The history of Sherry centers on the Spanish town of Jerez (pronounced “Heh-reth” in Spanish) which lies not far from the Atlantic Coast in the province of Andalusia. Vineyards ring the town, rising and falling with the gentle contours of the often barren land. The best Sherry vineyard land is called “albariza,” a distinctively white soil with a very high proportion of chalk. Only when grown in this special, chalky soil do the two most important Sherry grapes – the Palomino and the Pedro Ximenez – produce the finest wines.
As important as the region’s soil to the character of the finished wine is its special climate. The summer weather truly merits the word “scorching,” when relentless sun and daunting heat often drive the temperatures above 100 degrees F. But the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes thrive in this seemingly inhospitable climate. With roots searching deep into the earth for what little moisture may be left from the spring rains, they use the summer’s heat to produce massive clusters of grapes heavy with luscious fruit. Once ripe by conventional winemaking standards, the grapes are left on the vines in the brilliant sun for several additional days to concentrate the already rich juice.
This natural intensifying of the grapes’ sugars is only the first in the production of Sherry. The wine’s initial fermentation of about a week to ten days is termed “tumultuous,” so vigorous and violent is the seething and frothing as the grape sugar is turned to alcohol. Then follows a quieter second fermentation when the remaining sugar is converted, leaving a pleasant, totally dry wine. These new wines are then lightly fortified and left to develop in fresh casks, maturing almost magically as the months pass into the three basic types of Sherry – Fino, Amontillado, and Oloroso.
A yeast called “flor” (flower) develops on the surface of the Sherry resting in the casks. Flor grows most vigorously on the wines destined to become finos, leaving the wine dramatically dry and crisp. Flor grows less fully on the emerging Olorosos and Amontillados, so these styles keep much of their original flavor and richness. Once new wines have reached the proper point of maturation, they are then placed in a solera for aging.
The solera system consists of rank upon rank, row upon row of oak casks that rest in the great storage structures called bodegas. Often called “cathedral-like,” the bodegas are impressive, high-roofed buildings, quiet and cool, where the wines have time to slowly mature. The solera system is simply a method of aging and blending that maintains a consist quality and style.
When wine is needed for bottling, a little is drawn off from the oldest casks called the “soleras.” The soleras are topped-up with wine drawn from the next oldest casks, one of the many rows called “criaderas.” Each row of criaderas is re-filled from the one above it until the last is filled with young, two-year-old wine from the most recently classified lots. Since only a small portion of the wine in any barrel is drawn off at one time, the wine that remains is said to “educate” the Sherry which is added to it. The style of wine thus stays constant, a direct link to the original casks that were laid down.
Finos are the lightest and driest of all Sherries. Finos are particular favorites of the Spanish themselves, who serve them well-chilled as an aperitif before lunch or dinner. They also are fine accompaniments to shellfish.
“Cream” Sherries are created from naturally dry Olorosos which have been sweetened with rich, aged wine made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes.
Oloroso (which means “fragrant” in Spanish) Sherries offer complex, fragrant, and lingering flavors.
This information comes to you courtesy of Sandeman Sherry which is imported by the Seagram Wines Co, New York, N.Y.
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