Jerez was shipping sherry to northern Europe long before the rise of Rioja. It was the strongest drink in alcohol content available, this before spirits. In Shakespeare’s day, it was known as sack, it was sweet and and it was durable. Its high sugar content kept it from deteriorating – a problem for the only other wine available “claret”.
It came from numerous places, Canary Islands, Malaga, Cyprus, even Greece but the King of of them all came from Jerez “sherris”.
It was a unique wine as it was kept in huge Bodegas, the stock being worth an enormous sum of money for the day, and in those days the wine was shipped without aging and compared to today was a crude product.
The modern sherry started to evolve in the nineteenth century when it was discovered that with barrel aging and in contact with oxygen – oxidization being a disaster for all other wines – a very ordinary grape producing a white wine – the grape being the Palomino, Pedro Ximenez is used to sweeten being left out in the sun to dry like raisins similiar to process that makes great Valpolicella Amarone – different flavors could be acquired and with blending rather as in Champagne, a range of wines could be made that altered not year after year by adjusting and refining from the various barrels.
The manufacture of sherry starts as with any white wine. It is fermented in new oak barrels until it reaches a strength of between 12 and 16 degrees it is then fortified with spirit and the strength adjusted to between 15 and 18 degrees, depending on quality and type. After this, the aging process unique to sherry takes over.
The difference at this stage to any normal wine is that the barrels are never uniform in the development, the flor that developes dictates the style. The finest wines or finos are the least fortified and they produce the heaviest scum on the surface and this excludes air protecting them from oxidization.
They remain pale because of the exclusion of air and these wines are the first to ready to drink. The precise age is never known as they are blended from barrels of different age.
The young wines of a heavier nature grow less flor or none. The bigger dose of fortifying spirit slows down or discourages the formation of flor completely. This is oloroso. They are aged without the protection of the flor and exposed to the air so they oxidize and develop with the colour darkening and the flavor increasing.
In these early stages of maturing, a third class emerges. This is Palo Cortado that combines the depth of the oloroso but keeps the finesse and cut that exists in the fino.
From these three basic styles that occur naturally, the Bodegas use in the blending process, from finos that are allowed to develop and in whom the colour darkens then go on to become fino-amontillados and further develop into old powerful amontillados.
All the Bodegas keep some barrels of very old finos that have developed from this maturing process. These however are the unblended rarities. Commercial sherry sold as amontillado is anything sold as medium sherry in a blend ending up between the fino and oloroso.
In the Bodegas, the evaporation of water reduces the sherry – in the case of old ones, an almost undrinkable state but the nectar that is used in the blending, the commercial blends are the youngest wines of low value, sweetened with or improved with a small proportion of wine from a good solera to cover the quality of the base wine.
There are numerous sub categories that are versions of the three main styles. Many are names that have become synonymous with brands such as cream but all are from the three styles.
One other oddity with amazing wines is the Almacenista, a storeholder in effect, who buys and keeps old wines. These are sometimes put out on the market in small quantities but are rarely seen in this country these days and these Almacenistas have been in decline, so one or two of the great names in sherry are reviving the trade, notably Lustau.
The area for growing the grapes is between Cadiz and Seville, the centre being Jerez de la Frontera. The comparison with Champagne in the blending is also present in the soil the grapes grow in. Both are white grapes growing in chalk soil, about 80% of the soil – the best – is chalk for the Palomino grape.
The other non chalk areas are used to grow the other two grapes that are used for mainly blending.
Sherry has been called the most undervalued wine in the world and the great producers’ best wines are ridiculously cheap compared with other great wines and they are great. The best producers include – a full list would be just a catalogue – Domecq, Gonzalez Byass, Emilio Lustau, Hidalgo and E Hidalgo who used to do – I have no current knowledge – wonderful finos and Antonio Barbadillo, king of the manzanillas in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Just a note to finish on. The finos and even more the manzanillas deteriorate when opened, as they were the most protected in the fermentation process from air, so as soon as the bottle is opened they start to deteriorate. They should be drunk young and always finish the bottle – not difficult if it’s a good one.