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Taking the ‘sssh’ out of sherry

Kat BarlowKat Barlow, our Majestic Greenwich Manager, reports back on her visit to Jerez and discusses our love/hate relationship with Sherry.

Just why do certain wines carry with them such a shameful perception? It seems as a nation we are all happy to like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio but scared to profess feelings for the more unique wines this world is blessed with. In this report we shall delve into the world of sherry and perhaps I can even tempt you to put fashion aside and try some for yourself.

So what exactly does ‘sherry’ entail to the general British public? Many associate this word with grandmas, visiting elderly family members and smiling politely as you sit on the edge of the arm chair your hands clasping a tiny lipstick smeared glass filled with some alien substance. For others the word ‘trifle’ comes to mind. Cold custard and stale sponge cake laced with the contents of a dusty bottle of sherry and all topped off with glacier cherries, if you’re lucky you may even have a dollop of squirty cream on top.

This country loves to make a mockery of sherry and we are equally scared to admit even the slightest bit of respect for this incredibly diverse product. We don’t want to find out more, we don’t want to understand the complicated and intricate vinification processes, we don’t want to like sherry. Why?

CellarsFrom the cellars of Hidalgo you can walk along the tree lined streets to the great southern oceans. The sand is soft and golden and the breeze warm and refreshing. Back in the town freshly caught fish is cooked to perfection and as the sun sets the little cafés and restaurants line the streets with tables full of tapas and sherry. This fortified wine is more than just a business; it is a way of life, a culture.

This way of life is likely to have begun long before the Romans dominated European life.  Viticulture certainly became dominant in this era and ever since. Throughout all the battles and conquests ‘the sherry triangle’(formed by the towns of Jerez de la Fontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda) held its viticultural name and constantly improved and increased in size. Local tax laws in the fifteenth century saw an export business begin and the sherry region has never looked back.

The climate is as one would expect, warm! With the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the Guadalete and Guadalquilvir rivers a moderate climate is formed. D.O. Jerez also has the unique ‘levante’ winds blowing hot and dry air from the south east over the vineyards. Between June and October there is barely a drop of rain and thus the soil is crucial to the success of this viticultural land.

Albarizo SoilWhen meandering around the vineyards of Jerez one cannot fail to miss the stunning beauty of the albarizo soil. It’s bright white colouring glistens in the sun and forms the perfect soil for the growth of vines, retaining enough water to slowly nourish the vines as the season progresses.  The soil content itself varies throughout the Jerez region, with limestone, clay and sand in varying proportions and of varying depths throughout. Each miniature region hosts a series of vines whose grapes are so subtly different that they inevitably result in a range of sherry styles.

Map of SpainThe dominant grape variety in this region is the Palomino grape, a white, rounded grape of medium size and with a delicate skin. If you’re lucky enough to visit Jerez at harvest time you may well catch sight of one of the many local people manually harvesting the vineyards. This sight is, as I am sure you imagine, quite superb.

From the vineyard the grapes go on to face a multitude of vinification techniques. First the grapes will be gently crushed and pressed, creating the first must or ‘mosto yema’. This is the only permitted must for making sherry and yields approximately 70 litres of wine from 100kg of grapes.  The musto yema will then be fermented in steel temperature controlled tanks, and this is where it gets really interesting!

Barrel SamplesBefore the next stage of fermentation is decided upon series of classification tests will take place. Just imagine a group of wine tasters sampling barrel after barrel of wine, determining the future of each barrel at such an early stage of vinification. The palest and lightest of their samples will become a fino or manzanilla wine and subsequently face fortification of up to 15% abv. The wines of a heavier body will become an olorosso and thus have a higher fortification of around 18%. With these decisions in place the barrels will then face a different future path and develop a wholly different style of wine.

Fortification up to 15% will allow a layer of yeast to form and live on top of the sherry. This layer of yeast, known as flor, will add some amazingly unique and complex flavours to the wine whilst preventing it from oxidising. As the flor dies it falls through the wine to the bottom of the barrel, adding yet more flavour components. Further to this the wine travels through a solera system where the newly fortified wine slowly filters its way through a multitude of other barrels, in a cascading system of blending. Each barrel will lose up to third of its contents to a series of barrels below it, at the same time it will receive some wine from a number of barrels above it. This creates a constant style and quality level throughout the years, of which a minimum of three is required. This brief explanation will help to aid understanding of the complicated Sherry process but perhaps simplifies the process too much. Solera SystemIt is incredibly difficult to perfect this system of wine making and awe inspiring to see in action. Here a trip to Gonzalez Byass is well worth investing in.

Fino and Manzanilla wines come in a range of colours, from vivid straw yellow to a pale gold tone. They are the freshest and most youthful of sherry and thus have flavour characteristics to complement this. You will find an abundance of almonds, green apples and perhaps a hint of fresh dough. The Manzanilla in particular has the nutty salty taste so hard to describe but so beautiful to taste. These wines will go perfectly will chilled soups and Andalucian style tapas. Any salty fish, olives and cured ham.

Flor covering the sherry surfaceWhen the wine is fortified to 18% the layer of flor cannot form. The result is a similar ageing process but with oxidised style of wine. Olorosso wines concentrate solely on this oxidative ageing and thus the palate displays the heaviest of all nuts – the walnut. The complex mix of nuts and mahogany merge gracefully with hints of truffles, leather and a great autumnal sensation. Its’ clean and crisp acidity cuts through the depth of flavour characteristics perfectly and compliments strong cheeses and wild mushroom dishes excellently. Olorossos should be served very slightly, if at all, chilled.

Amontillado sherry combines an initial period of biological ageing with the power of oxidative ageing, creating a superbly complex wine. When served cool, this wine will partner beautifully with a meat terrine starter. Whilst almonds give way to hazelnuts a hint of wood on the palate blends superbly with a zingy acidity.

Tasting SamplesPalo Cortado combines the delicacy of Amontillado with the body and power of an Olorrosso. This wine clearly shows the importance of the sherry classification system. The wine is initially fortified to 15% abv its cask being marked with a slash or ‘palo’. The contents of this cask are of the superb quality. If the cask passes re-examination by tasters  a horizontal line will be drawn through the slash and the wine will become palo cortado. It will then be refortified to above 17%abv and thus undergo oxidative ageing. Any true Palo Cortado will have undergone years of ageing, tasting and retasting. This is a real treat of a wine and worth every penny. The length on the palate and aftertaste are unforgettable and personally best served in a large glass, by ones self!!!!!

If it is a sweeter tooth you wish to satisfy Sherry once again can stand up to the mark. Here common misconception is at its greatest, those images of Great Aunt Ethel creeping into the minds of many a person, myself included. However (dusty bottles at the back of grandmas cupboard aside) the sweeter sherries are also delightful. One of the greatest moments of my life was introducing my Mum to Pedro Ximinez poured over ice cream. Try it – I will say no more!

So go out and spread the word, give sherry the praise it deserves. It is not just an old lady’s drink, it is not only worthy of being plonked into trifles with no regard to the journey the wine goes through and it certainly does not deserve the mockery it currently receives. Go on try a bottle… today!

  • Richard Leader

    Nice piece. I’ve been a long time fan of sherry – especially after a visit to Gonzales Byass some years ago. I’ve a bottle of Majestic’s Oloroso just waiting to be opened. Am also a big fan of Pedro Ximinez over ice cream as you say! http://www.twitter.com/rleader