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How to Find the Best Sherry Wine
Sherry is one of those wines that’s widely misunderstood. Some people think it’s a spirit and has no idea it’s actually wine. Other people think it’s old fashioned, like something you would see someone in the roaring 20s enjoy. But neither is true, and it’s making a huge comeback among younger generations, particularly millennials.
More and more young people are experimenting with this fortified wine and ordering it at restaurants. Bartenders even remark at how happy they are to be breaking out the bottles of Sherry and educating a younger generation on its finer qualities.
Sherry is, to be sure, one of the most underappreciated wines out there. As the surge for Sherry picks up, winemakers who specialize in Sherry production have mounted a worldwide marketing campaign in hopes that their slow-moving wine will become one of the fastest.
This once ignored wine is a perfect food companion, but what’s adding the most traction to this Sherry movement isn’t how steady and traditional it is. It’s that these wine drinkers coming of age now are all about discovery. They love experimenting with new styles, flavors, and trends.
Millennials are old souls with a new interest in being open to anything, including blowing through bottles of this stuff. Luckily, there are bartenders out there who are as sophisticated as the Sherry they serve and are happy to lend a helping hand when it comes to educating their patrons on which Sherry goes with which entree. All you have to do is ask.
Sherry’s personality has been moulded through generations of geographic influence, historical circumstances, sale, and enjoyment. Sherry’s origins may be in the Sherry region of Spain, but its character comes from centuries of outside persuasion.
The Sherry Region, or Jerez Region as it’s known locally, has exceptional natural conditions that allow for the production of Sherry. More than 3000 years of history has made a mark on the cultural identity of the inhabitants of Spain.
To understand where Sherry comes from, you may need a quick history lesson. The first known record in history mentioning Sherry is recorded by Strabo, who was a Greek geographer in the first century BC. He wrote in his book, Geography Volume III, that the Phoenicians brought vines to the Sherry Region in 1100 BC.
This tip led to the discovery of archaeological sites at Castillo de Dona Blanca, which isn’t far from Jerez. They found winepress remains to confirm that these people knew a lot about the art of making wine and likely traveled from as far away as Lebanon.
The Traveling Wine
These winemakers exported their wine throughout the Mediterranean region and Rome led the importing of Sherry wine. From the very beginning, one of Sherry’s most famous qualities was imparted. It’s been known for centuries as a wine that travels.
When Scipio Aemilianus came to power in Rome, he established trade routes in the region, which contributed to the migration of Sherry throughout the Mediterranean region. These trade routes included more than Sherry. They imported olive oil and garum, which is a marinade made salted fish leftovers.
A Roman writer at the time documented basic rules for planting vineyards, soil and grape types, locations, and other instructions on how and when to perform tasks. These documents survive today and provide a glimpse into how seriously people in the Jerez area took their winemaking abilities.
Fast forward to the Moorish denomination that was prevalent in Spain starting in 711, and you’ll see a period of time lasting for more than 500 years when Jerez became and remained one of the largest wine producers in the world, despite the fact that drinking alcohol was prohibited by the Koran.
People skirted this rule by producing alcohol for producing raisins, medicinal purposes, for use in perfumes and ointments. They continued to make it, and when Arab Caliph Al-Haken II passed a decree to grub up the vines growing on Jerez religious grounds, the people already had a plan. They informed the man in power that these vineyards were used to supply troops with raisins while fighting the Holy War, and he only grubbed up about a third of the vineyards.
An Elite Wine
During periods of less religious ardor, people consumed and appreciated a wine in all circles, but it was especially popular among the elite. A map of the region in 1150 AD by a Moorish geographer shows the name the Moors gave the region: Sherish.
A reclaiming of the Sherry region from the Moors by King Alfonso X of Castile in 1264 saw violence, bloodshed, and struggle. A period of time in which it was essential for both crops and population to be replenished. The land was divvied up by the Crown according to merit and social prestige, and Alfonso deemed cereals and vines obligatory crops. He even owned his own vineyard in the area.
The vineyards in the Sherry region became crucial to economic and dietary survival. With that, Sherry was exported to England, where the English referred to it by its Moorish name, Sherish. When Henry I implemented a bartering system trading Sherry for English wool, the Sherry region became even more important to the wealth of the Spanish kingdom.
In 1402, King Enrique III of Castile passed a Royal Decree making it illegal to uproot any vines at all, and forbade placing beehives anywhere near them for fear the bees would ruin the crops. The demand for Sherry in England, France, and Flemish markets grew, necessitating the establishment of the Regulations of the Guild of Raisin and Grape Harvesters of Jerez.
These rules outlined appropriate harvesting details and streamlined Sherry production for a more consistent and quality result. Thus began the commercial production of Sherry in 1483. When Catherine of Aragon married King Arthur and later King Henry VIII, she complained that her husband kept all the best Sherry for himself.
This public proclamation that Sherry is a fantastic wine enjoyed by royalty skyrocketed its popularity throughout Europe. As the discovery of new lands proliferated, so did Sherry in the Americas. Many bottles made their way overseas via epic voyages like Magellan’s, in which he is said to have purchased over 400 wineskins and 250 kegs of Sherry before embarking on his journey.
Coming to America
It would seem that Sherry was the first wine to complete a trip around the world, if we assume there was any left when he returned. We also have proof that Sherry participated in plenty of celebrations following the conquests of Peru and Venezuela.
After discovering the Americas, Sherry made its way by ship quite frequently. Because the Sherry region was so close to the port in Seville, Sherry was an essential provision for all ships coming to America. Winemakers in Jerez made the most of their geographical location and ensured every ship had plenty of goods from the area.
Open Trade and Mass Consumption
These trade operations made small family vineyards into huge commercial operations. The West Indies monopoly on trade ended, and Sherry became a prevailing trade among Italian investors, Indies traders, and many others in the 15th century.
Pirates often seized shiploads of Sherry, and in 1587, Sir Francis Drake made off with 3000 kegs. When he delivered it to London, Elizabeth I recommended the wine to the Count of Essex. The consumption of Sherry rapidly increased and the supply dwindled. As an example of his subjects, King James I limited the drinking of Sherry in his court to a mere 12 gallons per day.
Sherry in Pop Culture
William Shakespeare drank several bottles of Sherry a day with his good friend Ben Johnson and refers to it many times in his plays, including Henry VI, Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After demand rose, an influx of investors boosted production, trade, merchants, and much more in the 17th and 18th centuries. The region was profitable and attracted plenty of Spanish capital, continuing its growth well into the late 1700s.
The Beginning of Modern Sherry
The growth of Sherry in the 19th century was made possible by some lucky circumstances that shaped the industry for the entire modern era of Sherry-drinking. By the mid-1700s, people’s tastes began to change. Unfortunately, trade had already been established for the wines currently in production, and now people wanted something stronger, with more maturity and color.
This caused friction between winemakers and merchants because while winemakers needed buyers for the wine they already had, merchants wanted to deliver what the consumer wanted. The Vintners’ Guild had strict guidelines for aging wine which essentially prohibited winemakers from selling the types of wine that the people wanted.
In 1775, a lawsuit was filed against the Vintners’ Guild, and it began to dissolve over a period of several decades. These strict practices disappeared and a movement toward more liberal wine production and trade regulations ensued.
The end of the Vintners’ Guild shaped wines of the Sherry region by allowing them more prolonged storage and a mix of different harvests, which resulted in supplying the market with more consistent quality and helped develop the aging method known today as Criaderas and Solera.
Now that Sherry was allowed to age for a longer period of time in the cask, the fortification was now used as a technique for cultivating different types of wines, not just as a stabilization method for fragile wines. The use of different proportions of distillation and fortification provided a foundation for the huge variety of Sherry wines on the market today.
This era also gave rise to aging bodegas, Sherry houses in which Sherry was mixed, aged, and shipped. These Sherry houses were an impressive architectural statement and are still awe-inspiring today. Well established merchants led the implementation of many of these changes that paved the way for modern Sherry characteristics.
The 20th Century
At the end of the 1800s, the black plague and an insect that voyagers brought back from America devastated nearly all of the Jerez vines. It was the worst setback in the history of winemaking to date. To recuperate the vines required uprooting all of the existing plants and replacing them with American varieties that were already resistant to the Daktulosphaira vitifolii insect.
A New Problem
While establishing the plants again went quickly, it completely changed the grape varieties used to make Sherry, impacting taste and production significantly. Regardless, the early 20th Century was prosperous and both transport and communication improved. Sherry entered international markets and took hold.
This international expansion led the way for Sherry knockoffs. It usurped Sherry’s identity and brought out names like South African Sherry, Canadian Sherry, and Australian Sherry. These colonies were able to produce their own versions easily, cheapening the authentic Sherry that had been around for centuries.
Before this time, there was no legislation in place to protect intellectual property when it came to wine production, but during this time, the concept of Denomination of Origin arose and it was closely followed by food products.
Since this time, Sherry hasn’t changed too much. We still have Sherry in the United States today, although it’s only now experiencing a resurgence of popularity among the younger generation. It’s traditional, classic, and a wonderful fortified wine including flavors that everyone will like.
Aging bodegas grew in popularity and cultural beauty in the 1700s. There are three different types of bodegas that are still in use today. These bodegas refer to warehouses where the Sherry is stored during production and aging, but it can also describe companies who make Sherry.
These aging bodegas are identified by the stage of production including Shipping Bodegas, Stockist Bodegas, and Production Bodegas. Every bodega must comply with the requirements implemented by the Denomination of Origin.
Shipping, or aging Bodegas as they’re frequently called, are required to be located in Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, or El Puerto de Santa Maria, all of which are in the aging zone. These shipping bodegas comply with all regulations regarding the aging and marketing of protected wines so they can be bottled and sold.
Stockist bodegas are wholesalers who store Sherry until it’s ready to be sold to the shipping bodegas discussed above. Once the Sherry from the stockist bodega is sold to the shipping bodega, it’s incorporated into the aging system of the shipping bodega or sold into the commercial brand blend.
There are some areas that fall within the production zone but not within the paging zone. These areas are still an important part of the Denomination of Origin. This not only includes vineyards registered in these areas but also Processing Bodegas that are included in this category.
Processing Bodegas are Sherry houses that store wines that will be produced later. Processing Bodegas can also directly market their wines using the name of their own township.
Making Sherry Wine
The unique aging system of Sherry is called solera. It involves letting fortified wine sit in barrels for many years at ambient temperature. While small amounts of wine are bottled from the oldest barrels, new wine is constantly added to keep the solera constantly going.
Much like Champagne, Sherry is only worthy of being called Sherry if it’s made in a particular region, which we’ve already established as part of the Denomination of Origin. Only three types of white grapes are used in the production of Sherry – Pedro Ximenez, Moscatel, and Palomino.
Palomino grapes are the most common and are used to make dry Sherry, while Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez are used to make Sherry named after their grape varieties.
For Mosto Sherry, grapes should be picked and pressed in September. Skins and stalks remain in the mix, making a must, or mosto in Spanish. The must is then put into stainless steel containers and fermented until November. What comes out is a dry white wine. Mosto is a special seasonal wine in December.
Soleras and Criaderas
Much more quality and traditional is the soleras method of making Sherry. This type of Sherry is left in barrels to age for a considerable amount of time. These barrels are turned on their sides and piled in clusters of at least three, often more.
The lowest barrels in the pile are called solera, which comes from the Spanish word for floor. The other levels are called criaderas, or nurseries. The solera level is the oldest, and ready to drink, but only about a third of the Sherry is removed for bottling while the rest stays behind and more Sherry is added from the adjacent criadera level.
This method allows for the Sherry to continue to age and mingle with Sherries of other ages, ensuring the Sherry is a mix of harvests, deepening its flavor. A small bit of the barrel is left empty so the Sherry has contact with open air for appropriate aging.
Types of Sherry
There are six different types of Sherry. This process is what defines the Sherry far beyond which grape variety is used. These different processes are a fantastic example of how one minor change during aging can dramatically impact the final result.
We already know that the solera cask system produces a blend of older and younger Sherries, but with a product called flor, the aging process for each of these types of Sherries is very deliberate. While some have it, others lose it naturally, and still, others are intentionally deprived to achieve their flavor.
Fino Sherry is the driest type of Sherry. It has very high acidity and it’s made from Palomino grapes. These grapes are typically grown in white, chalky soil called albariza. These Sherries are fermented in tanks and are fortified under the protective covering of yeast, which is called flor. This yeast blanket prevents oxidation.
Fino has a high alcohol content of about 15% and should be served chilled. They go great with salty snacks like potato chips, peanuts, seafood, and olives.
If you’re looking for a great fino, Gonzalez Byass Winery offers a specialty Tio Pepe en Rama from the two oldest soleras barrels at the bodega. This fourth edition en Rama is still in its most delicate, unrefined state.
Manzanilla means chamomile, and this type of Sherry is flinty, but much like fino, except made in Sanlucar de Barrameda. They still use the same aging techniques including flor, but because they’re a lighter Sherry, they pair better with raw seafood.
Equipo Navazos offers a La Bota de Manzanilla 42 that comes from a barrel of hand-selected Sherry. In its limited series sixth release, this wine comes from a small producer and pairs well with Asian dishes or mackerel sashimi.
Sometimes a blanket of flor doesn’t hold, and when that happens, the Sherry is called Amontillado. These Sherries are brown instead of light, because of their prolonged contact with air, even inside the solera barrel.
Instead of a crisp, saline flavor like manzanillas and finos, the amontillado tastes nutty, with a hint of sauteed mushrooms. It is rich with 18% alcohol content and goes great with soup, rabbit, pheasant, or pork.
The Bodegas Dios Baco Imperial Amontillado smells like caramel and walnut with flavors like salted peanuts, toffee, and dried apricot. It is acidic and versatile.
In an oloroso, the flor is destroyed intentionally to encourage oxidation. They can be dry or sweet. Like amontillado, the alcohol content is about 18% and it can age for decades in a barrel for extra complexity and richness.
The Gutierrez-Colosia Sangre y Trabajadero is a full-bodied Sherry that has been aged for at least seven years in a solera barrel. It comes from a bodega built in 1838 in El Puerto de Santa Maria.
This Sherry variety starts under a layer of flor and loses its cover just like amontillado. However, somehow during this process, it gains in richness, much like the oloroso. This type of Sherry is best enjoyed by itself rather than paired with food.
The Pena del Aguila Chipiona from Bodegas Cesar Florido is a wonderful wine from a solera of 38 years and is by far the best quality of any of the other Sherry varieties. It has to find wood, vanilla, and roasted nut flavors with a 21.5% alcohol content.
Cream Sherry is a sweet Sherry that is much like oloroso Sherry made from Pedro Ximenez grapes sun-dried to concentrated flavors and sugars. They are very dark, viscose wines.
The Valdespino El Candado Pedro Ximenez is an excellent cream Sherry that makes a great dessert wine. Drink it alone or use it as a topping on ice cream. Its texture is like molasses and it is the color of brown sugar.
How Sherry Compares to Other Wines:
Now that you know a lot about Sherry, how its made, and where it comes from, it’s time to dispel some common myths that have been circulating for a long time. It’s misrepresented plenty, but we can fix that together.
Sherry is a Spirit
As we know now, this is wrong. Sherry is a fortified wine. Neutral spirits are added either before or after fermentation. As we know from the aging process, distilled wine is added to Sherry via the solera barrels and it becomes a blend of older and younger Sherries.
Other popular distilled spirits are Port and Madeira from Portugal and Marsala from Sicily. Like these, Sherry is known for the region from which it comes, which is the Sherry triangle in Spain.
Sherry is Like Syrup
Many styles of Sherry are dry. Cream Sherry is syrupy sweet with a texture like molasses, but plenty of other varieties range in sweetness from acidic and dry to sweet like syrup. The production of Sherry falls into one of two types.
Light and dry Sherry is aged under a layer of yeast called Flor and is called Fino, Manzanilla, and Amontillado. Heavy, sweet Sherry like Oloroso, Palo Cortado, and Jerez Dulce is not aged under flor and has a higher alcohol content.
Sherry is a Dessert Wine
This is also untrue, as you know now from the explanation of myth number two. It’s not always sweet, and it’s not always meant for dessert. Many Sherry varieties go well with red meat or fish. It’s a very interesting and versatile wine with plenty of applications.
Many bartenders embrace the versatility of Sherry by using it as a primary ingredient in their cocktails. It has its place in the books of history as part of the evolution of cocktails like in the Sherry Cobbler of the late 1800s. Now it’s coming back into fashion and mixology thanks to people who are striving to revive these historic drinks.
Sherries unique flavors make it a very interesting and versatile base for plenty of new cocktail recipes rather than an ingredient or a modifier. Here are some fun Sherry recipes you can try at home.
This drink features equal parts of Sherry and dry vermouth. It’s a fun spin a Bamboo cocktail and it uses fino Sherry for a light, mineral flavor that’s crisp and not overpowered by the vermouth. Throw two dashes of orange bitters, a lemon twist for garnish, and stir with ice.
This cocktail uses two ounces of rye whiskey and a ¾ ounce of nutty, rich amontillado to make it more complex. Throw in a ¼ ounce of orange liqueur, two dashes of orange bitters, and an orange peel for garnish.
Add some fruity flavor to a dry Fino Sherry for some fun flair. Start with a glass of ice and add ¾ ounce grenadine, ½ of ruby Port, a ½ ounce of Cognac, and a ¼ ounce of fresh lemon juice. Mix with a swizzle stick. You can mix with a spoon, but then it would be called a Fino Spoon, now wouldn’t it?
Fill the rest of the highball glass with ice, add two ounces of Fino Sherry, and swizzle it again. Top with five dashes of Fee Brothers, Whiskey Barrel bitters, and add a mint sprig for garnish.
More Sherry to Try
Some of the people’s favorite Sherries find their homes on the menus of swanky restaurants and bars that aren’t for everyone. But luckily, Sherry’s comeback means you can order it almost anywhere. Here are some of the ones to try.
La Ina Fino
This great young Sherry is crisp and bone-dry so it can hold its own against vermouth and other spirits in cocktails, but it’s also a nice sipper with a snack like almonds.
La Guita Manzanilla
This Sherry variety has bright apple flavors and mouthwatering saline. It’s part of a signature cocktail called the Manzanilla Martini but is also a fine Sherry to drink on its own.
Pedro Romero Amontillado
This one is the perfect Sherry to put in your Sherry Cobbler. It’s off-dry with hazelnut and spice tones. It also makes a cozy companion to savory appetizers and cheese.
Toro Albala Don PX
Pedro Ximenez is often labeled PX, and it’s a sweet Sherry that you can get by the glass. You can pair it with dessert or have it for dessert, or enjoy it drizzled over ice cream.
Lustau East India Solera
This brown-hued Sherry tastes like a raisin, cacao, and fig. It pairs well with flan, which is another traditional Spanish dessert recipe.
Sherry isn’t just for sipping with grandma in her living room full of doily-topped end tables anymore. It’s hip, trendy, and making a comeback. Sherry is perhaps one of the most widely underappreciated wine today. Young people are rapidly gaining a healthy respect for Sherry and its versatility.
There are plenty of varieties to suit any taste and it can be sipped alone, paired with food, or mixed in cocktails. It’s not as complicated, prim, or proper as people make it out to be. It’s an interesting libation that’s making a well-deserved comeback.
FAQs About Sherry Wine
Sherry is a fortified wine that is mostly used before serving dinner or lunch, and it’s a very typical wine made of white grapes coming from the Spanish region.
Even though there are many controversies related to the sherry wine, just because it contains sour cherries, it doesn’t mean that it is stronger than regular wine. In fact, sherry wine varies between 18 and 20% alcohol.
Cherry wine has a sweeter taste than regular wine, due to the brandy base which is added during fermentation. This type of wine has a deeper brown color and comes with a nutty flavor as well.
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