By Christine Mitchell, Manager, Majestic Wine Glasgow Bearsden
I have noticed that over my many years at Majestic, people tend to just buy Sherry at Christmas but as the weather is starting to turn and the sun (kind of) is coming out more, I find that there is nothing more pleasurable than having a nice cold glass of Manzanilla or whatever you fancy with some smoked almonds and a bowl of olives – just like they do in Andalucia!
Sherry is a fortified white wine, naturally dry, which is produced commercially in a variety of styles ranging from dry to very sweet. It is a natural product of the province of Cadiz in the south-western tip of the region of Andalucia in southern Spain. The sherry vineyards are to be found in the centre of a triangle formed by three towns to the north of Cadiz: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria.
It is generally very warm and can be hot and very dry in the summer, the heat tempered by the proximity of the ocean. Two prevailing winds – the dry Levante from the east and the wet Ponente from the Atlantic-blow alternately.
The soil of the main vineyards, called albariza, is of chalk, and it is the combination of this soil – ideal for making white wines – and the hot, somewhat humid climate that produces the conditions ideal for growing the grapes.
The sherry region is fast becoming one of a single grape variety. The white Palomino grape or Palomino Fino as it is technically called occupies 90% of the vineyard area, leaving little (and decreasing) room for the other permitted grape varieties. Other white varieties include Pedro Ximenez (which makes a sweet wine, still used occasionally for turning dry sherry to sweet) and Moscatel Fino (rarely found today).
How sherry is made
Once the white wine is made, it is at this point when sherry changes from an ordinary white table wine into something quite unique and almost magical. Once fermented, the wine will be put into wooden casks, locally called butts, which hold 500 litres but are not filled to capacity. As the wine ages in large cool storage buildings in the bodega, a yeast called flor, carried on the Ponente wind, grows naturally on the wine. This preserves it from oxidation from the air space in the cask as well as lending a yeasty character to the mature dry wine. Sherry is then classified into styles. The butts with a decent amount of flor will be put aside for ageing as a fino or go onto become Amontillado. They will then be lightly fortified with brandy up to 15.5%. Those without or very little flor will be destined for Oloroso. These will be immediately fortified up to 18% alcohol (flor only survives up to 17.5%) and put aside for separate ageing.
The Solera system
The essence of sherry is blending, across the years as well as between casks. The solera, used for all styles of sherry operates by a series of blending. A proportion of the youngest wine in the bodega is blended into a butt of wine from the preceding year, where the younger wine begins to take on the character of the older. To make room for this process, a third of the butt of second year wine is transferred to the third year wine, while a third of the third year butt is moved into the fourth year wine. Each of these stages is called a criadera (the Spanish word for nursery). Sherry is therefore a blended wine in many senses. The final bottle will contain wines from a number of different solera’s which are blended in a further series of butts before bottling.
This one of the many reason why we LOVE sherry! It is a vastly underrated product and such good value for money. We all must realise what a bargain sherry is at even £10! Some sherries have wine blended in them dating back thirty to sixty years and more.
Sherries styles from dry to sweet
MANZANILLA – matured by the sea at Sanlucar de Barrameda, it is sherry’s lightest style. Searingly dry and delicate with an almost salty bite. Goes very well with olives, smoked almonds, Serrano ham, etc.
FINO – similar to Manzanilla but fractionally weightier. Both get their characteristic yeasty tang from the flor yeast which is left to grow as they mature in barrel.
AMONTILLADO – is fino on which the flor has lived, matured and died and so it is an older, darker and nuttier sherry, but one which should still have a certain tang.
OLOROSO – is a sherry which did not grow flor. It is the fullest and richest with nut, fig and prune flavours but naturally dry. Some commercial brands are sweetened and often called CREAM sherries.
PALO CORTADO – this is rarely seen but is a style halfway between amontillado and oloroso (my favourite!)
PEDRO XIMENEZ – Rich, decadent and sweet! Like drinking liquid raisins and prunes. Absolutely divine when poured over quality vanilla ice cream.