What is Sherry and how are they made?
Sherry is a Spanish traditional fortified wine aged in a solera system (explained below). It is famous worldwide, thanks to the Dukes of Medina Sidonia, who attracted English merchants and encouraged foreign trade since the 15th Century.
Sherry is one of the most versatile wines in the worlds. These wines range from extremely dry (the majority of the Sherry produced) to one of the sweetest wines in the world. Sherry, Vino de Jerez in Spanish, is produced in Spain in the Sherry triangle. As well, sherry can be produced in the “Marco de Jerez” area. This area includes Rota, Chipiona, Trebujena, Lebrija and Chiclana de la Frontera. However, it can only be aged within the Sherry Triangle to be considered Sherry.
The Sherry Triangle
The Sherry triangle is the only place allowed by the committee where sherry can be aged. It is formed by: Jerez de la Frontera, where the origin of the name Jerez/Sherry comes from, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. We always like to make names in Spain short and easy to read…not.
Why is Sherry produced in this small area in Spain? Here we find a soil called “Albariza” a basic soil produced by marine organisms’ carcasses and other material. The soil has a very white colour in summer and able to absorb large amounts of rain. This is necessary in an arid region, since the committee does not permit winemakers to water the vines.
However, while Palomino grapes grow well in this soil, some say that the Pedro Ximénez grape prefers a clay soil. Most of these come from Córdoba province, from the Montilla-Moriles region.
A layer of yeast, called “flor”, is created at the top of most sherries during the aging of the wine. The flor separates the base wine from the oxygen within the barrel. This is used for wines such as Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado and Palo cortado.
The region of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, also adds complexity to the wine with its micro-climate. Fine salt and floral tasting notes are noted, producing a different type of sherry called Manzanilla. Sanlúcar is the only place where this sherry is produced, due to its location near the sea at the end of Guadalquivir river. The local climate has higher humidity with moderate temperatures, which creates a thicker layer of Flor. This is the only thing that differenciates Manzanilla from Fino, which is produced in Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa María.
The strong humid, cold wind of Poniente (winds from the west), helps to develop the flor. However, people here are careful with the wind from Levante (from the east), as it is a warm and dry wind!
The weather, together with the type of soil found in this region, makes this area of Spain a unique and ideal place for Sherry production and ageing.
How Sherry is Made
Sherry is a fortified wine. This means that they add brandy to the already fermented base wine. Dry base wine is produced by using a single grape variety called “Palomino”. In contrast, the sweet base wine is produced by using Pedro Ximénez and/or Moscatel de Alejandría. This last one can be mostly found in Chipiona or Chiclana. There are also sherries where these two types are combined.
The Sherry is then aged in a solera system, where there are at least 3 criaderas (rows of barrels) on top of each other. The bottom one is called Solera. This process helps to create a similar wine in quality, year after year. In addition, the newer wine added feeds the flor with nutrients.
Every certain amount of time, the wine from the solera is bottled. The cask is then filled up by the wine in the row above (1st Criadera), and this one filled by the 2nd Criadera, and so on. Therefore, the newly produced wine is in the top row and the oldest is in the bottom. Sometimes there are so many criaderas, that they stack the group of criaderas side by side (most common in Sanlúcar de Barrameda). They fill up the top criadera with the bottom criadera of the next stack of criaderas to create a more complex system.
Up to a third of the Sherry is bottled from the bottom row. This top row, or last “criadera” will be filled by a new base wine mix. The mix is 50% brandy and 50% wine, so that the flor is not killed with 100% Brandy. Depending on what Sherry they are producing, they will add either 15% mixture for biological ageing or 17% for oxidative ageing.
A cool fact is that there is always Sherry left at the solera, as it is not completely emptied. Therefore, in each bottle there will always be at least a very small fraction of the first ever batch! This means part of the sherry may be hundreds of years old.
Types of Sherry
Sherry is generally divided into 11 different types, depending on the grape used, the amount of brandy used to start, the amount of biological ageing, if it is composed of different sherries, and the location where the base wine is aged.
Of course, within these types are more special sherries like the Very Old Rare Sherries (VORS). VORS have to spend more than 30 years in the solera system. At Bodega Fundador, they dedicate a whole warehouse just to these. They use a special mold that helps keep the moisture and temperature steady.
If you want to learn more about sherry, join one of our small group relaxing tours. During our Ultimate Sherry Tour you will tour and taste sherries at 3 different bodegas in the region. Or try the Sherry & Tapas Tour, in Vejer de la Frontera. You will taste the difference between several types of sherries, learn how to do a professional wine tasting and how to pair wine with food. Or create your own tour with our Custom Private Tour.