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Sherry

Sherry is a wine from southern Spain. It takes its name from the British attempt to say the name of the town Jerez, or Xeres as it’s called in French. Wine from the sherry region has been popular in Northern Europe since the 16th century when it was known as sack. Sack is by far the most-mentioned type of drink in the plays of Shakespeare most notably by Falstaff in Henry IV Part II who said: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”

Most of the vineyards of the region lie between Jerez and the towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. The wine gets its unique character from long ageing in a solera – a system of fractional blending that means that each bottle contains minute quantities of old or sometimes extremely old wine. You do sometimes see vintage releases but these are rare.

Though there are other grape varieties, the vast majority of sherry is made from palomino fino, while Pedro Ximenez (known as PX) and moscatel are grown to make sweet wines. Broadly speaking there are three types of sherry. There are those which owe their character to being aged under a layer of yeast called flor which protects the wine from oxidation. These are called finos or if they’re aged by the sea at Sanlucar they are called Manzanilla. These are usually made from the first pressing of grapes with the least amount of impurities like tannin in. Traditionally these also came from the finest chalky vineyards. They are usually fortified, have grape alcohol added, to 15% ABV but regulation that came in in 2021 states that this alcohol level can be natural.

If they are aged after the flor dies, either naturally or when the alcohol is added, then these become amontillados which tend to be some of the most highly-prized wines. They are always fortified to between 17 and 20% ABV. Some wines don’t develop flor at all so age wholly with oxygen contact. This might be because alcohol has been added to kill the yeast or because second pressings of wine contain impurities which prevent the growth of flor. Such wines are called olorosos, meaning fragrant. They are fortified to a similar alcoholic strength to an amontillado.

There’s a very rare sort of wine that has the body of an oloroso but the character of an amontillado called a palo cortado - these are usually made from wines that would usually be used to make a fino or amontillado but for some reason the flor didn’t develop properly so the wine aged oxidatively.

The third type of sherry is the sweet. These are made from PX and moscatel grapes which are dried in the sun to concentrate the sugars. These tend to be enormously sweet with up to 400 grams of sugar per litre. Sherry regulations allow PX grapes grown outside the region in nearby Montilla to be used in sherry.

Historically most sherry that was exported to Northern Europe would have been blends such as cream sherry which are largely made up of oloroso wines sweetened with PX. Nowadays, however, most sherry tends to be bottled as fino, amontillado etc. You’re also starting to see the return of single vineyard bottlings like Hidalgo’s Pastrana manzanilla.

Sherry is not like other wines. The flavours tend to be nutty and floral, with dried fruit, spice and woody aromatic notes in richer wines. In fact, if you’re a whisky drinker, then you’re probably already a sherry fan as great single malts like Macallan and Glendronach owe much of their character to ageing in used sherry casks. Lighter dry styles are great with grilled prawns, olives, and all kinds of tapas whereas richer styles are great with mature and blue cheeses, or pudding. Don’t forget that sherry makes a superb cocktail ingredient. Try a fino in place of vermouth in a Martini or use a PX to sweeten your Old Fashioned.

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