Freelance Spain
The Secret of Sherry

The Sherry story - the making of a wine legend. By Mark Little

To learn the secrets of Sherry, the best thing is to head for its birthplace. The Sherry wine growing region occupies a wedge of rolling countryside in south-western Spain bordered by the crusty port of Puerto de Santa María, the sleepy seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and the city of Jerez de la Frontera itself. At the Jerez wineries (most of them welcome visitors) guides explain what makes Sherry unique, starting with the Palomino grape.

"Never did such a lowly grape give such a majestic wine," says Spanish wine critic José Peñin. Indeed, the Palomino grape is something of an enologist’s nightmare. Although it gives a high yield in juice, it is lacking in sugars and character, and is notoriously prone to oxidation. Even with the benefit of modern wine-making technology, it gives thin, flabby white table wines. But in the special microclimate of the Jerez region, wonderful things happen.

For starters, there’s the chalky white albariza soil, in which the best vines grow. It soaks up and retains the humidity from the winter rains, allowing the vines to thrive through the baking hot summers of Jerez. After the grapes are harvested, crushed and fermented, the wine is fortified with the addition of grape alcohol, bringing the alcohol level up to 15 per cent for finos, 18 for the richer sherries such as oloroso. It is then that the criadera and solera process begins, which consists of blending different vintages to ensure a consistent quality year after year. Wines for bottling are drawn off from the botas (the large Sherry butts or barrels) which contain the oldest blends. The longer the wine has been doing the rounds of the criaderas butts, the richer - and more expensive - it is.

In the case of fino Sherry, the secret lies in the near-miraculous "flor". Thanks to the prevailing humidity, due to the proximity of the ocean, the yeasts (called flor) present on the wine skins flourish as the fino slowly ages in the butts, forming a protective, foamy layer which seals the wine off from the air, resulting in fino Sherry’s subtle aromas, bone dryness and pale color. Amontillado starts as fino, but is aged further, allowing a partial oxidation. In the case of oloroso, the higher alcohol level prevents the flor yeast from forming, and natural oxidation produces that style’s typical golden color.

People in Jerez are proud to point out that they’ve been making wine there since antiquity, but it was in 18th century that foundations for the modern Sherry business were laid. Although the English were already familiar with Sherry in the Middle Ages, it had become particularly popular there after Sir Francis Drake raided the port of Cádiz in 1587 and made off with 3,000 casks. Subsequently, trade with English was conducted in a more conventional manner, and many of the English importers ended up moving to Jerez in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with others from elsewhere in Europe, to become directly involved in the wine making process, which accounts for the un-Spanish sounding names: Osborne, Terry, Domecq, Garvey, Gordon, Byass...

See also: 
"El Priorato"
by Sarah Andrews
"Spanisk wine"
by Mark Little
"The Sherry biz" by Mark Little

Copyright © Mark Little. This is an extract from an article originally published by Wines from Spain News magazine.

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