Sherry comes from Scheris, the old (muslim) name of the city that is today called Jerez. Jerez belongs to the region of Cadiz in Andalusia, and together with the cities Sanlucar de Barrameda to the west and El Puerto de Santa Maria to the south, this region is commonly referred to as the Sherry triangle. With each area having their own microclimate, thus setting the distinctions of their own wines.
The soils around Jerez are called albariza because of their shiny white color, especially when under sunlight. Very chalky, those soils give good drainage and retain moisture very well, something highly needed during the hot summer periods.
The main grape variety is Palamino, a grape with thin skins and thus sensitive to damage, hand picking is required. The other important variety is Pedro Ximenez, which is also the name of a very sweet wine. PX grapes are laid out under the sun to dry and thus concentrate their sugar contents. (Think raisin)
Before, I used to think Sherry was always medium-to-sweet wine. But in reality, there are several different styles of this wine in different categories. And only two of them are sweet from the beginning: PX and Moscatel. All other sherry wines are fermented dry, meaning that all sugar ferments to alcohol. Sweetness, where desired, is added later in the process in form of grape juice from i.e. PX.
Sherry belongs to the category 'fortified wines', because alcohol is added after fermentation, before ageing. So, the first step of the process is to make a 'normal' dry white wine, (which does not seem to be any appealing wine at this stage). The fermentation is done at higher temperatures than normal white wines. After the fermentation, the wines are tasted and split into two categories: Fino, the finer, more delicate wines, and Oloroso, the richer ones. The barrels are marked with / for Fino and // for Oloroso.
Fino is dry, light sherry that ages under a flor cover. A special kind of yeast that needs alcohol and oxygen to grow. This flor gives this wine its very special own yeasty flavour and it prevents the sherry from oxidation. That is why a Fino is light in color. The max alcohol content will be 15,5 %, because the flor cannot take more alcohol than that. (Fair enough) Almond aromas are typical.
Manzanilla is like Fino, but from Sanlucar de Barrameda, which lies directly by the sea. These sherries have a salty flavour to the almond aromas.
Oloroso is of amber color, due to oxidation. It has no flor cover and the flavours and aromas will be of oxidative nature, more robust. Hazelnut is typical. Oloroso has 18% abv and the basic style is dry and full-bodied. Sweeter styles have a small part of PX, giving raisin aromas.
Both types are aged individually in the famous - and unique - solera system. Barrels lie on top of each other in several (often 4) rows, each called Criadera. The youngest wine (incl. the added alcohol) is filled into the barrels on the top, evenly devided by all barrels. The wine for bottling comes always from the lowest row, called the solera, it is drawn in equal parts from each barrel. In between, wine is transferred from each barrel of the upper row to each barrel of the next lower row and so forth. Earlier, this was done manually, today help is taken through a system of pumps and pipes. This way, sherry wines are always a mixture of older and younger wines. This is done to ensure the style of the bodega or brand and explains also why vintage years are not of the same significance as i.e. with a Port wine. Ageing within the solera varies with the styles, Fino 3-5 yrs, Amontillados and Olorosos up to 10 yrs, but you will find 25 yrs and older fine wines.
Amontillado is a Fino sherry, that first lies under flor and, when the flor naturally after ca 7 yrs has died away, is aged under oxidation. It has amber color and is medium-full bodied. The alcohol varies between 16-22 % abv. Aromas of walnuts are typical. Never cheap in price. This wine can be often found as medium or medium-dry.
Palo Cortado is between Amontillado and Oloroso in taste and body. Originally, this is a failure of a wine that was supposed to be a Fino, but did not develop the needed flor. It is popular and also produced on purpose. 17-22% abv.
Pedro Ximenez (PX) is a almost black colored natural sweet wine, where the fermentation stops before all sugar is fermented. It is rather thick and sirupy with up to 400 g/l of sugar. (Tastes great over ice cream!) Raisins and dry figs are the typical and very intensive tones of this wine. It is also used as a sweetener to the other styles, and can be detected by the raisin aromas.
Moscatel is another sweet wine, but of lighter colour, that can also be used as sweetener.
Cream sherries are typically blends of the above styles with PX and done commercially.
VOS (Very Old Sherry) indicates minimum 20 years of ageing, VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) stands for 30 yrs.
Go to the label 'Andalusia' for more information about the region, if you are interested.
My next post will be about Fino.
Footnote: The exact % are from the website www.winesfromspain.com.