Sherry springs from humble ingredients, determination
Like most dessert wines in the world, sherry is steeped in tradition and misconception. Made only in the Jerez DO in southern Spain, sherry has been known in England since 1340 but did not have protective status until Jan. 1, 1996. According to “The New Spain” by John Radford, the reason it took so long is because there are so many wines from so many countries that called their own wines “sherry” in an effort to bask in the true article’s glory. In 1587, one of Sir Francis Drake’s captains attacked what was known as Cadiz harbor, the present day Jerez, set fire to most of the Spanish fleet and made off with nearly 3,000 barrels of the stuff. London was awash in “sherry sack,” creating a market that was to boom almost unhindered for nearly 400 years.
The grape variety used to make sherry is called Listan Palomino. The vineyards, or pagos as they are referred to in Jerez, each have their own unique characteristics. The higher and hotter pagos tend to grow grapes that will make good oloroso wines; cooler and more coastal pagos favor the fino style wines. The soils are generally chalky, and the climate is unusual, very hot but relatively wet. But the most important factor of all is the sherry making process itself.All Palomino sherry starts its life as a dry wine. After fermentation the wines have an average of 12 percent to 13 percent alcohol. They are stored in steel tanks for several months before they are reassessed for their quality. The best wines are then fortified to 14.5 percent alcohol and stored in wood casks where flor develops. This strain of yeast feeds off any residual sugars in the wine and forms anything from a thin film to a thick crusty layer on top of the wine. In the spring, those wines that have formed the best and most vigorous layers of flor are fortified to 15.5 percent alcohol, which is perfect to keep the flor alive. These wines will become fino wines. The rest will be fortified to 17.5 percent, killing the flor, and will become oloroso wines.But it is the unique solera that makes Jerez wines so special. Imagine a pyramid of barrels, seven on the bottom row then six above that and five above that. The barrels are never all the way full. The bottom row is known as the solera. Each year only a third of the wine in the solera may be sold. The barrels are then topped off from wine in the row above it. The middle row is then topped off by the wine in the top row and the current harvest wine is added to the top row.
By the time a new wine has gone through the system, anything from five to 100 years may have passed. The new wine will have the opportunity to take on characteristics of wines much older and more mature or from better harvests. The wines are finally blended, creating a unique profile.Fino sherry is the lightest and driest of the sherries. It is delicate and yeasty and has a nutty aroma. Oloroso sherry does not grow flor in cask and is usually deeper in color, richer on the palate, and can mature for decades but is not sweet. The best oloroso sherry has a nutty fragrance and finishes bone dry. Sweet sherry, like cream sherry, has a sweeter wine added to it made from the Pedro Ximenez grape.There are wine regions all over the world that are blessed with perfect climate, alpine altitudes, rich soil and noble grape varietals, but Jerez is not one of those. The thing that makes sherry great is a determination to make something magnificent out of fairly humble ingredients; that and a couple thousands years of experience and hard work.
Susanne Johnston is the owner of Frisco Wine Merchant. For more information, contact her at (970) 668-3153.
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