Spain is the home of great food and fantastic wines, including some of the world’s best fortified wines. One of the most popular but also most versatile of them is Sherry. Actually, there are so many types of Sherry that some wine lovers get confused about it. In this article, we’ll unpack everything that you need to know about them.
What Is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified white wine from the region of Andalusia in Spain. It comes in several styles that can be relatively light or bold and either dry or sweet. Its alcohol content typically ranges between 15% and 22%.
Let us discuss the different types of Sherry, how they are made, and where they come from in detail.
Where Does Sherry Come From?
The home of Sherry is Andalusia, a region in Southern Spain that borders the Mediterranean Sea. More specifically, it comes from the so-called “Sherry Triangle”. This small area is defined by the three cities Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
The area has an official “denominación de origen” (English: appellation of origin) status within the European Union. That means that the name Sherry is protected, and the production means are strictly regulated. Vintners that don’t follow these rules aren’t allowed to use the name Sherry for their products.
With about 300 days of sunshine per year and temperatures of up to 104°F (40°C), the region has long and hot summers. Nevertheless, the climate is relatively mild because the nearby ocean brings winds and early-morning-moisture.
What is Sherry Made From?
Sherry is made from white wine grapes. Spanish vintners use primarily three varietals:
Palomino grapes make up about 90% of all plantings for Sherry production, particularly for dry Sherries. This variety is low in both sugar and acidity, making it a rather bad choice for making table wines. However, to make base wines for fortified wines, it’s a suitable variety.
Pedro Ximénez is the most important grape for making sweet Sherry styles. It’s late-ripening and accumulates a lot of sugar, making it an ideal varietal for the production of sweet dessert wines.
Moscatel is also used to make sweet Sherry. However, it’s less common than Pedro Ximénez.
The Different Types of Sherry
As mentioned in the introduction, you can find several Sherry types that differ significantly in style and taste.
Sherry Fino de Jerez
Sherry Fino is the driest style of Sherry. It’s pale white, fresh, and with 15 to 17%, it’s comparably low in alcohol. It ages 3 to 7 years and is meant to be consumed soon after bottling. All Fino wines come from either Jerez de la Frontera or from El Puerto de Santa Maria. Typically, they are the most affordable Sherries.
Like Sherry Fino, Manzanilla wines are dry, fresh, and relatively light compared to other fortified wines. The crucial distinction between the two is their origin: Manzanilla Sherry always comes from the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Oloroso is another dry but bold type of Sherry. It typically ranges between 17 and 22%, making it the strongest of all Sherries. Its nutty aroma and dark color result from extensive aging: Winemakers let it ripe for up to 40 years in oak barrels.
Amontillado is similarly strong as Oloroso, with between 16 and 22% vol. Although it’s a dry fortified wine with very little residual sugar, it tastes much smoother and more harmonious than other dry Sherries. You can find several subtypes of Amontillado. Some of them are rather young while others are up to 30 years old when they make it to the shop shelves.
More Details on Amontillado: AMONTILLADO – THE KING OF SPANISH SHERRY
Palo Cortado is a very rare type of Sherry because it traditionally was not produced intentionally. Instead, it was the result of an accident: When the aging process of Sherry Fino or Manzanilla went wrong, and the wines oxidized unexpectedly, they sometimes ended as Palo Cortado.
It’s a rich yet crisp Sherry. Nowadays, vintners try to make it artificially, but the best styles still occur by accident.
Pedro Ximénez Sherry
Sherries made from the Pedro Ximénez varietals are the sweetest variations you can find. The grapes are high in sugar and are left to dry in the sun after the harvest. While drying out, their juice becomes very concentrated. That juice ferments into a thick, highly aromatic wine with aromas of dried fruits, honey, and dark chocolate.
Cream Sherry is a blend made from sweet Pedro Ximenez and dry Oloroso or Amontillado. It’s also referred to as sweetened Sherry.
How Sherry Is Made
Sherry winemakers follow very specific techniques that differ noticeably from the production of other fortified wines. That’s particularly true for the aging process.
The first steps are similar to table wine production: Vintners harvest the grapes, crush them, and let them ferment. The result is a white base wine. When they desire to make a sweet Sherry, vintners end the fermentation before the sugar has transformed into alcohol completely. So the base wine has a significant sweetness. For dry styles, they let the sugar ferment completely.
Due to the climatic conditions of the region, a layer of yeasts (also known as “flor” or “lees”) forms at the wine’s surface during fermentation. This layer shields the wine from oxygen and also gives it a unique pungent aroma.
More Details on Winemaking: HOW WINE IS MADE – THE BASICS OF WINEMAKING
Next, winemakers sample the base wines and decide how to proceed. They fortify the most delicate wines to an alcohol level of about 15% by adding a neutral-tasting brandy. After that, the wines undergo a period of “biological aging”. That means that they continue to age on the lees. Depending on the place of production, these wines become either Manzanilla or Fino Sherries.
Sherry Aging under a Layer of Yeast
If the base wine is a bit less complex and rather on the sweet side, vintners will fortify them to 18% vol. At this alcohol level, the lees die, so biological aging can’t take place. Instead, the wine matures while it gets in contact with air. This process is called “oxidative aging” and creates richer, more intense flavors. Wines that undergo oxidative aging become Oloroso Sherries.
For Amontillado or Palo Cortado Sherry, both aging processes take place one after another: First, winemakers let the wine mature on the lees. After that, they continue with oxidative aging. In some cases, the shift happens naturally: When the lees have consumed all the nutrients in the wine, they die. The layer of flor disappears, and the wine gets in touch with oxygen. Alternatively, winemakers can fortify the wine again to kill the lees.
The Solera System
No matter which way of aging vintners choose, they take advantage of a sophisticated method of aging and blending wines: the Solera system.
The wines mature in oak barrels that are arranged in tiers called “criaderas”. All wines in the same criadera have the same age.
The oldest wines age in barrels belonging to the Solera tier. From time to time, vintners take a portion of this wine to bottle it. Then, they fill up the barrels with slightly younger wines that belong to the 1a criadera (English: first breeding). To refill the 1a criadera barrels, they take a bit of wine from the 2a criadera (English: second breeding) stack, and so on. In other words: As soon as they bottle some of the oldest wine, they move some of the younger wines to older barrels.
This process is called “saca” and takes place several times a year. Depending on the desired Sherry, there might be up to 15 different criaderas that a wine passes during its aging process.
By using this method of continually blending wines from different vintages, winemakers ensure that their Sherries have a high standard of quality and complexity. They can, in particular, even out differences in grape characteristics due to weather conditions.
What Does Sherry Taste Like?
The various types of Sherry can differ significantly in taste:
- Fino and Manzanilla Sherries are, compared to other Sherries, relatively light, dry, and fresh. As a result of biological aging, they have crisp, salty, and sometimes mineral aromas.
- Amontillado is slightly stronger in alcohol and less acidic. It offers a complex variety of aromas and a long, wooden finish. Expect to taste almonds, roasted nuts, dried fruits, caramel, and herbal notes.
- Oloroso and Palo Cortado wines are even bolder than Amontillado. Depending on the grapes used to make them, they can be either dry or sweet. Dry wines are much more common, though. Both versions are rich and complex, usually featuring aromas of dried fruits but also wooden, earthy, and spicy notes.
- Wines made from Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes are sweet. They typically showcase an aroma set of fruits, nuts, and spices that might remind you of Christmas cookies.
How to Serve Sherry
Traditionally, dry Sherry was served as an aperitif with the starter course of the dinner. On the other hand, sweet variations came with dessert. Due to their great ability to pair with food, you can combine Sherries with other foods, though. So you can also pair them with main courses. And of course, you can enjoy them on their own.
No matter how you drink Sherry, make sure to use the right glass and chill it properly.
What Is the Right Glass for Sherry?
It’s hard to tell which is the best glass for serving Sherry because wine lovers are divided on this question.
Some experts claim that a small glass is best because an intense fortified wine like Sherry comes in small portions. For this purpose, they recommend glasses with narrow bowls that allow only a bit of airflow and fill them half.
A unique version of these small glasses has a small, pear-shaped bowl. Its lower part is round and rather broad in comparison to the slim upper part. Many spirit lovers use the same type of glass when drinking Grappa.
Other styles like Catavino glasses are comparable to Port wine glasses. They look like small hybrids of red wine glasses and sparkling wine flutes. Their bowls have low volumes and are long and narrow, while their stems are very short.
In contrast to that, other people recommend regular white wine glasses with broad bowls that should be filled up one-third.
What Is the Right Serving Temperature for Sherry
You always should serve Sherry chilled. The best serving temperature depends on the specific style:
- Fino and Manzanilla styles should be cold. Temperatures between 44 to 48°F (7-9°C) are perfect.
- For Cream, Oloroso, and sweet Pedro Ximenez Sherry, slightly higher temperatures are better. Aim for 53 to 57°F (12-14°C).
- If you serve Amontillado, you can even go a bit higher. 57 to 59°F (14-15°C) are fine.
Sherry Glass with
Should You Decant Sherry?
No, you don’t need to decant Sherry. As it aged for years and got plenty of contact with oxygen during that time, it doesn’t require additional aeration before serving.
Only if you see sediments in your bottle, decant it and filter the particles out.
More Details on Decanting: WHAT IS A WINE DECANTER AND WHY DO YOU NEED ONE?
How to Store Sherry
You can store Sherry like you store most of your table wines: Choose a cool, dark spot in your basement, where it’s protected from sunlight and sudden temperature changes. Also, make sure not to put it next to intensely smelling chemicals like cleaning agents, paint, or heating oil. Like all wines, Sherries might be harmed by these smells when they invade the bottle via the cork.
There is a critical difference to storing table wines: A Sherry bottle should stand upright instead of lying on its side. In this position, the wine’s surface that’s exposed to air inside the bottle is minimized. As it’s made for early consumption, there is only a small risk that the cork dries out and breaks. So keeping it moist to avoid that isn’t necessary, and you don’t need to lay the bottle on its side.
Only if you plan to keep a sweet Sherry for decades before drinking it should you store the bottle horizontally.
Can Sherry Be Aged?
No. Sherry undergoes an extensive aging process before being bottled. Thus, its potential to improve is exhausted when it makes its way to the store shelf. And when storing it in your cellar, it won’t get perceivably better over time.
Nevertheless, you can store most Sherries for a couple of years before opening them. All styles will keep for at least one year. And many styles are enjoyable much longer. The stronger and sweeter a Sherry is, and the longer it aged before bottling, the longer will it keep. For instance, high-quality Pedro Ximénez wines can stay fine for 50 years or more.
Can Sherry Go Bad?
Yes, Sherry can go bad. Despite its high alcohol level, it will start oxidizing as soon as you expose it to air. And sooner or later, it will spoil.
Can Sherry Be Corked?
Yes. Like all wines that are sealed with a cork, there is a risk that Sherry is corked. The reason, cork taint, is beyond your control, though, so you shouldn’t worry too much about it.
More Details on Corked Wine: WHY WINE GOES BAD AND HOW TO DETECT SPOILED WINE
How Long Does Sherry Last When Open?
As a fortified wine, Sherry lasts a bit longer than regular table wine. Its lifespan is limited, though:
- Light and dry styles like Fino and Manzanilla go bad soon after opening. You should consume them within one week.
Bolder Sherries such as Amontillado and Oloroso keep longer because of their higher alcohol content. You can keep Amontillado for about two weeks and Oloroso for up to four weeks after unsealing them.
- Sweet Pedro Ximénez wines are even more resilient. They’re drinkable for up to two months when open.
In any case, you should store Sherry in a fridge after uncorking them.
Which Food Goes With Sherry?
We have already discussed that Sherry is quite food-friendly. As the various styles differ significantly in taste, they also match with different types of food.
Sherry Fino and Manzanilla Sherry are delicious with salty courses, especially with Spanish tapas. Enjoy them with ham specialties like Jamón Ibérico or Serrano, Manchego cheese, olives, or salted nuts. Besides, you can pair them with seafood, including calamari, shrimps, or mussels.
More Wine and Ham Pairings: HAM AND WINE – WHICH PAIRINGS WORK BEST?
More Pork and Wine Pairings: PORK AND WINE – THE BEST PAIRINGS FOR RIBS & CHOPS
Oloroso Sherry is rich enough to match most red meats, including game, pork, lamb, and beef. Even savory meals like burgers or ribs work very well with Oloroso. If you want to pair it with cheese, choose a spicy blue cheese such as Roquefort or Stilton.
For Palo Cortado, you can choose the same dishes as for Amontillado or Oloroso. It’s also great with spicy meals from Asian cuisine and smoked meats.
Sweet styles such as Pedro Ximenéz or Cream Sherry are best with dessert. Drink them either with savory cheeses or with sweet dishes like chocolates, pastries, and ice cream. Especially dark chocolate is an excellent pairing for sweet Sherries.
Sherry Wine Shopping Tips
When looking for Sherry wines, make sure they come from the Jerez region in Spain, so you get the original taste. In some cases, it’s not obvious whether a Sherry is dry or sweet. So make sure to carefully read the bottle labels, including the back, to get the style you want. If in doubt, ask the shop clerk (or if you shop online the support team) for help.
Here are some recommendations, sorted by style:
Sherry is a very versatile fortified wine that goes surprisingly well with many types of food. But it’s also a great drink to enjoy on its own. Thus, it’s absolutely worth giving it a try when you stop by your favorite wine retailer next time.