Although it’s unfair to judge something before you try it, sherry’s reputation as a drink for old ladies meant that it has never been my first choice for a tipple. However, it turns out that sherry is fascinating — the process of making it is unlike any other wine-making system I’ve ever encountered, and variations on this process produce sherries for every palate.
Like Champagne, a product can only be labelled as sherry if it has been produced in a strictly defined area. In this case, it’s a section of Andalusia known as the Sherry Triangle, which is bordered by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
Just three types of grape are used to make sherry — Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel. By far the most common is Palomino, which is used for dry sherries, while Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are grown to produces sherries of the same names.
The grapes are picked in September and are pressed to extract the juice. However, the skins and stalks are all left in the mix, which is called must (or mosto in Spanish). The must is put in stainless steel vats and left to ferment until the end of November, and the result is a dry white wine (also called “mosto”) with an alcohol content of about 11-12% .
If you’re in Jerez in November and December, you’ll see signs in restaurants advertising mosto — it’s a seasonal specialty. You can also visit seasonal restaurants called mostos for simple, tasty meals and a drink or several of (you guessed it) mosto.
Soleras and criaderas
The wine isn’t just thrown into a barrel and left to age, though. In the wine cellar, barrels are stored on their side, in piles of three or more. The lowest level of barrels is called the solera (from the Spanish word for “floor”, suelo), while the other levels are known as criaderas (“nurseries”). Wine in the solera level is ready to drink, but winemakers remove just one-third of the sherry from the barrels to be bottled. The rest remains behind, and the space left in the barrel is filled with sherry from the first criadera. The empty space in this barrel is filled with wine from the second criadera, and so on. The new wine is added to the highest barrel of the stack. The barrels aren’t filled to the top, though, about one-sixth of the barrel is left empty to allow the wine to have contact with the air.
This system helps to control the standard of sherry that’s produced, as the resulting wine is a mix of harvests. This also means that most sherries aren’t labelled with a year of production.
Flor or no flor?
Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that extra alcohol is added at some point in the winemaking process. Depending on how much is added, and when, you get very different types of sherry.
In the case of Fino, the spirit is added at the beginning of the process, but only enough to bring the alcohol percentage up to about 15%. Because the alcohol level of the wine in the barrels is so low, a layer of yeast called “flor” grows on top of the liquid, preventing the air from having contact with the wine. The yeast feeds off the sugar in the wine, and the result is a very dry sherry.
Amontillados start life like Finos, with a layer of flor. But after two or three years, more alcohol is added, which kills off the yeast and leaves the wine in contact with the air. This allows the wine to start to oxidate, which means that it becomes darker in colour.
Olorosos have more spirit added at the beginning of the process, taking the alcohol level to about 17% — which means that flor never grows and the wine has contact with the air right from the beginning. Olorosos are a lot darker than Finos and Amontillados because they’ve had more time to oxidate.
To make sweet wines, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes are used. They’re left in the sun to dry for a day before being pressed, and the grape spirit is added to a higher percentage at the beginning of the solera process, which means that no flor grows in the barrel. In addition to being sold as a stand-alone wine, Pedro Ximenez is added to Fino, Amontillado and Oloroso wines to produce cream and medium sherries. For example, Harvey’s Bristol Cream is a mix of Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso wines.
A great way to get your head around the different types of sherries is to taste them — and this is best done in Jerez itself. There are dozens of bodegas (wineries) in and around the city, and many of them offer tours in English — which end with a tasting. Yum.
Do you like sherry? Are there good places to taste wine near you? What’s your favourite thing to drink when you travel? Leave a comment below.