A Beginner’s Guide to Sweet Sherry
One of the most famous Spanish white wines is the sweet sherry, a fortified example which is highly regarded by connoisseurs. The term ‘sherry’ comes from the Arabic word ‘Sherish’ (Latin: Ceret) and relates to the respective wine region ‘Jerez de la Frontera’. Although the wine is a product of Andalusia, it was spread and made popular by English traders in the 18th and 19th century.
The region around Jerez de la Frontera has been producing wine for over 3000 years which is documented in several ancient Latin documents. After being under Roman rule for several centuries, the region experienced strong Islamic influences where the consumption of alcohol was prohibited. However, the inhabitants did not want to give up their vineyards and claimed to produce raisins and medication containing ethanol. That way, the wine production was kept alive until today. The name changed from ‘Sherish’ to ‘Sherry’ when British buyers started purchasing the wine, and they distributed it worldwide by the end of the 18th century when Irish, Scottish and English traders settled in the wine region to enable regular business.
The particular technique that is used to produce the legendary sweet sherry wines is reason for the distinct nutty flavour, somewhat a fusion of almond, hazelnut and walnut aromas. The major ingredient is the Palomino white grape which is a typical type of the region and is carefully picked. Before the sherry becomes sweet, it is actually a traditional dry white wine. After the fermentation process is completed, brandy is added to the wine and is then stored in open barrels. Through the addition of brandy, the alcohol percentage rises from 11% to up to 19%. After approximately one year of storage, the wine undergoes the so-called ‘Solera y Criadera’ procedure which is an essential step in the production of authentic sweet sherry. The barrels are stored on top of each other, the oldest wine being at the bottom.
When it is time for sale, only one third of the bottom barrel is emptied and replaced with younger sherry from the barrels above. Thus, a good bottle of sweet sherry is a blend of wines from several years which adds to the unique flavour. Arguably, at this point the sherry is still rather classified as dry white wine. Sweet sherry is usually a combination of various types of grapes such as Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. These grapes are dried prior to manufacturing. Thus, not all sugar will be converted into alcohol in the fermentation process and the characteristic sweet flavour is produced. It is highly unusual to encounter sweet sherry wines consisting of grapes other than Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. Furthermore, the wine’s name is essentially protected and only certain regions around Jerez de la Frontera are legally entitled to call their product ‘sherry’.
Apart from sweet sherry, there are many other different types of sherry wines which vary in alcohol percentage and have slight changes in the procedure. ‘Amontillado’ and ‘Fino’ for instance are two variations that are produced with ‘flor’ (Spanish for ‘flower’) which is a common term in winemaking and describes a thin film of yeast that lies on the surface of the wine when it is stored in barrels. This layer prevents the wine from coming into contact with air and thus avoids oxidation. The result is a sherry with a brighter colour and a dry, strong flavour. ‘Cream’ is a popular example for a very sweet sherry type as it is a blend of the previously mentioned grape types that add the sugary flavour.
Old sherry barrels are often shipped to Scotland where they are used to add a distinct colour and flavour to the Scottish Whiskey.