Sherry: A Beginners Guide

Why We Love Sherry

For quality, complexity and depth of flavour, we cannot think of a better value category of wine. Once you get above the very cheapest sherries, you have some truly world class wines at prices that are a fraction of mediocre Burgundy or Claret.

Sherry Styles – How They Are Made And What They Taste Like

Sherry Type Grape Ageing Average Colour Average Age Typical Flavours
Fino Palomino Fino Aged under Flor Fino colour swatch 4-6 Years Yeasty, dry scrubland
Manzanilla Palomino Fino Aged under Flor Manzanilla colour swatch 4-6 Years Saline, chamomile
Amontillado Palomino Fino Aged under Flor, then oxidised Amontillado colour swatch 10-12 Years Hazelnuts
Oloroso Palomino Fino Aged without Flor, oxidised from the start Oloroso colour swatch 6-8 Years Walnuts
Palo Cortado Palomino Fino Aged briefly under Flor, then the Flor dies, and continues ageing oxidatively Palo Cortado colour swatch 10-12 Years Hazelnut aroma, walnut taste
Pedro Ximenez Pedro Ximenez Aged in barrels oxiditavely Pedro Ximenez colour swatch 7-8 years Raisins
Moscatel Moscatel Mostly aged in barrels oxiditavely Moscatel colour swatch 7-8 years Musky raisins

Production – Grapes
Sherry grapes on the vine
Palomino Fino: The most common, it is used in all dry Sherry. A grape with low sugar and acidity, and a tendency to oxidise (not great for a table wine but excellent for dry sherry)

Pedro Ximenez (PX): The base of most sweet sherries, and also a sweetening element in sherry blends such as Cream Sherry. High yielding but disease prone, this grape has a massive sugar content. After extended periods drying the sun they shrivel to raisins.

Moscatel: The rarest grape variety grown and used for sherry, Moscatel grapes also undergo asoleo (drying in the sun) and make sweet wines. Handily, Moscatel grows on lower grade clay-rich and sandy soils, principally around coastal Chipiona.

Production – Vinification

Dry sherries

After de-stemming, the grapes are carefully pressed at the Bodega. They work hard to avoid oxidation and excess tannins, and although more juice is extracted if you press hard, the quality declines. The first must (juice) to be extracted is the lowest in phenolics and is called “primera yema”, which tends to be used in Finos, Manzanillas and Amontillados (those aged under Flors). The “segunda yema” (second pressing) is more phenolic and best suited for the oxidatively aged (ie aged with contact with the air) Palos Cortados and olorosos.

Next comes fermentation, where yeast converts sugar into alcohol. The juice is left to settle, then they add a small amount of already fermenting must to kickstart the process. Over the course of about a week the yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol in the process. The remaining solids are drawn off (dead yeast and stems mostly). What was once grape juice, can now be called wine. The wine is left to settle, and as it does so a film of yeast forms on the surface: Flor.
At this point the wines are nosed and tasted and on the basis of character the winemaker decides how best to age them, and therefore what type of sherry they will become. The decision is between two broad groups: those which will age biologically (under the yeasty film called Flor we mentioned) and become Finos, Manzanillas and Amontillados, or those which will age oxidatively (with the Flor undeveloped and so in contact with air) and become Palos Cortados or Olorosos. The wines are fortified with spirit, filled into casks called Butts and racked for ageing.

Sweet Sherries

The starting point is the PX grapes which, already natually high in sugar, have been sundried to reach intense sweetness: an incredible 450-500 grams per litre of juice! The finished wine is actually very high in tannins as the stems cannot be removed, but with all this sweetness it’s impossible to notice. As they are effectively raisins the method of pressing is different to the Palomino Fino grape used for the dry sherries. A special vertical press is loaded alternately with esparto (a coarse grass) mats and bunches of these raisins, great pressure is applied and an aromatic honey-like juice is released.

The juice is fortified to 15-16% and then allowed to settle before filling into butts ready for the solera.

Production – Ageing In A Solera System…the important bit!

Lustau bodegaUp to this point, there has been nothing particularly unusual in the way we have made our sherry relative to other wines, bar the spirit added to fortify it. It is in the maturation that sherry becomes such a remarkable wine.

Sherry is matured in a Solera, which are rows of casks (Criadera) stacked on top of each other with each row about one year apart in age. Wine is drawn from the lowest row and topped up with wine from the row above. This process is continual, and many soleras are centuries old. This simple principle means that even wines bottled at young ages have in theory a small quantity of very old wine in the mix. Impetuousness and freshness of youth is continually blended with the depth and subtlety of maturity, producing a wine with exceptional quality and consistency.

Flor layer in a sherry caskBut the interest doesn’t stop there. As mentioned, there are two main types of dry sherry, those aged oxidatively (ie with air contact) and those aged under a Flor (the yeasty film on the surface). Actually, we lied and there is a third type: those that are aged under Flor for a period, and then aged with air contact.

  • Fino, Manzanilla: Aged under a Flor without air contact.
  • Oloroso, Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez: Aged with air contact.
  • Amontillado and Palo Cortado: Aged initially with a Flor, then aged with air contact. Finos turn into Amontillados, and occasionally into Palo Cortados.

Contact or non-contact with air creates great divides in flavour. The Flor provides a barrier between the wine and the air so the sherries are pale and have fresh flavours, but the layer of yeast also gives bitter flavours such as dried flowers, camomile, dough, almond, and olive brine. Wines without this Flor are exposed to the air and a gentle process of oxidisation takes place, creating a deep, mahogany coloured wine with a fuller, nuttier flavour.

The process of ageing sherry is the most dynamic and involved of any wine. A winemaker will monitor and tend to the wines in his Solera with great care, and bottle product from certain butts using the skill of fractional blending to create remarkable wines that are so much greater than the sum of its parts.

So, that’s a quick sherry guide. Have a look at our table again as a little re-cap, then pour yourself some sherry at the earliest juncture.

Sherry Type Grape Ageing Average Colour Average Age Typical Flavours
Fino Palomino Fino Aged under Flor Fino colour swatch 4-6 Years Yeasty, dry scrubland
Manzanilla Palomino Fino Aged under Flor Manzanilla colour swatch 4-6 Years Saline, chamomile
Amontillado Palomino Fino Aged under Flor, then oxidised Amontillado colour swatch 10-12 Years Hazelnuts
Oloroso Palomino Fino Aged without Flor, oxidised from the start Oloroso colour swatch 6-8 Years Walnuts
Palo Cortado Palomino Fino Aged briefly under Flor, then the Flor dies, and continues ages oxidatively Palo Cortado colour swatch 10-12 Years Hazelnut aroma, walnut taste
Pedro Ximenez Pedro Ximenez Aged in barrels oxiditavely Pedro Ximenez colour swatch 7-8 years Raisins
Moscatel Moscatel Mostly aged in barrels oxiditavely Moscatel colour swatch 7-8 years Musky raisins

One thought on “Sherry: A Beginners Guide

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *