If you think that Sherry is a sweet and cloying wine, good for cooking or to offer to your old aunt, it’s time to join our tour of the authentic Sherry producing region and change your mind.
Sherry is in fact one of the most extraordinary wines in the world, it is no coincidence that for centuries it was at at the center of a thriving international trade. Its production method is long and complex, requires experience and skill and is inextricably linked to a unique territory in Andalusia, in the south of Spain.
Excessive production, the devastation of phylloxera, the difficulties to legally protect it from imitations, changes in taste trends have progressively tarnished the glory of the past. Unfortunately many people still think that Sherry is only a sweet wine or a cooking wine. A true Sherry is neither.
By participating in one of our Sherry tours you will also discover one of the most fascinating and representative regions of Spain and Spanish culture: Andalusia, with its colour, the Arabic architecture, flamenco, horses, bullfighting, tapas and characteristic villages. These iconic images are deeply interconnected with the Sherry and make it the quintessence of everything that comes to mind when you think of Spain.
Sherry is not (just) a sweet wine
The Sherry comes in different styles. Most can safely be counted among the driest wines in the world, few of them among the sweetest, with all possible variations in between.
Like many other fortified wines, it is a bit out of fashion, but it certainly deserves to be rediscovered by new enthusiasts. Moreover, in a world where fashion leads to exorbitant prices for famous bottles, Sherry is still very accessible.
Unfortunately, unlike other famous denominations, which are very good at legally protecting themselves from copies, there are an infinite number of very low quality imitations on the market that make Sherry one of the most counterfeit wines in the world. These cheap imitations, which were widespread in the 1970s, are unfortunately responsible for the many misconceptions about Sherry.
In qualified wine shops it is always possible to find authentic products, but if you want to learn how to distinguish an original Sherry and understand the extraordinary complexity of this wine, and how it goes wonderfully with food, a trip to the land where it is produced and a guided tour of the Sherry cellars can be much more fun.
By joining a Sherry wine tour you will discover this extraordinary drink, immersing yourself in the scents and aromas of the product of a complex and ancient art and wisdom, going through three thousand years of Spanish wine making. Starting from the Phoenicians and, passing through the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, come to the era of the great explorations and naval battles for the domination of the Atlantic Ocean.
El Marco de Jerez
Sherry is the English name for Jerez de la Frontera, the Spanish city that, together with Sanlúcar de Barrameda, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Chiclana de la Frontera, Puerto Real, Rota, Chipiona y Lebrija constitute el Marco de Jerez, the only area where you can produce the only real and original Sherry. This is the southernmost wine-growing region of the entire European continent, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, almost at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, not far from the Strait of Gibraltar.
The arid and hot climate mitigated by ocean breezes, the chalky and very white soil, the famous Albariza, the native grapes, together with the skill of the wine makers, are the terroir that gives life to Sherry, one of the most famous fortified wines in the world.
Albariza – the Land
In the production of Sherry, as for any other wine in the world, the soil plays a fundamental role.
Albariza is the soil that characterizes the vineyards in Marco de Jerez. The name comes from the Latin word “Alba”, which means white. It is chalky soil, so white that in the blistering hot and sunny Andalusian summers it’s almost impossible to stare at it with the naked eye. Don’t forget your sunglasses when you walk the vineyards during a Sherry wine tour!
The Albariza and its interaction with the climate are what makes it possible to grow vines in this part of Spain so close to Africa and so hot.
Irrigation is not allowed in the vineyards and the growing conditions are always on the verge of drought, with very long periods without a single drop of rain falling.
However, in the period between November and January, there are frequent sudden and violent torrential rains reminiscent of monsoons. In a very short time, immense quantities of water pours on the ground. The Albariza is very porous and can quickly absorb water, allowing it to penetrate deep into the ground. When the soil dries out, a hard, compact crust forms on the surface, which reduces evaporation and retains the moisture required for the entire growing season of the vine.
The chemical composition of the soil favours the production of wines rich in acidity despite the latitudes and temperatures, perfect for fortification and the typical biological or oxidative refinement. A real magic of nature that we will talk about later.
The Sherry is produced with native grapes: Palomino, Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.
90% of the vines of the region is Palomino, which is chosen as the main grape for a rather unusual reason in the wine world, that of producing rather bland wines. To understand the reasons for this, it is necessary to know the particular method of production of Sherry. Unlike most other wines, more than from the vine, Sherry derives its qualities from the complex process of manipulating, blending and ageing to which the basic product will be subjected.
Pedro Ximenez grapes are used for the production of the sweet varieties of Sherry. The overripe grape of Pedro Ximenez, after a slight drying in the sun, is used for the production of Vino Dulce, which is then added before bottling as a sweetener for the varieties produced with Palomino grapes.
Muscatel has almost disappeared and is mainly used as a dye. The must is cooked until a dense, dark-coloured liquid called Vino de Color is obtained, which is then added as a colouring agent to some Sherry before bottling.
The dry Sherry is made with Palomino grapes.
After the harvest they are crushed and fermented until the alcohol content reaches 11%. At this point there is a first crossroads where, according to the choices of the wine maker, the basic product will take the path of organic refinement and become Sherry Fino or oxidative Sherry Oloroso.
This choice is mainly based on the type of pressing of the grapes.
The must coming from the first soft pressing of the grapes will give a lighter and more delicate wine, which is normally selected for the biological maturation, one of the most extraordinary and fascinating type of ageing in the wine world.
The wine goes into barrels, left not completely full, so that a layer of yeast can develop on its surface. This yeast is called Flor, which in Spanish means flower. Its scientific name is Saccharomices Beticus, and it colonizes the wine forming on its surface a layer similar to a sheet, which completely isolates the wine from contact with air and therefore from oxidation. During a Sherry wine tour you are often shown a barrel with glass lids that allow to see the layer of flor.
Flor is not inoculated, but develops naturally only if the alcohol content is 15% and only in the Jerez region, where these yeasts find ideal conditions of temperature and humidity. This is another of those very close and unique interconnections that a wine establishes with the territory in which it is produced.
Flor does not just protect the wine from oxidation. To stay alive yeasts feed not only on any residual sugar present in the wine, but also on glycerol. In doing so, they take away any perception of softness, giving the Sherry a sharp and absolute dryness, while at the same time giving it unique aromas.
In most wines the aromas are given mainly by the grape variety, the alcoholic fermentation and the interaction with the wood of the barrels in which they mature and fall within the typical macro classification of fruity, floral, mineral, spicy. The Sherry, on the other hand, thanks to this biological maturation, is characterized by an enveloping flavour that falls within the sphere of umami, the fifth taste, with typical hints of hazelnuts, toasted almonds, freshly baked bread, brioche.
The production of Sherry to many extent reminds of a classic method sparkling wine, or a Whisky, where several vintages and batches of product are mixed and aged together to create the perfect taste that reflects the style of a winery. For Sherry this blend is obtained with the Solera method, another characteristic that makes Sherry so special compared to most other wines.
Solera, is a dynamic fractional blending of different vintages inside a barrel system. It creates a very homogeneous product in terms of quality and style of the bodega.
The barrels are staked in layers, one under the other. In the top layer of barrels, called criadera (nursery), there is the youngest wine. Every year, a part of the content of these barrels passes into the barrels of the layer immediately below and so on. In the last layer there’s the most mature wine, 1/3 of the volume of which is bottled and put on the market. The missing 1/3 will be replaced by the wine from the barrels of the upper layer and so on.
The wine in the solera method is in constant movement and the final product is an average of all the vintages in each layer of barrels.
As it passes through the various layers, the Sherry will always find very small fractions of previous vintages, as old as the age of each stack of barrels. For some bodegas it may be 40 or more years old.
Walking through the corridor between imposing barrel stacks is one of the greatest experiance of a Sherry wine tour.
The wine from the must of the second pressing, with a more intense flavour, will be selected for the oxidative ageing process.
The base wine will have more structure that will allow fortification with a higher alcohol percentage that brings the wine to 18°. Alcohol is a natural preservative which, at these concentrations, prevents the development of flor. The wine therefore maintains a certain sensation of sweetness due to a higher residual sugar and glycerol which are not consumed by the yeasts. Without its protective “blanket” the wine is exposed to air, and the oxidative processes gives it a very distinctive flavour.
It is a Fino Sherry that, during the biological ageing, inexplicably, suddenly loses its Flor blanket. Therefore it passes part of the maturation in contact with air and oxygen.
It retains the characteristic hints of almonds, hazelnuts, etc., of a typical Fino Sherry, enriched with some sweetness and hints of oxidation.
Ammontillado is famous also thanks to Edgar Allan Poe’s story: “The cask of Ammontillado”.
Sherry wine, with its sharp flavour and dryness, is perfect for pairing with food.
Fino can be paired with all those dishes that are typically consumed with a dosage zero sparkling wine. Smoked and raw fish, seafood, or fatty, spicy dishes whose persistent flavours can be cleaned in the mouth at every sip.
Sherry is also an excellent choice for dishes with salty and acidic contrast, which require a wine that can support and cut through their sharp components.
Like all wines, the best pairings are the traditional ones with dishes from the same production area. In this case the typical Spanish tapas based on olives, hamon hiberico, marinated anchovies, calamari and fried seafood.
But the Sherry also goes very well with international cuisine such as Asian, Korean, Japanese or Chinese.
Chilled and served in the typical Andalusian copa, Sherry is also a very pleasant aperitif.
Sherry Wineries (Bodegas)
There are many wineries that can be visited during a Sherry wine tour in the Marco de Jerez. In Spanish they are called Bodegas.
Some of them are larger, old and very famous producers with wine museums and fancy shops and tasting rooms.
At Tio Pepe and Osborne, legendary brands of Sherry you will be impressed by the size of operations and huge stacks of barrels for the solera aging.
Others bodegas are smaller, family run cellars with a more friendly and intimate approach.
At wineries you can choose between many types of tours and tastings, including technical tasting, also with exclusive rare Sherries, food pairings with traditional tapas, jamon (Spanish ham) snacks, breakfast, lunch or dinner.
History of the Sherry
In most European countries vines and wine were introduced by the Romans about 2000 years ago. Andalusia, on the other hand, has an older winemaking tradition, dating back to when the Phoenicians founded Gadir, today’s Cadiz, in 1100 BC. From there they ventured sailing along the African coast.
Romans and Arabs
The Romans gave further impulse to the production, which strangely enough continued to flourish even when the Arabs invaded southern Spain in early 700 a.D.. Not only wine production didn’t stop, but the Arabs even introduced stills for the distillation of alcohol from wine (which they claimed they used for perfumes), and which proved very useful for fortifying wine. The brandy obtained from the distillation was added to the wine to increase the alcohol content and make it more stable and long-lasting as alcohol is a natural preservative. Examples of fortified wines are Port, Marsala, Madeira.
The era of great explorations
A more stable wine was more suitable for long sea voyages with constant shaking and temperature changes inside the hold. This made the Sherry the ideal wine to be embarked on the ships sailing for long voyages towards new territories across the Atlantic. Water transported without preservatives often developed contamination so on board it was healthier to drink wine. When the ship’s purser prepared provisions he had to consider about 2 litres of wine per day for each member of the crew!
In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Palos de la Frontera, in the heart of the Marco de Jerez, for the voyage that brought him to America. The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were loaded with Sherry to hearten the crew that was embarking on a long journey into the unknown.
The Anglo-Spanish War
During the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604), Sir Francis Drake and his fleet attacked Cadiz, occupying the city for three days. They destroyed 27 Spanish ships, and looted large stocks, including 3,000 barrels of Sherry, which they brought back to England.
The English, thanks to this enterprise, and other acts of piracy on the Atlantic where they took possession of the Spanish ships’ stocks, developed their taste and passion for Sherry, making it one of the most appreciated and traded wines in the world.
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