Sherry Defined

I have been a bit off the grid the past few weeks as I am in the final days of studying to become a Spanish Wine Scholar, with the exam happening later this week. When I opted to do the virtual course this time last year through the Wine Scholar Guild I knew I would have a year to study after taking the 5-wk intensive Zoom course, in the middle of Covid, which I of course planned to take full advantage of with slow, focused, intent study.

Then life happens and you find yourself three weeks before the testing opportunity will expire, and you need to take your exam. So, I have been focused, determined, and very dedicated to all things Spain, fully immersed into the wines, the history, the production, and the terroir. When I started the course I thought I was in a good place as I have traveled throughout much of Spain over the years on wine trips. I am thankful to have that knowledge, as it has helped, but there is so much more to the beautiful wines of Spain than I realized.

The greatest surprise of all has to be Sherry. I had tried many Sherry wines, many times through the years, but it wasn’t until now that I can say I really understand it and completely appreciate it.

I always expected it to be sweet, as Sherry is a fortified wine, however, the majority of Sherry is completely dry, showcasing delicate elegance in Fino and Manzanilla styles, with Oloroso being more nutty and rich.

So, what is Sherry?

From Spain’s Andalusia, along the southern boarder of the country with the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, with chalky white albariza soils that capture moisture and reflect the sunlight, keeping the fruit hydrated even in the warmest parts of summer, Fino Sherry and Manzanilla Sherry are essentially the same thing, Manzanilla coming specifically from Manzanilla – Sanlúcar de Barrameda D.O. right by the Atlantic giving briny saline and floral chamomile notes to the delicate wine. Fino Sherry can be from any of the nine provinces that D.O. Jerez-Xérès-Sherry has designated have the ability to grow dry Palomino Fino, and naturally sweet Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.

Fino and Manzanilla are produced in the same way from the free run juice, or primera yema, of Palomino Fino grown in these albariza soils. The wine is fermented to 11 or 12% alcohol after harvest, and then fortified to a maximum of 15% alcohol and aged under a layer of yeasts which make up the veil of flor. Alcohol can not be higher than 15% in Fino or Manzanilla because the flor will not survive at a higher alcohol. It is stored and aged in the traditional solera y criaderas system in 600L American oak butts in the bodegas of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, or Sanlúcar de Barrameda, also known as the Sherry triangle. The Flor protects the aging sherry from oxidation, and imparts freshly baked bread and roasted nut flavors in the wine. 

One of the best is Tio Pepe ($20). Served very chilled, ideally as an aperitif, the pale golden Tio Pepe Fino Sherry is elegant and delicate, best served very cold, which makes it also very refreshing. Brioche, wild herb, and roasted almond notes linger on the palate, begging to be paired with a salty treats, like olives, chips, and nuts, or perfect paired with seafood and shellfish.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Oloroso Sherry, also produced from Palomino Fino, also from fruit grown in one of the nine designated towns and aged in the Sherry triangle, but this Palomino Fino produced from the first actual pressing of fruit (the segunda yema) that is not as delicate as the free run juice, but still quite elegant, and placed in similar American oak butts for aging with direct contact with oxygen. Oloroso is oxidatively aged after fortification to 17% alcohol (to ensure the flor will not form) for a minimum of three years, but in reality, most criaderas and soleras are around 10-15 years old. This constant contact with oxygen ensures a gradual loss of water concentrating the wine, giving it structure, smoothness and complexity.

Rich and savory, with a deep mahogany color, Alfonso Oloroso Sherry ($25) showcases the earthiness oak aging can give to a well aged wine, with roasted walnut, aged balsamic, toasted oak, black tea, and dried tobacco notes. The perfect pairing for aged cheese, roasted game, or wild mushroom ragu.

The Palo Cortado is the best of the happy blending of the two, a special wine created by first taking the wine through biological aging under the flor for a period of time until it dies and the wine is allowed to oxidatively age for a period of time. As it starts as a Fino, the wine is from the free run, very delicate juice, showcasing herbal, nutty, brioche notes, that then gains richness and complexity as the wine is exposed to oxygen, concentrating the juice and creating something truly special. Palo Cortado Sherries are specifically selected by the winemaker of the bodega when they feel the fruit meets their highest standards of perfection. Similar to an Amontillado, though the wine for Palo Cortado is selected and Amontillado happens naturally when the flor dies.

Leonor 12 year old Palo Cortado Sherry ($35) is aged 12 years in the American oak butts, with a flavor profile melding roasted hazelnut, toasted bitter orange rind, baking spice, and cedar, with a creamy, slightly lactic note of fresh butter. Perfect served chilled on its own, simply to enjoy, or with roasted meat or hard cheese.

There are many more layers to the world of sherry, but, hopefully this glimpse into the world of sherry will peak your interest and you will try a wine from Spain’s hailed Sherry region with a very open mind. Also, know that unless it says “dulce” (sweet) on the bottle, it will be dry (seco) and may be your new favorite start or end to your night. #Cheers