Spanish Sherry

When first I heard about Sherry, the only thing communicated to me was that Spanish Sherry was the best in the world. There were few upscale restaurants in San Francisco that had quality Sherry as either an aperitif or an after dinner offering.

At the time I had regularly scheduled tastings with four master sommeliers, usually in a private dining room at the Ritz Carlton. Our tastings included wines from around the world as a testing ground for future advancement in the sommelier world.

I found these tastings to be enlightening, and so very educational. To be around those four guys that had passed their master sommelier exam was a true blessing. It gave me a heightened awareness of the subtleties of wine and the distinctive properties exhibited by terroir and varietal composition.

One of the tastings I’ll never forget involved Spanish Sherry. This wasn’t so much a lesson in determining the varietal or terroir but a lesson in the excellent art of Sherry production. I was told there was only one place that produced the greatest Sherry in the world… and that was Spain.

While there was usually a debate about other varietals related to best in the world… there was no doubt that Spain was the Sherry capital of the world.

The history of Sherry is closely linked with that of Spanish wine production, particularly the political fortunes of the Cadiz region, where it originated. This region saw the Phoenician settlement of the Liberian Peninsula create a triangle of Sherry production that exists to the present day.

The triangular region between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlucar de Barrameda is the epicenter for one of the world’s oldest wines.

The evolution of Sherry has been influenced by many of the world’s greatest empires and civilizations : the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Spanish, and British. While Sherry does not enjoy the level of popularity it once did, it remains one of the world’s most unusual and historical expressions.

The Sherry Triangle is an area in the province of Cadiz in southwestern Spain. The secret is the combination of soil. The  chalky, crumbly, moisture retaining albariza, encourages the growth of flor, a type of yeast that forms on the aging wine and prevents it from oxidizing.  The cities mentioned above are where the bodegas store and blend this magnificent beverage. Jerez translates as Sherry in Spanish, and so the wine is named after this region.

There are strict rules to what classifies as Sherry. Only fortified white wines bottled in Jerez and made using Jerez grapes can be awarded the D.O. (Denominacion de Origen). In the Jerez region the predominant grape is the Palomino, named after a 13th century Spanish knight. In other regions this grape is pedestrian. However, in Jerez the magic of the soil and the prevailing humidity allows the growth of the protective flor yeast to exact an exceptional dryness and earthy aroma.

Few things can beat Sherry as a pre-meal aperitif. Ever since Sir Francis Drake ransacked the port of Cadiz in 1587 and made off with 3,000 barrels of Sherry, the British have been addicted to the stuff, and continue to be the main international clients.

Within the category of dry Sherry there is the Manzanilla, which is made exclusively in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Many can detect a hint of sea in this wine due to its proximity to the ocean.

Like Port, Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning extra alcohol is added to bring the percentage of alcohol to around 16 percent. After the grapes are harvested in early September, they are crushed to make a still white wine. This ages for about two years before being put through the criadera and solera system, which is a process to blend different years to ensure the finished product is of consistent quality.

The different types of Sherry are as follows: Fino: clear and perfectly dry with an aroma of almonds. This type of Sherry is served chilled accompanied by nuts or tapas. Manzanilla: this is the Fino Sherry made in Sanlucar de Barrameda. It is even drier and paler than other Finos. Oloroso: The layer of flor yeast is thin, or absent in this Sherry as it ages. There is partial oxidation which accounts for the darker color. Oloroso is a rich amber with an aroma of hazelnuts. The best and oldest is the legendary Matusalem. Amontillados: this Sherry is the mid-way point between Fino and Oloroso with some qualities of both. Palo Cortado: In Jerez they say this is a wine that you can’t make… it just happens. A rare treat, it has an aroma reminiscent of an Amontillado while its color is closer to an Oloroso. One of the best is the 60 year old Sibarita. Cream Sherry: this is an Oloroso Sherry mixed with the sweet Pedro Ximeniz, a good companion for pates or fois gras.

In October we are going to this magnificent area of Spain to participate in our own Sherry tasting. Going to the source where centuries of wine making have produced products indigenous to only one region… is truly a gift. Meeting the winemakers and owners of these bodegas is a once in a life time trip. The sensory experience involving the landscape, grapes, barrels, and those that participate in its creation will be like stepping back in time. Their focus and thus acclaim is a testimonial to generations of Spaniards engaged in producing what many believe… is the best aperitif and after dinner beverage in the world.