The image of sherry as a sweet afternoon tipple for little old ladies is due for an overhaul. With America’s growing interest in Spanish food and insatiable passion for tapas, sherry is coming into its own as a serious beverage. It is as complex and worthy of study as any of the great wines of the world.

All true sherry comes from southern Spain, from a small region in Andalucia that centers around the town of Jerez (pronounced hereth) de la Frontera. The other two principal sherry towns are Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. These latter two are on the Atlantic coast; Jerez is only a few miles inland, so the ocean’s proximity keeps temperatures cooler than you might expect in southern Spain.

Palomino is the principal grape here; it has all but displaced everything except Pedro Ximenez, a grape primarily used for sweet wines. The soil in the best vineyards is an unusual chalky-white, high in limestone and moisture retentive, so the vines survive the hot, dry summers.

Once fermented, the Palomino grape makes a not particularly interesting wine. But it’s what the Spanish do with it next that makes the difference.

The best wines—which come from older vines in the best soil—are fortified to about 15.5 percent alcohol. These wines are destined to become fino sherries. The heavier wines are fortified to about 18 percent and largely become olorosos.

The lower-alcohol wines are put into barrels, leaving some air space. In any other winery, the barrels would be filled to prevent oxidation. But sherry producers want the wine to be attacked by flor, a yeast prevalent in the sherry bodegas. Some producers cultivate flor and inoculate the wine; others let it take over naturally. It won’t grow above 16 percent alcohol, which is why the olorosos don’t develop flor. But in lower-alcohol wines, if the flor has access to oxygen, it will quickly cover the wine with a thick yeasty blanket. Flor protects the fino from oxidizing, keeping it fresh and pale.

Left to its own devices, the flor would die when it ran out of sugars to feed on and the fino would begin to oxidize. To keep it alive, sherry producers must add fresh young wine. That’s why sherry houses developed their unique solera system.

A solera is an arrangement of tiered casks that allows producers to maintain the flor and to bottle a product that is consistent year after year. Once, twice, or even more often each year, a portion of sherry is drawn off from the bottom tier and bottled for sale. Then those partly empty casks are refilled from the casks above, and so on all the way up to the top layer, which is topped up with new wine. Although the various tiers—known as criaderas—may not be physically stacked on each other (they may even be in separate buildings), the concept of fractional blending drives the solera. The oldest, or bottom, tier will theoretically contain at least some wine from the bodega’s very first vintage

An authentic Spanish fino sherry is fresh, sharp and lively, thanks to the presence of the protective flor up until bottling. It has a delightful delicacy and trace of nuttiness, and it makes a wonderful aperitif or accompaniment to tapas. Fino is typically served chilled.

There are several other sherry styles worth knowing:

Amontillado: A fino that loses its flor will gradually oxidize, becoming richer, darker and nuttier. This is not undesirable, and vintners can induce it by fortifying the fino to 16 percent alcohol or more, which the flor can’t tolerate. True amontillados are bone dry, but they are also rare. Most commercial amontillados are medium-dry and created inexpensively by blending dry sherry with darker, sweeter sherry.

Oloroso: These sherries develop without the protection of flor, so they become dark and nutty. As they age in the oloroso solera, water evaporates and the alcohol content rises. True oloroso is dry and may contain as much as 24 percent alcohol. To sample one, look for “Dry Oloroso” on the label. Such wines are rare. Most commercial olorosos are made in a sweet style for the international palate; they are colored and sweetened with blending wine.

Cream: Most cream sherries are made by blending ordinary sherry with sweet, dark wines for texture and color. However, some fine examples made from sun-dried grapes do exist and are worth seeking out. They are lovely accompaniments to cheese.

Manzanilla: True manzanilla comes only from Sanlucar de Barrameda. It is made like fino, although the grapes are picked less ripe and the solera is managed somewhat differently. More airspace is left in the casks so manzanilla grows more flor than fino. Its flavor is delicate yet penetrating; its texture is very light. Some say manzanilla has a salty tang, due to the bodegas’ proximity to the ocean. Like fino, manzanilla is served chilled.

For more background on sherry history, production and appreciation, read Sherry by Julian Jeffs.

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