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Oh, Sherry: A Primer on a Spanish Classic
By Jessica Dupuy
May 4, 2021
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When was the last time you considered sherry?  Not Sherry, the friendly woman down the street who likes to garden, but the style of wine called sherry.  Despite what you may have gathered from British period films depicting aristocratic life in the 17th and 18th-century, sherry is not simply a sappy after dinner beverage intended to be sipped in the library.  If you’ve been anywhere near the coastal towns of Spain, you’ll see locals sipping the light golden-toned refreshment on patio tables alongside savory snacks before an evening meal.  Which prompts the question: What is sherry?  Is it a sweet after-dinner drink?  Or a light, provocative aperitif?  In short, the answer is yes.  More explicitly, sherry is a wine, almost always fortified, specifically made from white grapes through a complex winemaking process.

Thanks to regional regulations and geographic indicators, these celebrated wines can only be made in the Southwestern region of Andalucía near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in order to be classified as sherry.  (And even those that try to emulate it fall short, lacking the genuinely unique coastal humidity, wind, soil, and seasonal conditions of the region that give a distinctive character to these wines.)

With more than a dozen styles of sherry, it can be made in either dry or sweet styles, though most of it is actually dry.  In many ways, the dry styles of sherry could be viewed as simply an ordinary dry white wine, while the sweeter versions could be thought of as being akin to a lower alcohol whisky.  

How do you tell the difference?  When you break it down, there are quite a few clues that can help you determine what’s in the glass.  But it also helps to try to decipher if the wine was aged biologically or oxidatively—or both.  

Biological aging indicates that the wine was matured under a layer of flor, a thin layer of indigenous yeast cells made up of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that forms on top of sherry as it ages.  Oxidative aging refers to maturation in oak barrels where a unique exchange of oxygen takes place over time.  In general, the way a sherry is aged puts it in either the Fino or Oloroso camp, with differentiating factors placing the selections in more specific categories.

Sherry may be made from three different white grape varieties, including Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximenez.  Of the three, Palomino accounts for more than 90% of the acreage planted in the region.  It’s a fairly neutral grape known for its low intensity, alcohol, acidity, and unique minerality.  It thrives in Albariza soil, a fine chalky substance that retains water well and reflects heat and light due to its white color.  Classic dry sherries such as Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, and Palo Cortado are all made from 100% Palomino.

Pedro Ximenez is the most common choice as a sweetening additive in sherries.  These grapes are often dried in the sun to concentrate the sugars and flavors before fermentation.  In the region of Montilla-Moriles, all sherries, especially dry styles, are made with “P.X.”  

Moscatel is another sweetening grape, which is also often sun-dried to enhance its intensity.  This grape thrives in sandy soils that are primarily found near the coast.  Single variety Moscatel sherries are rare but worth seeking out from producers such as Cesar Florido.

All sherries are aged in a solera system, a process of the fractional blending of wines through a series of oak casks, which gives them their classic, unique character.  Below is a basic primer on the sherries of the world.  It’s advisable to grab a handful of Marcona almonds and perhaps some briny olives and a bag of potato chips to enjoy while reading and, hopefully, sipping.  

Fino

Perhaps the purest, most straightforward expressions of sherry, Fino is a wine made from 100% Palomino that is fortified and left to propagate flor.  The wine ages for a minimum of three years in a solera system before it is filtered and bottled.  (These are typically bottled anywhere between three and seven years.)  This style of sherry tends to be the lightest in alcohol ranging between 15-17% alcohol by volume (abv).

These light, lemon-gold sherries offer flavors and aromas of green apple, Marcona almonds, and fresh bread with an intense, yeasty minerality.  Biological aging under flour yields a savory saline profile with notes of dried herbs, bread dough, and a sharp, slightly bitter finish.  

Fino is meant to be consumed in its youth.  Sealed and stored properly, it should be consumed within 12 months of the bottling date.  Serve it as an aperitif, slightly chilled, with olives, almonds, fried appetizers, and salty cheeses.  Just like white wine, it loses its luster after about 36 hours in the refrigerator.

Manzanilla

An almost identical twin to Fino, Manzanilla is made in the same way but has the distinction of being produced and matured exclusively in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a small town right on the coast that boasts more humidity and cooler coastal breezes.  This unique location allows a more pronounced flor to grow, giving the wines more pronounced yeasty, bready, nutty flavors than Fino, with savory, briny undertones.  

It is also produced in a solera system, but typically with more scales than Fino.  It is typically released at a younger age than Fino, although the best Manzanilla offerings are generally more than three years old.  A second classification, Manzanilla Pasada, indicates a longer aging time of six to eight years rather than the standard three to five.  These sherries tend to be slightly richer and more robust with an average abv of 15-17%.  

Manzanilla is also pale lemon-gold.  The thicker layer of flor during the aging process in Sanlúcar de Barrameda yields a slightly lighter style of fino sherry that combines bright, savory notes with fresh vibrancy and aromas of salty seaspray, iodine, and chamomile (or manzanilla in Spanish).  

Just like a Fino, Manzanilla is best served chilled as an aperitif.  In addition to standard Spanish tapas, it is also a fantastic pairing with sushi.  Sealed and stored properly, Manzanilla should be consumed within 12 months of the bottling date.

Amontillado

An Amontillado is a fino with a post-graduate degree.  In addition to aging biologically under a layer of flor, it is then left to continue aging in cask once the flor has died and dispersed.  In most cases, the producer will opt to kill the flor by fortifying the wine a second time to above 17% abv, which is too high for flor to survive.  The result is a complex sherry that develops oxidized qualities as it continues to age.  These wines are full-bodied, complex, and elegant.

If Fino is the most basic and straightforward style of Sherry, Amontillado is considered the most complete and representative style of both methods of maturation.  Depending on how much time the wine spends in barrel, Amontillado can take on a deeper color and exhibit a wide range of characters, some with sharper, leaner, flor characteristics, others with rounder, fuller, spicy, nutty, tobacco notes.  Not surprisingly, Amontillado is considered one of the most complex, refined styles of sherry.

Because of the standard second addition of spirit, these wines are slightly higher in alcohol than Fino, ranging between 16-18% abv.  Before 2012, it was not unusual to find Amontillados which had been sweetened—particularly for the export market.  But under a change in requirements by the Consejo Regulador, these wines must now be dry, with no added sweetener allowed to keep the Amontillado classification.  A sweetened version may be produced, but must then be labeled as a Medium or Cream sherry.

Other commonly seen labels for Amontillado include Jerez Amontillado, Manzanilla Amontillado, and Amontillado del Puerto, each referring to their geographical place of origin in either Jerez, Sanlùcar de Barrameda, or El Puerto de Santa Maria, respectively.  

Compared to Fino and Manzanilla, Amontillado should be served at room temperature rather than chilled.  Its complexity lends itself to more substantial food pairings such as grilled poultry and pork, Spanish chorizo, heavier cheeses, and patés.

Palo Cortado

Perhaps the style of sherry that is most difficult to pin down, yet the most intriguing to explore, Palo Cortado is best considered an “intermediate” style of sherry that results when the flor on a Fino naturally deviates or dies prematurely.  It begins oxidizing earlier than an Amontillado would have.  This lower degree of biological aging exposes the wine to oxygen much sooner than an Amontillado, yielding a more full-bodied palate.  It falls somewhere between an Amontillado in aroma and an Oloroso on the palate.  

Because there is no clear definition from the Consejo Regulador, and because this amber-hued style of wine is generally believed to occur by accident, rather than deliberately, Palo Cortado remains a bit of a mystery.  It’s also extremely rare to encounter (it accounts for less than .1% of overall Sherry production.)  Which is perhaps why it has garnered remarkable appeal for sherry enthusiasts.  

These unique wines offer a range of aromas from orange peel and tobacco to hazelnut, spice, and dried fruit with a touch of creaminess on the finish from residual glycerol.  Served at room temperature, Palo Cortado is a versatile wine to enjoy with charcuterie boards with an assortment of meats, cheeses, and nuts.  With an average abv of 17-22%, it has a generally long shelf life but is ideally consumed within a month after opening.  

Oloroso

Oloroso is the style of sherry that crosses the dividing line between biological and oxidative for the category.  It’s typically made from the grape must that is less refined for the Fino program.  Instead, it is fortified to 18% alcohol, making it impossible for flor to grow.  Instead, this style is aged strictly oxidatively.  Evaporation during the aging process concentrates the wine and increases the abv to around 20-22%.  

Spanish for “fragrant,” Oloroso is typically characterized by nutty, caramelized, smokey flavors and aromas of dried fruit, walnuts, exotic spices, balsamic, and wood polish.  Though aromas may suggest a sweet palate, Oloroso is decidedly dry with a round palate.  (Historically, some producers would add a touch of sweetness with Pedro Ximénez, but the Denominación de Origen rules now require that Oloroso must be fully dry to be labeled as such.)

Serve at room temperature with more decadent foods such as lamb, beef, foie gras, or well-aged cheeses.  Once opened, Oloroso has a long shelf life but is best consumed within a month.

Pale Cream / Medium / Cream

If you’ve ever observed the sweet tipples often poured in small after-dinner glasses in British period films or your grandmother’s bridge club, it was likely cream sherry.  It’s a style that became wildly popular in the late 19th century, particularly in the U.K.  and Germany, and since the 1950s, it’s been the top-selling sherry worldwide.  Absent of any actual cream, the category earned its name after the release of Bodegas Harveys Bristol Cream in the mid-nineteenth century, a sweet, syrupy, blended concoction that originated in Bristol.  These sherries have steadily lost favor in recent years.  

In Spain, these wines are categorized as liqueurs, or Vinos Generosos de Licor, and can have anywhere from 50 to 115 grams of sugar per liter.  While lower-end offerings may come off as overly sweet and disjointed, quality selections of cream sherries are sweetened long before bottling to allow the wine to integrate more fully over time yielding more of an off-dry quality, rather than cloyingly sweet.  

Some of the best Cream Sherries are a blend of Oloroso (for more complexity) and Pedro Ximénez (for natural sweetness), while those of lesser quality are often sweetened with grape must and colored.  

There are four types of blended sweet sherries organized identified by sweetness including:

Pale Cream, which is a Fino or Manzanilla sweetened with between 45-115 grams of sugar;

Medium Sherry, which is typically Amontillado sherry often with a small amount of Oloroso, Moscatel, and/or Pedro Ximénez added, and can contain between 5 and 115 grams of sugar per liter;

Cream Sherry, usually Oloroso blended with Pedro Ximénez with between 115–140 grams of sugar;  

Dulce, naturally sweet sherry with a halted fermentation to retain natural sugar.  

These sherries are best served chilled to offset the sweetness.  They pair well with fruity desserts, pastries, and mature cheeses.  

Moscatel

One of the sweetest styles of sherry is made solely from Moscatel grapes.  (A minimum of 85% from the Moscatel de Alejandria variety.)  Moscatel production is limited within the region, with grapes primarily grown in arena (sandy) soils near the coast.  However, grapes may also be grown in the towns of Chipiona and Chiclana de la Frontera.

This style of sherry is naturally sweet, made from overripe grapes that are late harvested and often dried for a few weeks to concentrate the sugars.  With such concentrated musts, the grapes go through a short fermentation before being fortified, yielding a wine with a minimum of 160 grams of sugar per liter.  (Alcohol is 15-20%.)

The two primary styles of Moscatel sherry include Moscatel Pasas, made from raisinated grapes that have been dried in the sun and aged in a solera for many years.  These are always unctuously sweet, with notes of orangey citrus, honey, maple syrup, and tons of aromatic spice.  They are dark amber.  The second is Moscatel Dorado (Oro), made from fresher juice without drying, and by aging in stainless steel, resulting in a golden-hued, floral wine.

These wines are typically served as dessert wines exhibiting notes of orange blossom, jasmine, and golden raisins.  They should ideally be served chilled and pairs well with fruits, pastries, and cheese.

Pedro Ximenez

The juggernaut of sweet wines, Pedro Ximenez is a powerfully flavorful dessert wine that, despite its syrupy sweetness, manages to shine through with pleasant balance.  Commonly referred to as “P.X.,” these are intensely sweet wines with at least 212 grams of sugar per liter, but often up to 300-400 grams.  

The majority of P.X. sherry is produced in Montilla Moriles, a Denominación de Origen further from the coast with a warmer and less humid climate, protecting the grapes from rot.  Still, some are transferred back to bodegas in Jerez for maturation, which is the only way they may be labeled as sherry.  (These sherries must also contain at least 85% of Pedro Ximénez grapes.)

The grapes are often harvested very ripe and are dried in the sun to concentrate.  Because of the high sugar content, fermentation is usually only partial before fortification.  The alcohol content on these wines ranges between 15-22%.  

Marked by notes of dried and roasted figs, dates, molasses, spices, dark chocolate, freshly roasted coffee, prunes, these wines are usually jet black.  Older PX wine will have higher acidity and elegance, while younger wines may be overwhelming.

Though sweet enough to be enjoyed on its own, P.X. is an excellent match for pure chocolate desserts and strong cheeses.  (It’s also delicious when poured over vanilla ice cream.) 



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