Meggan Robinson on December 2, 2015 0 Comments Deep in southern Spain, bright white chalky soil called albariza might look like snow if it weren’t for the scorching sun baking the land. In fact, Andalusia, the region that gives us sherry, is the hottest in Europe. Bright sun, sea breezes from the Mediterranean, and the Palomino grape combine in a way that’s wholly unique and absolutely delicious. What is Sherry? Well, it isn’t just the sweet stuff in the blue bottle your grandmother used to drink. Sherry is a fortified wine made in Andalucia, in the area around three specific towns: Jerez del la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda, and Puerto de Santa Maria. Sherry was originally fortified because the addition of brandy makes the wine more stable and able to survive long sea voyages. When England’s navy attacked Spain in 1587, Sir Francis Drake liberated several thousand barrels of sherry and brought it home to England, where it became quite popular. Sherry begins life just like any other wine. Palomino grapes are harvested, crushed, and fermented in a process that’s just the same as in California, France, or Australia. But it’s what happens next that makes sherry unlike any other wine in the world. The wine is fortified with brandy, which raises the alcohol content, then it’s aged using a technique called the “solera method” that intensifies the wine’s flavor and evens out any vintage variations, resulting in a wine that’s consistent over the course of many years. Made in a wide range of styles, all sherries exhibit bold flavors and are stellar accompaniments for a host of different foods. When a sherry barrel comes to the end of its suitability for aging wine, the barrels are shipped to distilleries where they’re used again for aging fine spirits like scotch and rum. How is Sherry Made? A host of different factors influence a sherry’s style, and it’s different from any other sort of wine because some of the factors are the result of deliberate choices in the winemaking process, while others are happenstance. A winemaker’s first decision is whether to make a Fino or an Oloroso sherry. Wines destined to become Finos are fortified up to roughly 15-16% alcohol, while Oloroso sherries are fortified to about 18%. Why the difference? The answer is flor. Flor is a layer of yeast cells that collects on the surface of some sherries as they age. It’s not particularly appealing in appearance, but it’s critical to the process, as the flor prevents the aging sherry from becoming too oxidized. Alcohol inhibits the formation of flor, so Fino sherries have it, while Oloroso sherries don’t. In addition to flor, the solera method is another element that differentiates sherry from wines made elsewhere. In a solera, barrels are stacked. Newly fermented wine is added to the barrels at the top of the criadera (the name for the series of barrels in a solera), and older wines are transferred to lower barrels. When it’s time to bottle the sherry, the oldest wine from the bottom barrels is extracted and bottled, and fresh wine added at the top. The solera system effectively erases any variation from vintage to vintage and explains why you don’t see vintage dated sherries: they’re all multi-vintage blends. Each bottle of sherry from a given solera contains a tiny bit of the very first vintage the solera was used, and some soleras were begun more than a hundred years ago. All sherries are aged in soleras, but the styles of sherry vary enormously. Dry Sherry Those unfamiliar with the delights of sherry typically think all sherry is sweet, but that’s far from the case. Most sherries are actually dry and are delightful with a wide range of dishes. Fino: Fino sherries are the palest in color. They’re bone dry and show dried fruit and a little salt air on the nose. They’re intense, have bright acidity, and are a bit austere. Since Fino sherries are far from being fruit bombs, they’re a bit of an acquired taste. The best way to sample Fino is served very cold with tapas, particularly with smoked fish, marcona almonds, oysters, and olives. Finos should be consumed young. Manzanilla: Manzanilla is Fino sherry produced only near Sanlucar de Barrameda. They tend to be very light, crisp, and a touch softer than regular Fino sherry. Serve Manzanilla with tapas, especially white anchovy. Amontillado: Amontillado begins its life as a Fino. The flor develops, and the wine is aged with the protective layer of yeast cells for a time, and then aged further without the flor, giving the wine some oxidative qualities. The flor can either die off on its own, or the winemaker can add more brandy and increase the alcohol content of the wine, killing the flor deliberately. Amontillado are deeper in color than Fino and are suitable for pairing with roasted chicken, medium strength cheeses, and chorizo. Palo Cortado: Palo Cortado is the rarest of all the sherry styles, as it’s produced by fortuitous chance. Certain barrels of Fino in a solera occasionally lose their flor or age differently, causing them to acquire a deeper color and flavor without the winemaker’s intervention. These barrels become Palo Cortado, a style somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso in both flavor and color. Oloroso: Deep in both color and flavor, Oloroso sherries are fortified to about 18% alcohol and oxidize significantly as they age without the protective flor, picking up flavors of caramel, vanilla, and hazelnut. As the wine ages in the solera, the alcohol increases due to evaporation, and a number of Olorosos end up in the 20-24% alcohol range. Oloroso can be either dry or sweet. Winemakers typically sweeten an Oloroso with the juice of another important grape in the region: Pedro Ximénez (PX). Sweet Sherry Many of the sweet sherries are versions of dry sherry sweetened by the addition of fresh juice. They’re delicious served either with or for dessert with hard, aged cheeses and nuts. Pedro Ximénez Named after the grape variety, these wines are syrupy sweet, unctuous, and simply extraordinary. The Pedro Ximénez grape has naturally high sugar levels, and after harvest, the grapes are dried on straw mats in the sun to raisin the fruit. The incredibly high sugar content of these grapes means that some of the wines don’t even need to be fortified. Cream Sherry Cream sherries like Harvey’s Bristol in its distinctive blue bottle are made by blending a dry sherry–usually an Oloroso–with a sweet PX or Moscatel. Moscatel This style of wine is produced in other areas of Spain in addition to Andalucia. Moscatel grapes (also called Moscatel de Alejandria) are naturally very sweet. Some wines are fermented from fresh juice, while others are made from grapes dried like PX. There are a few other kinds of sweet sherries, but they’re fairly uncommon. You may be able to find sherries labeled Medium, Pale Cream (a sweetened blend of Fino and Amontillado), Brown, and East India (a type of Brown that’s aged at a higher temperature to simulate the effects of aging on a sea voyage). Distinctive and assertive, the flavors of sherries are entirely unlike wines made elsewhere. The key to an enjoyable exploration of these wines is pairing them with food, and you simply can’t go wrong with traditional tapas. One final note: Many folks believe that the higher alcohol content of Fino, Manzanilla, and Amontillado sherries means they’ll keep indefinitely after opening, but in fact they’re less stable than you’d think. While Olorosos and sweet sherries do hold quite a long while, the drier, more delicate sherries are best consumed within a few days after opening.