Sherry and Where it Comes From
Sherry is the wine that comes from the defined region around Jerez de la Frontera. In the south of Spain. According to U.K. Law. It can be nothing else. Today in Britain wines which, by long usage, have been associated with sherry because of the way they are made but come from other vineyards, must, if they use the word ‘sherry’ on their labels, prefix it with the source of origin: ie. British sherry. English sherry. Cyprus sherry. South African sherry, Australian sherry and Empire sherry. This does not imply that such wines are in any way inferior – but they are not and never can be ‘sherry’ in the sense of the word laid down by recent court proceedings.
The sherry vineyards are notable for the white soil, called albariza. The most important of the sherry grapes is the Palomino Blanco or Listan; the Pedro Ximenez grape is especially used for the great dessert wines. Sherry is made as all wine is made – by crushing the grapes so that the juice runs out. This was formerly done by men treading the grapes in special boots, within the soles to prevent the pips being crushed into the juice; but now most of the traditional procedure has been superseded by mechanical methods. The juice then ferments tumultuously, and the wine goes into the bodegas of the various shippers engaged in the trade. Here it matures and, eventually, two types of wine are seen to have been produced. One, on which a veil of fungus-like substance eventually grows (which is called flor,) will develop into a/mo. The other, which will not grow flor, will eventually become an oloroso. This is a greatly simplified explanation of the process, but these are the only two types of wine. It is also worth stressing that all sherry ferments right out, consuming all the sugar in the wine, so that it is completely dry in its first state. Any sweetening it later possesses will have been added or blended in.
THE SOLERA SYSTEM:
The process whereby sherry is matured and a great mark continued. The term is used both for the actual process and for the collection of casks which make up the solera. In essence, the selected wines pass into the solera – a special winestore – chosen for them. When it is required to make up a consignment of sherry for shipping, wines are drawn off from the casks according to age and character and then blended. It is sometimes erroneously thought that the young wines go into the top or bottom rows of the solera casks, but this is not so: the arrangement and proportions in which the wines are drawn off and the cask refreshed from other wines is both complex and individual to the particular sherry house concerned. All the wines from a single solera have been selected originally to continue the traditional quality of that particular solera, which may date from many years back, and they will always remain in the same solera.
Sherry cannot be dated by vintage, due to the way it is made. Sometimes, however, a wine or a cask may bear the date on which the solera was established. Of course, all fine amontillados, olorosos and the great sweet sherries will have a high proportion of an old matured wine in them. But whereas the finest dry wines, such as the finos and amontillados, do not benefit at all by even a little ageing in bottle, the sweeter, softer wines can last a long while. Many of the trade would prefer always to drink sherry direct from the cask if possible. ‘Old bottled sherry’ possesses a changed charm, although it is a comparative rarity and is never cheap.
Fino is the very dry crisp young wine.
Amontillado (which gets its name because some think it resembles the wines of Montilla) is a matured fino and can be a beautiful, mellow, nutty wine.
Oloroso – a rather fragrant, darkish-coloured wine – is not, essentially, a sweet wine at all, although it is a fullish one; any sweetening is provided by blending.
Manzanilla is a fino of particular delicacy; it can only be matured at the coast, at Sanlucar de Barrameda, from which its slightly salty tinge is supposed to derive. If a manzanilla is moved to Jerez, it becomes an ordinary fino.
Palo Cortado is a curious and rather rare sherry, very fragrant, growing little or no flor, and very dry, though darkish in colour.
BLENDING AND SWEETENING:
The sweet sherries – milks, creams and other sweet-sounding names – are unknown in Spain. They are made up for export markets, particularly for cold climates. The finer examples are based on top-quality matured wines; the cheaper wines are merely blended up. At their best they are produced from the finest old olorosos, sometimes darkened with a colouring agent and sometimes additionally sweetened with sweet wine of the region. As has been stated, all sherry starts by being completely dry, the sugar in the wine having been fermented out. But to suit various markets, many sherries receive slight or substantial sweetening. Some of the. Well-known styles are sold in both Spain and the U.K.; but this export’ sweetening therefore accounts for the difference in taste that is occasionally noticed by travellers. It is considered a pity to sweeten a great fino – but it is also true that many people, especially when they are starting to drink wine, do not like anything completely dry. ‘For the British market, call it dry, but make it sweet/ said a respected (and highly successful) sherry shipper, and about 85% of sherry drunk in the U.K. is in fact, truly sweet. The delicacy of a bone dry wine also puts it at some risk as it will deteriorate more rapidly, once the bottle is opened, than a sweeter wine.
Sherry is blended to preserve the quality of marks which have become traditional and successful. A great sherry house can, if requested, blend a sherry to the demands of an individual wine merchant. However the greatest names of the finest sherries are, at least among the finos, borne by the wines that come from single soleras, without additional blending in of other wines from outside. It is confusion about this that leads some people to suspect sherry ‘because it is blended’ (whereas it obviously must be, in view of the fact that there is no vintage sherry), and others to misunderstand the solera system in which the finer wines are kept to themselves.
All sherry is fortified wine. This is sometimes denied, because people misunderstand the term vinodepasto, but this merely means a wine to go with food. Indeed in Jerez people will drink sherry all through a meal. Sherry receives its first fortification (with added alcohol) when it is about 6 months old. For the very delicate wines, to make them resistant to infection, they may receive a slight additional fortification before they are shipped. Although there is nothing harmful involved, wines of low strength, even though slightly fortified, can throw a slight deposit or go cloudy: then the public suspects the wine as ‘bad’. Wines bottled in Spain are sold liable to such hazards, but people who have the knowledge to buy these usually know that a slight trace of deposit means no harm, but possibly indicates quality. In Spain, sherry does tend to be very slightly lower in alcoholic strength than when shipped – another reason why visitors to Jerez are surprised to find they can drink so much of it.
SPANISH BOTTLING AND BOTTLING IN COUNTRY OF SALE:
Although some fine Spanish-bottled sherries are available in the U.K. and more sherry is being bottled in Spain, it is a matter of taste whether these are preferred to the wines bottled in Britain or any other country where sherry is sold. The bottle used is traditionally the square-shouldered type, but this is merely a convention. What is important for the prospective purchaser of a bottle of sherry to consider is that, if he or she is about to buy a very delicate dry wine, this should not have been on the shelves of a merchant for several months or years – when the wine may have become flabby and dull. However this is a counsel of perfection, because obviously the turnover of stocks depends on demand and how can the customer know the shelf age of a bottle? So, in general, buy sherry as and when it is needed – and drink it soon after buying.
Sherry is a wine – even though its colour may vary from pale gold to velvety brown – and it should be served like any wine: chilled if it is a very dry aperitif wine; at room temperature (especially in cool weather) for the rounder and sweeter wines. However a recent vogue for pouring these ‘on the rocks’ appeals to some people. The chilling brings out the freshness and quality in any good/mo: and a great amontillado or palo cortado should be at least cool, when its subtleties can be appreciated.
Once the bottle is open, the wine will deteriorate and it often astonishes people to learn that, ideally, no fino should be open, even in a cool place, for more than 4 to 5 days. Authorities on sherry will detect a deterioration in hours! If they cannot be drunk within this period, it is better to use them up in cooking rather than expect them to be drunk with any kind of enjoyment by people who may know something about wine. If you chill sherry in the refrigerator, it is better to put it back, once opened, into the least cool part and keep it there, rather than take it out and then put it back again on a future occasion.
The copita is ideal for sherry, as is the smallish goblet (but not too small) of bulbous shape. The types of glass which are utterly wrong – because they cheat the drinker of the wine’s fragrance – are the incurving Elgin (which gives a mean measure), the schooner and the hideous ‘thistle1 glass. Portions should be about 10 to 12 out of a bottle, filling the glasses only by two-thirds or half.
SHERRY-STYLE WINES MADE IN OTHER COUNTRIES:
Although a type of sherry is made in the U. K. from imported must and reconstituted dried grapes, this can seldom be more than a beverage of acceptable quality, varying from indifferent to fairly good. This is the kind of thing with which many people begin their wine drinking and it should be carefully chosen – but it must not be considered as a substitute for sherry, except when people are obliged to choose it for price considerations. The wines made in wineproducing regions according to the general procedure described above, however, are individual productions, meriting consideration in their own right. Again, they are not in any way substitutes for sherry. A fine wine of sherry style can compare interestingly with all but the very finest products of Spain. Indeed, just as it is possible to find exquisite Spanish wines, it is also possible to come across those of indifferent quality. The unsnobbish drinker might well prefer something really good from, say, Cyprus or South Africa to anything indifferent from Spain. What is essential to remember is that all these wines – whether they have the name ‘sherry’ on their labels, or are sold under a non-committal name or brand making no use of the word ‘sherry’ – will be quite different from anything else, and different from each other. Some are by no means cheap. In very general terms, quality must relate to price but vineyards, grapes and details of vinification and maturation will produce different wines. These are worthy of appraisal as wines, while many of them are of a quality which will surprise and please the palate.