Don’t know what sherry is? Don’t worry, neither did I before researching the stuff. In fact, sherry – which was once celebrated by royalty, sipped on by Shakespeare and guzzled by Edgar Allan Poe – is neglected by most of today’s drinking world, the wine-educated included. How exactly the beverage fell so far is a complicated story, worth checking out if you’re so inclined. Industrialization and mass-production surely played their role.
The how comes and whys set aside, sherry’s current spot on the shelf, often relegated to “cooking wine,” places the curious consumer in an advantageous position. Although misunderstood, great sherry is still great. And it’s a relatively inexpensive means of trying fine wine. But before we get ahead of ourselves, what is sherry?
My knee-jerk reaction tells me to address the most common misconception first. Sherry is not necessarily sweet. It can be, though. Sherry’s production ranges from pedro ximénez, one of the sweetest wines available, to fino, which hangs like linen on the other side of the spectrum. In which case, it might be more appropriate to start with the cause of the most common misconception. Sherry is not the crystallized bottle that’s been sitting in your grandmother’s cupboard since 1977. At least good sherry isn’t.
It’s difficult to find a place to start when discussing sherry. It’s fortified. It’s sometimes oxidized. It comes from Spain. That’s a beginning, anyhow. But then again, what do fortification and oxidation mean?
A brief tutorial of what’s on the shelf will put vague conceptions in their place. It’s a very satisfying practice. After covering the basics we’ll get more specific, hands on. We’ll crawl into a cask of amantillado, talk about climate, and introduce new vocabulary such as albariza, flor and poniente. We’ll probably throw the word terroir around a little.
But before all that, what is sherry?
In A Modern Guide to Sherry, Talia Baiocchi defines the libation as “a wine produced in Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. It is a fortified wine, which means that a small amount of neutral grape spirit (brandy) is added to the wine to increase its alcohol content.”
To elaborate, sherry is a fortified wine produced in one of three cities that make up the “Sherry Triangle” in the Jerez-Xéres-Sherry DO (Denominación de Origen). There are five types of dry sherry: fino, manzanilla (which is fino made exclusively in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda), amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso. The only grape permitted in the production of dry sherry is palomino fino, which is to say that all five styles of dry sherry are produced from the same grape. There are also two types of sweet sherry: pedro ximénez (widely known as PX) and moscatel. PX is inky and sweet while moscatel takes on an amber color and texture. For the sake of keeping loose ends to a minimum, however, we’re going to stick to dry sherry, and namely fino, amontillado and oloroso.
Palomino fino is a thin-skinned white grape that ripens around August and rapidly drops in acidity at maturation. Naturally low in acid and sugar at harvest, the grape has an alcohol potential of 11-12.5%. A low potential. After fermentation in large, stainless steel vats, a neutral grape spirit is added in order to fortify the wine against infection. An acidification process by tartaric acid is also utilized at this time for the same reason.
At this point the capataz – cellar master – has the base juice for fino, amontillado or oloroso. He determines, based on the texture of the wine, where to send the juice next.
Here comes the satisfying part. The “Aha” moment. Let’s take the sherry of Bodegas Hidalgo, for the sake of example, a winery that was founded in 1792. On our shelf you’ll find three of Hidalgo’s labels: La Gitana Manzanilla, Napoleon Amontillado and Faraon Oloroso. You’ve already learned that each style is made from the palomino fino grape. So, what’s the difference between the three? From the consumer’s point of view, tasting the final product, it’s all about the level of oxidation. Fino is not oxidized. It’s light and delicate, great as an aperitif or paired with seafood. Next in line is amontillado, which sees some oxidation and takes on a mahogany color and nuttiness that pairs well with pâté, ham and cheese. Last but not least is oloroso, the most oxidative of the bunch. It’s richer and darker than amontillado, hinting at the more serious walnut.
Got it? Fino is light, delicate and meant to be drunk young. Amontillado walks the line between richness and delicacy. And oloroso is all in (or is it all out?). You already know more than the average consumer! Isn’t education fun? But there’s much more to it. Why does the capataz oxidize one batch while the next is shielded from oxygen by a protective cap called flor? What goes into the production of fino as compared to amontillado or oloroso? We’ll nerd out next time. For now, enjoy the newfound knowledge.