanlucar de Barrameda, where it is said the proximity to the ocean lends the wine a briny, sea spray character.
The style that represents oxidatively-aged sherry, with notes of raisins, figs, caramel and chocolate. There are stories of older gentlemen who would dip pocket squares into a dry Oloroso and put them in their jacket pocket so that they could enjoy the aromas all day long.
Amontillado and Palo Cortado
These are the middle styles. They begin ageing biologically under flor, but the yeast begins to die and the wine becomes exposed to oxygen. Therefore these wines will have characteristics of both styles, and can be among the most complex sherries you will find.
Cream Sherry and Pale Cream
When people tell you that sherry is sweet, these are the styles that they are probably thinking of. Pale Cream is usually a Fino-syle sherry that has been blended with sweet Palomino juice, producing a wine that has some of Fino sherry’s character and an approachable sweetness.
Cream Sherry is usually a blend of Oloroso and sweet wine made from PX, keeping the oxidative aromas of Oloroso and making the wine more approachable with sweetness, and consolidating the darker colour of both.
The above is just a small fraction of what I have learned about Sherry, but it will be the most relevant to you if you want to explore the style. It is quite amazing how this small region, using mainly one grape variety, can produce such interesting wines of many characters.
Through this, I have developed a respect for a category of wine that until now has been entirely new to me. And this is one of the reasons I do what I do, discovering new things and sharing them with other people gives me a pleasure that can’t be found doing anything else.
If you’d like to read more about Sherry, I highly recommend that you check out this website: http://www.sherry.wine/