In the province of Cadiz, on the Atlantic coast of south west Spain lies the city of Jerez de la Frontera. Since the late 18th century this has been the unique source of the wine called Sherry. A number of adventurous wine merchants of British and Irish extraction set up business to send the local wines, fortified with extra alcohol, to cooler northern countries.
Their names are still there on the labels centuries later although some bodegas have changed their ownership. Croft, Harvey, Sandeman, Gordon, Humbert and Osborne, to name but a few, still offer a variety of sherries of quality made very much in the traditional methods that best suits the wines of this hot and dry corner of Spain.
Vine cultivation has a long history in this part of the world, as 3000 years ago Phoenicians, or maybe Greeks, introduced grapevines and found they flourished, thanks to the climate and soil. They named the location where Jerez now sits as Xera and countless years and name changes later the invading Moors called it Seris ( pronounced Sheris ). Shakespearian England loved Sheris Sack eventually to become Sherry which had become easier to import as the port of Cadiz was handy for passing merchant ships to load barrels of the wine
Most of the bodegas making and maturing Sherry lie within a triangle marked by Jerez, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda and they enjoy a fairly predictable climate ( 70 days of rain and 295 days of sunshine )which could be described as challenging with temperatures ranging from freezing point to 40 C, averaging 18 C across the year. This is coupled with modest rainfall between October and May.
Albariza soil is the best for sherry grapes and is about 40% chalk that holds moisture in abundance retaining winter water during the long hot summer growing season. Almost all grapes are of the Palomino de Jerez type with a small planting of Pedro Ximenez ( PX ) for very sweet dessert wines.
The vintage usually starts in the first week of September and lasts for 20 days. When the grapes are safely gathered in, fermented and alcohol added to reach 15 % the three main elements of Sherry production come into play:
FLOR: This is an unique bacterial blanket that grows on the surface of the freshly pressed grape juice. Growing on the surface of the juice it prevents oxygen from affecting the wines and thus preserves their light character. Should darker, full bodied Oloroso wines be required then alcohol is added raising the level to 17% thus killing the flor and permitting the wines to oxidise.
BUTTS: These are oak barrels in which wines are aged. Of 600 litre capacity they are filled to never more than 500 litres so there is space for the flor to develop for Finos and oxygen to work on Olorosos. Butts can easily be over 100 years old since oak flavours are not necessary for Sherries, and are only changed when repairs are called for or they are too old to be of further use.
SOLERA SYSTEM: The system was developed to ensure consistency in quality and ageing and is based on introducing younger wines to older wines so that the younger acquires some of the character of the older. The Solera consist of rows of butts balanced on top of each other, each row representing one year's vintage with the youngest wines on the top row. As the wine is drawn off from the bottom of the Solera for blending and bottling, usually after 3 years, wine is cascaded down from the level of barrels above . Never more than one third is finally drawn off so allowing the continuous blending process to follow year by year.
Sherry can now be broadly classified as either Fino or Oloroso and are all basically dry wines. Sweetness if needed, for Cream Sherry for example, is achieved by adding sweet Pedro Ximenez wines before bottling.
Classic Finos are pale straw colour, light and very dry, delicate with an aroma reminiscent of almonds. Ideally suited to accompany all sorts of tapas as well as soups, sea foods, fish, ham and cheeses and should always be served well chilled.
Manzanilla finos are exclusively from the seaside town of Sanlucar and can only be described as Manzanilla if matured in the town's bodegas. The salty Atlantic breezes blow into the open windowed bodegas that sit on the cliffs above the town, imparting a subtle salty taste to the wine.
Amontillados (literally, after the style of Montilla) are finos that acquire and amber colour with age and a dry, nutty flavour. The fino is left in the butt without adding any new wine, so eventually allowing the flor to die away.
Oloroso is dark gold or amber with more body than Amontillados and often is described as having a taste of walnuts. They are suited to red meat or game and can be an exceptional aperitif.
All sherries are the end product of aging and blending skills handed down over many generations. So what at first glance seems to be a familiar taste in fact opens up a whole new vista of flavour and style to those whom take the time to explore some of Jerez's fascinating and unique wines.
The renown Brandy de Jerez is justly placed by many connoisseurs in the top flight of brandies in the world. Spirits distilled entirely from Jerez wines are matured in butts previously used for sherry, and the same solera system is employed to age the brandy. Some of the older blends are indeed magnificent and are designated Solera Gran Reservas to denote their pedigree.
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