A Full Guide to Sherry Wines!
When we drove down to the South of the South, Andalucia, we stopped in the town of Jerez de la Frontera, whose former name in Moorish times was “Sherish”. It is under an anglicisation of this name that the wines of Sherry became famous.
A little bit like Port wines in Portugal, Sherry wines were first intended for shipping to England. With a long sea voyage ahead of them, they had to be made “stronger” or, in other words, to be “fortified”, which gave birth to a peculiar winemaking process.
To understand the wines of Sherry better, we have met Silvia Flores, assistant winemaker at Gonzales Byass, home of the famous flagship brand “Tio Pepe” and many more. After a very informative visit of the cellars, we were given a full lecture and tasting of the many styles of sherry. Here is what we learnt there!
Sherry: The Land & The Grapes
First Press VS Second Press
Fortification & Impact on Ageing
The Solera Method
Sherry: The Land & The Grapes
“The DO Jerez (Spanish name for “Sherry” wines) is located in the Southernmost tip of Spain: Andalucia. It lies between 3 towns: Sanlucar de Barrameda, Jerez de la Frontera & el Puerto de Santa Maria."
Alcazar of Jerez de la Frontera
Sanlucar de Barrameda, up in the Northern part of the area, can produce Fino wines under the name “Manzanilla”. The method is the same as Fino (as we’ll see later on) although the specific terroir gives light iodine notes, like a fresh touch of sea breeze.
For the rest, el Puerto de Santa Maria (“Virgin Mary’s Harbour”) has long been the main harbour for shipping goods to and from the New World, within the Hispanic Empire. This importance of the town is in large part responsible for the success of Sherry wines in History. A lot of interesting Historical facts can be found all through Sherry’s long past, but here I would like to focus on the wines themselves.
“The main grape of Sherry wines is called Palomino Fino, with a second important grape for the sweeter styles called Pedro Ximenez. Some Moscatel is also found scarcely.”
Palomino Fino makes up to around 90% of the total plantings in Jerez and is by far the most important varietal. If used to make classic styles of wines, it gives neutral aromas and uninteresting drinks. However, the low aromatics of the grape allow fantastic expression of secondary & tertiary aromas developed in the unique winemaking process of Sherry.
Pedro Ximenez (sometimes blended with a little Moscatel or Muscat grapes) is often dried on straws in the sun for up to 20 days after harvest, in order to concentrate the sugars in the grape. Therefore, it is mostly found in sweet Sherry wines.
FACT: the total plantings of Pedro Ximenez in the Jerez area aren’t sufficient to produce all the sweeter wines. Therefore, within the PDO laws, wineries are allowed to buy grapes from the nearby DO Montilla-Moriles (near Cordoba), that has a fantastic history of producing sweet Jerez-like wines. If you encounter their wines, they represent fantastic value for money and are worth trying! We visited the Bodega del Pino during our trip, which produces natural sweet and dry wines from Pedro Ximenez grapes, with the Solera method. Great wines!
First Press VS Second Press
A key defining moment for making one style of Sherry or another is the pressing of the grapes. Depending on the style (sweet or dry), the best part isn’t necessarily the same.
Dry Styles (i.e Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado & Palo Cortado)
In the case of dry sherries, like most dry wines around the world, the “first press” (also known in Spanish as “Mosto Yema” or in French as “Vin de Goutte”) is considered the best quality. The fact that this free-run juice hasn’t been forced out means that no over-extraction of undesirable bitterness from the pits or skins can be found in the must (unfermented grape juice).
In Jerez, the Mosto Yema is used for the finest, most elegant and fresh style of wine: Fino. In this case, the wine is fermented naturally to about 12.5% ABV before it is fortified with neutral grape spirit to 15% ABV before it is aged.
The “Second Press” wines are a little harsher, due to the extraction of light bitterness or “woody” aromas from the pits and skins. They are used for heavier, more full-bodied styles of wines like Oloroso. In this case, the wine is fermented naturally to about 12.5% ABV and then fortified to about 18% ABV before it is aged.
Sweet Styles (i.e Pedro Ximenez, Medium Cream & Cream)
In the case of sweet sherry wines, made of sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes concentrated in sugars, the higher the concentration the better. Therefore, the highest quality of must is found in the second press wines instead of the free-run juice.
Fortification & Impact on Ageing
Sherry wines are all started in the same way, but tiny differences in the fortification will lead to massive differences in the finished product
In the case of sweet Sherry wines made of dried Pedro Ximenez grapes and sometimes some Moscatel grapes, the must is so concentrated in sugars that it prevents the yeasts from finishing fermentation. The must is naturally fermented to about 6% ABV and then fortified to reach 15% or more. Because the residual sugars were high in the wine, the result is a sweeter style of Sherry.
Open cask at Bodega del Pino, DO Montilla Moriles
In the case of dry Sherry wines, the must is fully fermented by the action of the yeasts before fortification, reaching a natural ABV of around 12.5% and only small traces of residual sugars. The addition of alcohol to the fermented must will be done to reach specific ABVs that give birth to very peculiar ageing processes: one is said to be biological/organic (nothing to do with the pesticide-free agriculture) and the other one oxidative.
The Biological Ageing (i.e Fino/Manzanilla and Amontillado)
Once the must has fermented to about 12.5% ABV under the natural action of yeasts, the wine is fortified to no more than 15% ABV.
This level of alcohol is strong enough to protect the wine but not too strong to kill the yeasts. Therefore, once 500 litres of the wine are poured into a large 600-litre oak cask (called “bota”), leaving a layer of air in contact with the liquid, yeasts will rise to the surface and create a layer of “flor” (or “flower”).
This “flor” will have many consequences during the ageing process:
Protect the liquid from oxidation: by floating over the surface, the flor will act as a shield against oxygen.
Creation of Acetaldehydes: these chemical compounds are created when the yeasts slowly convert alcohol and remaining sugars. The wine becomes drier and light oxidised, woody, walnut-like aromas are formed.
Reduction of glycerine: The glycerine is a compound found in wines, that gives them a round mouthfeel. When swirled in the glass, it forms “legs” or “tears” on the inner part. During the biological ageing, yeasts will consume this glycerine, resulting in an even drier and sharper mouthfeel, giving the wine a great refreshing feeling.
Fino wines are both low in acidity (due to the very hot climate in Andalucia, where the grapes are fully ripened) and very dry. They make fantastic pairings for dishes that can be hard to match with other wines, like vinaigrette and other acidic salad dressings for instance.
Fino wines produced in the sub-zone “Sanlucar de Barrameda” are called “Manzanilla”.
Fino wines have to be aged a minimum of 2 years in wooden barrels (often American oak nowadays), although top producers prefer to age them for 4 to 5 years.
The Oxidative Ageing (i.e Oloroso, Palo Cortado)
In this case, after the must from the 2nd press has naturally fermented to up to about 12.5% ABV, it is fortified with neutral grape spirit to 18%ABV.
This level of alcohol kills the natural yeasts in the wine, preventing the formation of a flor on the surface.
Oxidised Aromas: The wine is left in the botas for up to 8 years with contact to the oxygen, developing oxidised aromas.
Wooden aromas: the higher ABV extracts richer, spicy aromas from the oak casks.
Rounder mouthfeel: the natural glycerine contained in the wine is not converted by the yeasts in this case, since they have been killed by the fortification. Remaining in the wine, the glycerine gives it a rounder and richer mouthfeel.
The Curious Case of Palo Cortado
Sometimes, in the Bodega, things don’t go according to the plan. This is a mistake that gave birth to what has become a very hipster style of Sherry nowadays: Palo Cortado.
When making a Fino style of wine, preparing the fermented must from the first press (top quality) to a biological ageing, winemakers would increase the alcohol to about 15% ABV. To identify the barrels in the bodega, they would draw a line sideways (known as a “palo” in Spanish”). However, after a while, some barrels would show no flor on the surface. To recognise them from the outside, winemakers would draw another line across the first one, cutting the first line (in Spanish: “Palo Cortado”). The wine would then be raised to about 18% ABV.
Instead of a biological ageing, they would undergo an oxidative ageing, but the original must was a premium quality first press. This rare accidental wine, aged for 12 years in Solera method, is labelled as Palo Cortado. Nowadays, winemakers can produce Palo Cortado on purpose and not only by mistake.
Palo Cortado wines show a nose of Amontillado (old Fino) with a mouthfeel of Oloroso.
Amontillado: Both Biological & Oxidative Ageings
Once the flor naturally dies over the Fino (in good conditions, after about 5 to 7 years in the barrels), the wine starts to undergo an oxidative ageing. These wines are labelled as “Amontillado”.
Sometimes wineries can increase the ABV of a Fino to 16.5% to get rid of the flor.
These wines show both oxidative notes and autolysis aromas (from the lees of yeasts). The nose can show notes of caramel and dried fruits while hints of almonds and smokey notes can be found on the palate.
The Solera Method
At this stage, it is easy to understand that one key component of Sherry wines is the ageing. And for that matter, winemakers are using a unique system called the “Solera” method.
The Solera method is also known as “fractional blending”. The idea is to pile up barrels in the winery and to look at them like different levels of ageing.
The highest oak casks, sitting on top of the pile, contain the youngest wines in the bodega. Traditionnally, they are filled with wines of the current year. On year 1, the content of these wines is transferred into the second layer, which itself goes into the third one, all the way to the last layer. The oak casks that are on the ground level are called “solera” themselves, having reached a long amount of years in oak, they are the most complex and are the ones containing wines that are ready to be bottled.
By using this system, wineries can reach better consistency in style by blending the many years of harvests. For this reason, wines aged in Solera don’t bear any vintage on the bottles. On the other hand, vintage Sherry wines are called “añadas” in Spanish and must contain 100% grapes from the stated year of harvest. These vintage Sherry wines don’t undergo the Solera ageing and are very rare. They are aged in oak casks but almost never racked out of them like a Solera Sherry.
The “Sherry” Lexicon
Medium Cream: defines a sweeter style of Sherry containing residual sugars between 5 and 145 grams per litre. They are often wines that start with a sweet mouthfeel but end in a dry way.
Cream: the sweetest styles of Sherry, they contain over 145 grams per litre of residual sugars.
VOS: Vinum Optimum Signatum (or sometimes in English: “Very Old Sherry”). Stands for a Sherry wine whose average age is 20 years. The starting date of the Solera, rate of transfer of the wines and many other factors are taken into account to guarantee the average age of the wine. However, IT DOESN’T MEAN THAT THE YOUNGEST WINE IN THE BLEND IS 20 YEARS OLD, IT MEANS THAT THE AVERAGE OF ALL WINES IN THE BLEND IS AT LEAST 20 YEARS OLD.
VORS: Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (or sometimes in English “Very Old Rare Sherry”). Same idea as VOS, only with an average age of the blend of at least 30 years.
Solera: ageing method of Sherry wines (among other styles of wines) that consists of fractional blending of various harvests in order to achieve complexity and consistency.