A toast to sherry!
Sherry, the fortified wine produced in the South of Spain, can be enjoyed in many occasions. It is certainly a wine to toast about.
Sweet cream sherry was a favourite of my mother and her friends in the 1970s. Meanwhile, sherry trifle, a rich desert made of layers of liqueur soaked sponge, fruit, custard and cream, was obligatory at Christmas and all family celebrations throughout my childhood. Today, sherry has a much more sophisticated image. It is lauded by connoisseurs and celebrated by fine wine lovers for its diversity and depth of flavour, which seems to embody the passionate, colourful culture of Andalucía.
It is a type of fortified wine made which comes from the far south of Spain, near the Atlantic coast, where the hot, dry climate creates a unique environment. These sherry-making vineyards are found in a rough triangle formed by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. All have a rich sherry making heritage which starts with the albariza, a white, chalky soil which holds water well. In such a hot climate, evaporation is high and so this ability to retain water in the ground is very important.
Just three grape varieties are used to produce sherry: Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez. The latter two grapes give sweetness to the sherry, while the main body comes from Palomino, by far the most widely grown grape in the region. It produces great, fat clusters of pale green grapes, which give a base wine that is crisp and dry, but somewhat nondescript. It is the complex production process that gives us the rich, unique taste of sherry.
Key to the production of sherry is the layer, or film, of yeast that forms on top of the young wine. This is called the flor, and it forms spontaneously in the empty space left at the top when the sherry casks, or butts are filled. Sherry butts are traditionally made of American oak and have a capacity of 600 litres, but are only filled to 500 litres. This leaves a space for the yeast to form and grow. The species of yeast responsible for this film is known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and it acts to protect the maturing winefrom oxidation. The flor is responsible for transforming alcohol into acetaldehyde, which gives sherry its characteristic flavour and aroma. The flor is thicker in the coastal strip because there is more moisture in the air and this lends a distinctive flavour to sherries produced by the sea which have a more acidic flavour.
Below, we explain the main sherry styles and how they are different.
A chilled glass ofpaledry fino sherry is the perfect accompaniment to tapas like almonds, olives or seafood nibbles. It is the freshest and most delicate of sherry styles, which only uses the grape juice that is produced by crushing the grapes under their own weight before they are sent to the press. It is typically drunk young and does not keep well once opened.
This sherry hales from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a thriving coastal town famous for its horses races along the beach each year. Manzanilla sherry is even lighter and more delicate than fino and has a slightly salty tang reminiscent of the sea air. It is a great accompaniment to the delicious shell fish dishes found in this part of Spain.
Taking its name from the Montilla region of Spain, this type of sherry originated in the 18th century. Amontillado starts its life as fino but is then matured into a darker and richer sherry. A butt of fino sherry is considered to be Amontillado if the layer of flor fails to develop adequately or is lacking. Without this protective coating, amontillado must be fortified with added alcohol to approximately 17.5 percent alcohol so that it does not oxidise too quickly. After additional fortification, Amontillado is slowly exposed to oxygen through the slightly porous American or Canadian oak casks. This gives a darker color and more robust flavor than Fino. Because it has been aged in this way, the sherry also lasts longer once the bottle is opened. Amontillado should be just lightly chilled and can be served as an aperitif or to accompany chicken or rabbit.
This is a rich, dry sherry with a deep brown colour which can vary from amber to mahogany. Olorosos are made from the thicker, heavier juice that runs out once the grapes are properly pressed. This is then developed in the barrel without the protective flor layer, sometimes for a number of years. The result is a rich, complex sherry which has a nutty aroma. Because of the way they are matured, oloroso sherries store well and even once the bottle is opened, they will stay tasting good for month or two so.
A sweet oloroso is made by adding some of the thick, treacly wine that is produced from Pedro-Ximenez grapes. Sweet Olorosos go brilliantly with toffee, chocolate and caramel as well as sweet cakes and any kind of blue cheese.
This sherry is made from a base of dried gapes or raisins which produces a very concentrated sweetness. Often it is added to other sherries to create sweet, or cream sherries. Some tasters have said its wonderful deep flavour makes them think if liquid Christmas cake!