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All about Sherry: an introduction, an amazing tasting, and why we should be drinking more of it

I love Sherry. It’s one of the treasures of the wine world, but for a while now it has been woefully underappreciated. In this article, I’m going to try to convince you to drink more of it by sharing my enthusiasm, as well as some notes from a big tasting of many of the top Sherries.

Sherry is a fortified wine made from vineyards in the far south of Spain, where extreme heat—summer temperatures regularly exceed 40 ºC—is countered by cooling breezes from the Atlantic. Table wines made from here wouldn’t be terribly exciting, but the complex process of Sherry production, including the addition of spirit once fermentation is complete (fortification), results in complex, stable wines. This stability is one reason for the historical popularity of sherry: it became highly fashionable in the UK in the late 16th century, at a time when temperature controlled shipping and storage wasn’t an option.

Sherry’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s, when roughly twice as much was exported from the region than is shipped today. The region has since been through a painful contraction, but is now bouncing back, largely because of the consistently high quality of the wines that are now made here, and the fact that they offer great value for money.

Now for the slightly boring (but important) bit. The background facts. The vineyards are mainly located within a triangle formed by the Sherry towns Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  The characteristic vineyard soil in the region is known as albariza. A blinding white colour in bright sunlight, it has a high chalk content, and retains water well. In such a warm, breezy region, evaporation levels are potentially very high, so this characteristic is important. Vines are pruned by a method called vara y pulgar, which is similar to the French ‘Guyot’, with a single cane of some seven buds and a short replacement cane of a couple of buds. Harvesting is almost always done by hand.

There are three grape varieties authorized for the production of Sherry: Palomino, Muscat of Alexandria (also known as Moscatel) and Pedro Ximénez. The latter two grapes are mainly used for sweetening purposes, and Palomino is by far the dominant grape in the region. It’s a relatively heavy cropper, producing large bunches of pale green grapes, which are harvested at a potential alcohol level of 11–12.5 degrees. The resulting base wines are crisp with a neutral character. It’s the production process that transforms these into the compelling, diverse wines that sherry is known for.  

Essential to the production of sherry is the growth of a layer of film-forming yeasts on the top of the developing wine. This is known as the flor, and it forms spontaneously from yeasts that are abundant in the winery environment when the sherry casks are left incompletely filled. Sherry butts (as the barrels are known) are made of American oak and usually have a capacity of 600 litres, but are only filled to 500 litres, leaving a large air space. The species of yeast responsible for this film, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the same as the yeast that carries out alcoholic fermentation, but four specific races have been identified as being involved in flor formation: beticus, cheresiensis, montuliensis and rouxii. The precise make-up of this yeast layer changes with time. The growth of the flor protects the developing wine from oxidation. It’s thicker in the humid coastal towns in the region. In addition, the flor contributes a distinctive flavour to the wine through metabolizing alcohol to the nutty, apply compound acetaldehyde. To keep the flor healthy, casks are periodically topped up with fresh wine, to maintain the nutrients that the yeasts need to survive.  

At the end of the year when fermentation is complete and the wine is still on its lees, it is classified and then fortified. This classification determines the destiny of the wine. The cellarmaster will taste through the casks with a view to separating out the lighter, more elegant wines to become fino, and the heavier, darker wines to become olorosos.

Styles of Sherry

Crisp, dry, yeasty, nutty and tangy, fino is the freshest and most delicate of sherry styles, weighing in at around 15% alcohol. Protected from oxygen during its development by the flor, fino needs to be treated like white wine once it has been opened. It’s a versatile food companion, and should be drunk chilled.

This is a fino-style sherry from the coastal town of
Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Because the more humid environment in the bodegas here encourages a thicker flor layer, these wines are typically lighter and even fresher than fino, often with a distinctive salty tang.

Aged fino that has lost its flor and then gone on to develop oxidatively, amontillado is an amber-coloured sherry that is nutty and complex, with a long finish. It is fortified to around 17.5 ° alcohol to protect it during its development, and because it has been aged oxidatively it will last for longer once opened.

Palo Cortado
A sort of half way house between a fino and an amontillado, Palo Cortado is the result of a fino sherry losing its flor. Nutty, fresh and complex, this is now a popular style.

Complex brown-coloured sherries, Olorosos develop in barrel without the protective flor layer, often for many years. The result is a complex, rich, nutty style of sherry with aromas of old furniture and raisins. These wines are dry. Because they’ve seen so much oxidation during development, they are pretty stable and stay in good condition for a while once the bottle is opened.

Pedro Ximénez
Made from air-dried grapes, with fermentation stopped early by the addition of spirit, Pedro Ximénez is a remarkable wine. Viscous and amazingly sweet, it tastes like liquid Christmas cake.

Cream sherries are more commercial products that have been sweetened by the addition of Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez. 

Typically, a single chalk slash on the face of the cask will indicate that a wine is to become a fino; two slashes will indicate it is to become an oloroso. Fino wines will then be fortified to 15 º alcohol, and olorosos to 17 or 18 º. At this latter level of alcohol, the flor dies, and so olorosos are not protected from oxygen during their development in the way that finos are.

Pedro Ximenez in the glass!

Also important to the flavour of sherry is the solera system. This is a rather complex arrangement of barrels (butts) where wine travels from one to another in a precise order during its maturation. Rather confusingly, the lowest level of butts is known as the solera, which is the name also used for the entire system. This is the final stage in the maturation process, and this is where the wine leaves the system. Up to one-third of the wine may be withdrawn each year from these barrels, but typically the amount taken will be 10–15%. They are fed by wine from the next level of butts, knows and the first criadera. The first criadera is in turn topped up by a third level of butts, the second criadera. Wine in the second criadera is usually replenished by new wine, but there can many levels in the most complex of the solera systems. Sherry that has been through a solera system such as this will therefore contain a mixture of vintages. The system helps maintain a house style, and results in consistent wines. Some vintage-dated sherries that have not been through a solera exist, but these are a rarity.

An amazing tasting
The tasting notes below are from a remarkable Sherry Institute of Spain tasting of Añada, VOS and VORS sherries. These are classifications that refer to the age of the wines: VOS (very old Sherries) are at least 20 years old; VORS (very old rare Sherries) are at least 30 years old; and Añadas are vintage dated Sherries from a single year. These wines were not tasted blind.

Harveys Fine Dry Amontillado VOS
Very fresh, salty, nutty nose is complex and bright. The palate is fresh and salty with a rounded, nutty character, high acidity and a citrussy finish. 91/100 (£19)

Lustau Dry Amontillado VOS
Brown colour.
Soft, broad and rich with complex notes of old furniture, tar and casks. Hint of raisiny richness. 90/100 (£30)

Sandeman Royal Esmerelda 20 Year Old Fine Dry Amontillado VOS
Cloudy light brown colour. Soft yet tangy with notes of fudge, nuts and tar. Dense with some spiciness. A broad, soft style that has faded a little. 89/100 (£14)

Domecq Amontillado 51-1a 30 Year Old VORS
Orange brown colour. Lively nose with fresh citrus fruit as well as nuts and herbs. Savoury, salty tang. The palate is lively and bright with some citrus freshness and good acidity, finishing very long. 92/100 (£30)

Gonzalez Byass Del Duque Amontillado VORS
Fresh, complex and nutty with a nice citrussy brightness and good acidity. Very stylish. 92/100 (£14 Sainsburys, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods)

Hidalgo Amontillado Viejo VORS
Orange/brown colour. Profound, complex nose with herbs, citrus and old floors. Powerful, tangy palate is herby with fresh citrus pith notes and salty nuttiness. Long finish: a really complex wine. 94/100 (£60 BB&R, Tanners)

Bodegas Tradicion Amontillado 30 Year Old VORS
Orange colour. Lovely complex nose of marmalade, spice, dried fruits and lemons. The palate is lively and complex with brilliant citrus freshness under the nutty old furniture and herb notes. Brilliantly vibrant. 94/100 (£55 Fortnum & Mason)

Williams & Humbert Jaffa Amontillado 30 Year Old VORS
Intensely aromatic nose of crystalline fruits, grapes, herbs and raisins. The palate is rich with herby, tarry fruit and good acid. Expressive and complex. 91/100 (£11 Cambridge Wine Merchants, Lindley Fine Wines, Bristol Wine Merchants, Stanton Wines, Whitebridge Wines, Rodney Densem Wines, Goodrich Wines)

Harveys Palo Cortado VOS
Orange brown colour. Lively with lovely tangy citrussy freshness on the palate, together with richer, more raisiny sweetness. It has an off-dry character because of the richness of the fruit. 91/100 (£19)

Hidalgo Jerez Cortado Wellington VOS
Lighter style. Dry, with herby, appley, tangy fruit. Quite bright and fresh with good acidity. 89/100 (£23 Majestic, Tanners)

Lustau Palo Cortado VOS
Warming, nutty and spicy on the nose with tar, herbs and old furniture. The palate has some fruit sweetness with good acidity. Complex and broad. 91/100 (£30)

Williams & Humbert Dos Cortados Palo Cortado 20 Year Old VOS
Yellow orange colour. Warm vanilla and spice nose. The palate is soft, spicy and nutty with herby, lemony fruit and attractive nutty complexity. 90/100 (£11 (£11 Cambridge Wine Merchants, Lindley Fine Wines, Bristol Wine Merchants, Stanton Wines, Whitebridge Wines, Rodney Densem Wines, Goodrich Wines)

Domecq Palo Cortado Capuchino 30 Year Old VORS
Orange brown colour. Aromatic, spicy, nutty nose with tangy citrussy freshness. The palate is broad and rich with lovely fresh, citrussy, spicy notes as well as some complex earthiness. 92/100 (£30)

Gonzalez Byass Aposteles Palo Cortado VORS
Orange brown colour.
Rich, spicy, slightly tarry, intense nose. The palate is sweetly fruited with rich, grapey, raisiny character. Intense stuff. 92/100 (£14 Sainsburys, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods)

Hidalgo Palo Cortado Viejo VORS
Orange brown colour.
Complex, fresh, tangy nose with tar, spice, old casks and some lemony freshness. The palate is fresh with a herby tang to the dry, nutty, citrussy fruit. Complex, persistent and lively with a long finish. 93/100 (£75 BBR, The Sampler, Waitrose)

Osborne Solera PΔP Palo Cortado Abocado VORS
Orange brown colour.
Weird nose but lovely palate. Funky, smoky and minerally on the nose – quite reductive. The palate is sweet, complex and raisiny with tarry notes. Very long finish. Odd but lovely. 94/100 (£85 Longford Wines)

Bodegas Tradicion Palo Cortado 30 Year Old VORS
Yellow orange colour. Light, fresh and lemony. Fresh, complex salty citrus flavours on the palate. Long and complex, in a lighter style. 91/100 (£60)

Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso VOS
Orange coloured.
Fresh, light and a bit funky with good acid and herby, citrus, orange peel character. Dry, with a lovely savouriness. 92/100 (£20 Waitrose)

Lustau Dry Oloroso VOS
Brown colour.
Warm, rich, casky, nutty and raisiny on the nose. The palate is long and complex with broad, spicy flavours. 93/100 (£30)

Valdespino Don Gonzalo Oloroso Viejo VOS
Brown colour.
Lovely rich, warm, spicy, casky nose. The palate is fresh and bold with lovely complex spicy notes and rich, grapey, raisiny, citrus characters. 92/100 (£29 Moreno)

Domecq Oloroso Sibarita 30 Year Old VORS
Savoury, herby, tangy nose with citrus freshness and some richer, casky notes. The palate is rich and intense with lovely spiciness. Complex, broad and with a long finish. 93/100 (£30)

Hidalgo Oloroso Añada 1986
Orange colour.
Tangy, citrussy nose. The palate is light and expressive with herby, citrussy complexity and a persistent, high-acid freshness. Fantastic complexity here. 94/100 (£85 Harvey Nichols)

Hidalgo Oloroso Viejo VORS
Wonderfully complex citrus peel, floor polish and spice nose. The palate is funky and complex with profound, fresh, nutty, lemony complexity. Very expressive. 94/100 (£70 BB&R)

Osborne Solera India Oloroso VORS
Deep brown colour. Old furniture nose with hints of orange peel and raisins. The palate is massively complex with tarry, spicy, raisiny fruit and fresh citrus notes. There’s some sweetness here. Awesome. 95/100 (£85 Longford Wines)

Bodegas Tradicion Oloroso 30 Year Old VORS
Orange gold colour. Complex, tangy nose is rich and fresh at the same time. The palate is dry with fresh, complex nutty notes and some citrus freshness, as well as some salty hints. A lighter style, but massively complex. 94/100 (£55 Fornum & Mason)

Valdespino Oloroso Solera Dei Su Majestad VORS
Deep brown colour.
Complex, tarry, spicy, casky nose. The palate is intense and quite rich with smooth, tangy herb, citrus, cask and raisin notes. Very refined. 93/100 (£230 Moreno)

Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Sweet Oloroso VORS
Fantastic. Very sweet but complex and intense with fresh acidity and lemony brightness. Profound. 94/100 (£14 Waitrose, Sainsburys, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods)

Harveys Rich Old Oloroso VORS
Deep brown colour. Rich, casky, old furniture nose with spice and tar notes. The palate is rich and intense with fresh citrus notes under the raisiny richness. 92/100 (£20)

Lustau Rich Oloroso Añada 1989
Orange brown colour. Savoury, spicy, minerally edge to the raisiny nose. The palate is sweet and vivid with warm raisiny notes and casky complexity. 92/100 (£21 Green & Blue, Fortnum & Mason)

Lustau Rich Oloroso Añada 1990
Sweet and complex with tar, citrus and fudge notes. Fresh and intense with nice presence. 91/100 (£21)

Garvey Oloroso VOS
Complex, spicy and slightly earthy with sweet, rich, subtly raisined fruit. Bold and complex. Lovely. 92/100

Garvey PX VOS
Deep brown. Very intense, sweet nose with raisins and tea. Viscous palate is supersweet with nice complexity. 90/100

Fernando de Castilla Antique PX VOS
Dark brown.
Very aromatic raisiny nose. Viscous, smooth, sweet and raisiny palate which is soft and sweet. 92/100 (£20 Waitrose)

Bodega Tradicion PX 20 Year Old VOS
Very dark brown. Warm, sweet raisiny nose. Super sweet Christmas cake palate offset by nice spiciness and some acidity. Great balance. 94/100 (£60 Fortnum & Mason)

Williams & Humbert Don Guido Pedro Ximénez 20 Year Old VOS
Dark brown colour. Very sweet nose is raisiny and rich. Treacly, rich, raisined palate with a subtle bitterness. Lovely stuff. 93/100 (£11 Cambridge Wine Merchants, Lindley Fine Wines, Bristol Wine Merchants, Stanton Wines, Whitebridge Wines, Rodney Densem Wines, Goodrich Wines)

Domecq PX Veneable 30 Year Old VORS
Viscous, almost black colour. Intense, tarry, raisiny nose. Rich, viscous palate with nice spiciness on the finish. Brilliant. (£30)

Gonzalez Byass Noe PX VORS
Very deep colour. Viscous, spicy and intense with lovely richness and supersweet raisiy fruit. 92/100 (£14 Sainsburys, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods)

Harvey Pedro Ximénez VORS
Very deep brown colour. Sweet raisiny nose. Open, soft and sweet. 90/100 (£20)

Osborne Solera Viejo PX VORS
Very deep brown colour. Complex, spicy, raisiny nose. The palate is intense and viscous with treacly, raisiny fruit. Nicely complex. 93/100 (£85 Waitrose)

Wines tasted 10/08  
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