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Sherry: Explained

Your guide to to this unique style of wine from the southwest of Spain.

Sherry is a style of wine that is made in Andalusia, in the southwest of Spain. Specifically it’s made between the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Though these towns are extremely close to one another (a 20 minute cab ride specifically) they have their own microclimates which sets their wines apart with discernible difference.

The wines are made from three different grapes; Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, with the later two being the sweet grapes and Palomino creating the dry sherries. Despite common misconception the majority of sherry is dry.

Once fermented into a wine, sherry is then fortified with a small amount of neutral grape spirit (un-aged brandy) to push up the alcohol content. Some sherries are fortified to 15 per cent to allow a yeast, or flor, to develop naturally and others are fortified higher to 18 per cent to ensure the yeast doesn’t develop – it depends what style the winemaker is looking for.

Sherry is aged in a solera system, which gradually blends the new wines with the older wines, shifting liquid between barrels, meaning the final product is a blend of years rather than a specific vintage.

THE STYLES

Fino & Manzanilla

Fino and manzanilla both come from the palomino grape and are made and aged identically to one-another. The difference comes down to location, with wines from El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez de la Frontera called fino and those from Sanlúcar de Barrameda called manzanilla. What makes these sherries stand out from one another is the microclimate of each town and the yeast that climate develops. Fino and manzanilla sherries spend their entire life in the barrel beneath a thick layer of flor which stops them oxidising. This is called biological aging. The yeast eats up all the sweetness and flesh of the wine, specifically the glycerol, leaving a pale and bracingly dry sherry with acidic mineral, savoury notes. Flors relationship with a wine, it’s ability to strip it down to its essentials, also leaves an aroma which could be described as yeasty and herbal, similar to the scent of a bakery in the early hours of the morning.

Some bodegas in Jerez also release Fino-Amontillados or, in Sanlúcar, Manzanilla Pasadas, which are old finos and manzanillas whose flor or yeast has become weak with age and the wine is starting to show initial oxidisation among those briny-fresh notes. These wines straddle the middle ground, articulating the profound transition from biological to oxidative aging. In Talia Baiocchi’s Sherry she describes it as “delicious ambiguity”.

Amontillado

Amontillados start life off as a fino or manzanilla, living under the flor and aging biologically. Eventually the flor either dies off naturally or is killed by fortifying the wine to 17 per cent, allowing the wine to then age oxidatively for a while before being bottled.

By regulation amontillado must spend two years aging biologically under the flor but many winemakers stretch this, going so far as to maintain the yeast for ten years. Allowing the flor to have a greater impact on the wine means the end result with beautifully showcase this tension between the loud flavours of oxidation and the slenderness and austerity that biological aging imparts.

Palo Cortado

Like amontillados, a palo cortado will also start life as a fino or manzanilla, but something goes wrong (or very right depending on your prespective). Winemakers in Jerez mark all their barrels destined to become finos with a long white slash (called a palo) and then continue to check in and taste the wine as it develops regularly. If the wine starts to develop a fuller mouthfeel and palate the wine maker will then put a horizontal line (called a cortado) through that slash, meaning that wine will be removed from the Fino solera system and fortified to 17 per cent to kill the flor before being placed in a palo cortado solera system. In the past the barrel was simply discarded and through to be wastage or a mistake but nowadays it is seen as a category in its own right.

No one seems quite sure as to why the wine develops differently, whether it’s the yeast or the barrel, but a palo cortado only spends a short amount of time under the flor, meaning it sits perfectly between an Amontillado and an oloroso.

Oloroso

Oloroso is the last of the dry sherries, and while fino and manzanilla are busy being stripped down by flor, oloroso is only wine aged entirely by oxidation. Oloroso is extremely fragrant, in fact that’s exactly what the word means in Spanish and you can expect notes of walnuts, figs and tea on the nose and yet it still has a dry and elegant finish but is far more vicious on the palate.  Many people perceive oloroso as a lot sweeter than a palo cortado or an amontillado but it is a totally dry wine that has a lot of texture and weight as it has retained its glycerol.

Because oloroso wines experience evaporation they inevitably grow in alcoholic strength the longer they are aged, and many are bottled at 20 per cent.

Cream or Blended Sherry

This group of sherries includes those labelled as pale cream, cream, brown and East India. These are all finos, manzanillas, amontillados or olorosos that have sweetness added to it, whether made from concentrated, unfermented grape must or wines made using pedro ximénez or muscatel. There is a lot of discrepancy between quality in this category as some of the added sweetness can also be sherry boiled down into a syrup which cheaply adds colour and flavour. But there are some great ones out there, it’s all a matter of trusting the bodegas.

Pedro Ximénez

Sherry’s iconic sweet wine is some of the oldest in the region. A PX grape starting life out on its journey to becoming one of these sweet wines is harvested at high levels of sugar and is then laid out to dry in the sun for two weeks to rasinate, which further compresses the sugar. It’s actually quite difficult to ferment this grape juice as there is such an abundance of sugar the yeast can’t do it’s job, so PX sherries rely on fortification to get their alcoholic strength up. PX wines are aged in a solera system but unusually their alcoholic strength decreases over time as the thickness of the liquid doesn’t render itself to absorption from the wood and more alcohol evaporates rather than water. 

EN RAMA

What is en rama? En rama, meaning raw, are biologically-aged wines (so fino or manzanilla) that haven’t undergone any filtration and come to us straight from the barrel. At least in theory. Although these sherries certainly don’t undergo the intense clarification and filtration many do they still have to have some minimal filtration to ensure the flor doesn’t re-activate in the bottle. En rama sherries still do have impurities in them though and aren’t as clear as those with a long shelf life. In fact en rama sherries have to be consumed fairly quickly, it’s not the type of bottle to save for an anniversary years down the line. That said they are much more flavoursome and a true representation of what sherry from the cask tastes like.

HOW TO DRINK IT

Drier sherries are very tasty chilled down, in fact there is nothing so delicious as a bottle of manzanilla on ice, sipped on a warm sunny afternoon. In truth sherry is best drunk on it’s own, neat, and treated as a wine served in smaller measurements. There are also plenty of great sherry cocktails to order in London’s best bars or to make at home.