Don’t be the person that thinks that Sherry is the sweet clear stuff your Nan drinks at Christmas. That’s like saying you never watch films because the only one you’ve ever seen is Titanic 2. The Sherry that people go nuts for is usually dry…
As Olly Smith once said, the range of sherry styles is like a choir. From the crisp and clear Sopranos down to the rich and chocolatey basses and everything in between, but they are all still undoubtedly Sherry.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine that hails from the far south of Spain. The fortified bit means that grape spirit has been added to normal wine to stabilize it. In the old days, this was so it could travel without changing too much en route to England and elsewhere as there was no temperature control, but it’s since become an inherent part of Sherry’s style. The grapes used are largely Palomino fino, but there is also some Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez especially for the darker richer styles. But fortification aside, why else is Sherry so different from normal still wines?
A unique production process
The wine for Sherry is made in its own particular way: always in big oak barrels known as butts, but unlike normal wines, a large space is left at the top so that the wine is exposed to oxygen. What this also means is that there is space for a naturally occuring film of yeast to develop on the top of the wine. This yeast is called flor and it’s what gives sherry it’s characteristic nutty flavour. As well as this, there’s another quirk of Sherry production. The more flor you have, the more it protects the wine from oxygen and therefore the lighter and fresher the wine style will be.
The Solera System
Sherry is normally non vintage, so a blend of many different years and they do this in quite a bizarre way: The barrels are arranged so that wine travels from one to another in a particular order during the maturation period. As the fully matured wine is taken from the last barrel or Criadera as it’s called when part of this system, all the others are replenished along the line. This system is called the Solera system. It will take a wine usually at least five years to come out the other end, but it can be longer.
When fermentation is complete, the cellar master tastes the wine in every barrel and classifies it into style based on how light and elegant or dark and heavy the wines are. They are then fortified. There’s always fair bit of variation and that’s because of the flor – it’s a fickle thing. Sometimes there’s lots of it, sometimes it dies off fairly quickly and this is what makes the difference to the key styles.
Key Styles of Sherry – all dry except for PX
- Palo Cortado
Manzanilla & Fino – The Soprano & Mezzo-Soprano
These two styles are very similar, to be honest. Both incredibly pale, crisp, bone dry and tangy with a salted almond flavour. Unlike Fino which is produced around the town of Jerez de la Frontera however, Manzanilla is produced around the port of Sanlúcar. Here, the saltier air and soils add a more saline tang and as the humidity is higher, more flor grows on the wine which in turn means more Oxygen protection and therefore makes them a touch lighter and fresher than Finos. Manzanilla is the Soprano to Fino’s Mezzo Soprano. These are usually fortified to around 15%.
Amontillado – The Tenor
This is the Tenor of sherry styles. Amontillado is essentially a Fino where the flor has partly died back so more air gets in, allowing it to develop a whole new complexity while staying dry. Aged longer than a Fino and with oxygen, the resulting wines are darker than Fino,amber in colour, nutty and complex.
Oloroso – The Baritone
Oloroso is the result of flor either not developing at all or that has completely died back. As these wines are aged oxidatively from the start, they are darker and richer with dried fig, cocoa and nut flavours. This is the Baritone of Sherry styles! Oloroso sherries are fortified more heavily too.
Palo Cortado – Contralto or Counter Tenor
This rare style of Sherry falls somewhere in between Amontillado and Oloroso in terms of style. It starts off as Fino or Amontillado, but the flor dies off part way and this leaves a wine that has the fresher aroma of an Amontillado, but the oxidative, dark complexity of Oloroso on the palate. Think lowest female voice or highest male voice in the choir: the Contralto or Counter Tenor.
PX – The Bass
The grape used to make PX is not Palomino Fino as it is for all the above styles, but Pedro Ximénez, hence PX. This is a sweet, super thick style that resembles molasses and it’s made from sun dried grapes – raisins essentially! Some natural sweetness remains as is there as additional grape spirits stops the fermentation process in its tracks. As it ages, the blacker it becomes and it develops aromas like coffee, dried fruit, chocolate and Christmas pudding. This is definitely and after–dinner wine. It’s also amazing served over vanilla ice cream.
Other sweet sherries
Naturally sweet PX aside, all the above styles of Sherry usually come in sweetened versions. These are the dry sherries that have been sweetened with PX or Moscatel, generally. While commercially very popular and there are some delicious versions, Sherry purists tend to avoid these.
Ditch the Bristol Cream and try these instead!
Fino: Tio Pepe.
RRP £8-11 depending on offers 75cl
Available at Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Tesco and other independent stores.
Manzanilla: Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla Sherry
RRP £8.50 -£10 depending on offers 75cl
Available at Waitrose Cellar, Sainsburys.
Dry Amontillado: DEL DUQUE, aged 30 yrs. Serve slightly chilled
RRP £20 75cl
Available at Selfridges, thedrinkshop.com, Oddbins, The Whiskey Exchange, BBR, Cambridge Wines, Farr Vintners, Fortnum and Mason, General wine Company, Hanging Ditch, Harvey Nichols, Peckham & Rye (Glasgow)
Dry Oloroso: Dry Old Oloroso Sherry
RRP £7.49 half bottle
Available from Marks & Spencer
Sweet Oloroso: Matusalem, aged 30 years.
RRP £20 Drink this with blue cheese and mince pies. it’s Christmas heaven!
Available from Ocado, Waitrose, Selfridges, thedrinkshop.com.
Pedro Ximenez: NOE, aged 30 years
RRP £20 75cl
Available at Ocado, Waitrose, Master of Malt, Tesco