History in a Glass 

3 wine glasses different colors of wine 3rd glass being filled by pouring wine from bottle

By: Tod Stewart

As with everything, wine is not immune to the whims and vagaries of tastes and trends. In fact, some of the most historically popular (and important) wines have practically fallen off the modern wine aficionado’s radar. Yes, sherry, m’dear, I’m talking to you. The good news is that your moment in the spotlight may be returning.

  Sherry sports the distinction of being an incredibly significant yet incredibly misunderstood player in the wine game at the same time. This is likely due to a double whammy of being unfairly associated with “grandma’s wine” and erroneously associated with something sweet. The sweet stuff your (probably British) grandmother once drank (or maybe still does) isn’t what most Spaniards would regard as sherry. In fact, sweet, or “cream,” sherry is a decidedly English concoction developed to satisfy a certain palate. Most “true” sherries are really quite dry (fino sherry is perhaps the driest wine commercially made). But let’s back up a bit. What exactly is sherry?

  Sherry is the product of a demarcated area of southern Spain’s Andalusia, close to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s important to stress that authentic sherry is Spanish. Period. Full stop. Sure, “sherry style” wines are produced around the world, but the real deal comes from Spain. Yet considering the influence of the British on the development of the sherry trade and with sherry firms sporting names like Duff Gordon, Osborne, Williams & Humbert and John Harvey & Sons, you might be tempted to think it’s made in England. Andalusia is a hot region with little rain. The chalky albariza soil plays host to the white Palomino Fino grape variety (along with some Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel planted in the less favorable barros and arenas soils).

  While unique soils and grape varieties are the cornerstones of sherry’s character, the production methods and maturation process really give the wine its character.

  Sherry begins life as a dry white wine, which is then lightly fortified (usually to about 15 percent alcohol via the addition of a grape spirit and wine mixture) and is left in barrels filled only two-thirds full. A typical table wine would oxidize under these conditions. But the damp sherry cellars filled with oxygen-rich Atlantic air create ideal conditions for the development of flor – a yeast blanket that covers the surface of the wine and both protects it from deterioration and eliminates harmful, vinegar-producing bacteria.

  The wines designated as fino, the lightest and driest style of sherry, go on to mature for a year or so. The flor allows finos and sherries based on the fino style, like amontillado and palo cortado, to mature, for the most part, biologically since the flor does the aging. Barrels with little or no flor are given additional fortification and designated as oloroso. These wines are given an extra dose of alcohol and allowed to age oxidatively, as oxygen does the aging.

  After the cellar master determines which barrels are going to result in what, the wines are introduced to soleras for final blending and maturation.

  A solera is basically a series of barrels. Each contains the same style of wine but of differing stages of aging. Fully mature wine is tapped off the bottom barrel. This barrel is topped up with slightly younger wine from the barrel above, which is topped up with even younger wine from the barrel above it. New wine is introduced to the first barrel in the chain. (Then it tells two friends, and they tell two friends and so on. Sorry, but that paragraph just set itself up.)

  This constant blending, referred to as “dynamic maturation” (as opposed to “distressing maturation,” which is what I’m personally experiencing), results in a supply of fully mature wine that is always consistent. Stylistically speaking, finos and their ilk tend to be lighter and more delicate, while olorosos are darker and nuttier. Cream sherries (e.g., Harvey’s Bristol Cream) are typically blends of sweet wine with drier wine before being sold to old people in the UK. Serve finos cool, the others less cool. Also, don’t forget they are wines, so treat them like wine and not like, well, not like whatever stuff you keep sitting open in a dusty decanter on the mantle for eternity.

  Even if you understand sherry’s complex creation cycle, you still aren’t out of the woods when it comes to fully comprehending the stuff. And honestly, the industry itself is partially to blame for a lot of the confusion.

  I mean, just as you are getting the concept of “dynamic” aging and how it results in uniformity of the finished (and non-vintage, I should add) wine, you run smack into sherries proclaiming to be a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old. Having made peace with the claim that fino sherries are light, fresh and delicate and should be consumed within six months, you are hit with something called a “very old fino.” This happens right after you’ve been told that an amontillado is, more or less, an aged fino. Huh? Oh, yeah, and don’t forget manzanilla, which is a fino aged near the sea (And how “near” counts for near?). What’s a palo cortado (and why are there three levels of the stuff)? The verdict seems to be constantly out. And what is PX? Sounds like a virus. Is “amoroso” a sherry or an aphrodisiac? Is cream sherry a dairy product? And what are we to make of a “Palo Cortado ‘Almacenista’ Solara Matured by Vides 1/50”? Did Torquemada use this stuff to extract confessions? “Cardinal Fang, make the heretic learn about sherry!”

  Luckily, developing a taste for sherry is a fair bit easier and more pleasurable than actually understanding it on a technical level. But, for some, it might not be the smoothest ride.

  Sherry is a bit of an acquired taste. In my university years, I had read about the wonders of dry fino sherry long before I ever had the opportunity to taste it. And when I did, I couldn’t believe people actually drank it, let alone waxed rhapsodic about it. It can indeed have floral overtones, but in general, fino sherry is an oxidized, high-alcohol number that smells not of a particular vinifera but, depending on the style, of sea spray, bitter almond and green olive. Darker styles like oloroso and amontillado lean toward notes of walnut, sultana raisin, fruitcake and yes, varnish. In other words, not pinot grigio. Thank God. Sherry remains staunchly traditional and demands that you conform to it rather than vice versa. Like other complex forms of art, you often don’t fully appreciate it until you’ve looked at it, listened to it or tasted it a number of times. You mature; so does your palate.

  So, what’s the future looking like for a wine as complex and traditional as sherry? For some answers, I spoke to Victoria González-Gordon López de Carrizosa, from the historic González Byass, a legendary sherry bodega (and creator of the now legendary Tio Pepe brand) with roots stretching back into the 1800s. 

  “Since the sherry ‘glory days’ of the 1970s and 80s, producers have adapted significantly to the changing demands of international markets,” she emphasized, noting that while volume sales are still important in traditional markets like the UK and Holland, González Byass has focused efforts on moving away from volume production, aiming instead at high quality, premium sherries. “Much emphasis has been put on education,” she notes, as sherry is a wine that needs to be understood: its particular production methods, styles and versatility.”

  She reveals that “change has been constant since the turn of the century, as sherry producers have looked to establish sherry as quality, world-class fortified wine. As a result, the Consejo Regular Jerez, the governing body for sherry, is initiating changes across the board in order to prepare the region for the future. This includes expanding the production areas for sherry, which will allow more wineries to promote their wines as sherry. In addition, new grape varietals are being approved for production, responding to the demand for native varietals and those that can adapt to the changing climate – and to allow for more innovation in the future. Another important factor is a change in regulations so that different wines and styles are more easily understood by the end consumer.”

  Creative bartenders, it would seem, may be the engine driving sherry’s future popularity.

  “It is clear that mixology is helping us reach new, younger consumers,” González-Gordon López de Carrizosa confirms. “We believe this is an important way to communicate the versatility of sherry. In markets like the USA and Canada, it is great to have our sherry ‘name called’ or specifically mentioned as an essential ingredient in a well-made cocktail. We are proud to have González Byass sherries featured in cocktails on top mixology lists and in the very best bars in major, trend-setting cities around the world. Often, this experience can be the first and very important step to introducing our wines to consumers and giving them a chance to learn about this fascinating drink.”

  As they say, what goes around comes around, and it seems the time is now for a bit of a sherry renaissance.

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