I have always loved sherry. As a younger woman I would never have dreamed of ordering one at a bar - not just because it had probably been opened for about 3 years but it was a bit embarrassing to mention it.
I did used to snaffle a few with my dear friend Vera on visits to her place in Bexhil on Sea in the late nineties out of those old fashioned schooner glasses, and really loved the time spent there with her enjoying the rich dark flavours of an amontillado or two. Brilliant times.
Fast forward to going to Plumpton College I was amazed and really pleased to find fellow students out and proud as sherry drinkers. Some of them passionate and devoted. As we learned about the different styles and the way it was made I began to fall for this incredible wine.
Of all the wines in the world I do think the way that it is made means that value for money sherry offers the very best. The attention to detail and the level of skill involved in bringing sherry to the table is incredible.
A bit about how it's made. For your dry sherry styles the grape used is Palomino, these grapes are picked fresh and pressed immediately.
Producing the sweeter style of sherry relies on two grape varieties, Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. These grapes are picked and then left outside in the Spanish sunshine to raisin a bit - how much is left to the winemaker to decide but because the grapes are "raisined" they need more pressure to get to the juice.
Once the juice has been obtained the magic begins - the grape juices begin to ferment spontaneously using wild or natural yeasts - traditionally this would take place in wooden barrels and depending on the winemaker it still does but generally nowadays this happens in large stainless steel tanks.
The Palomino grapes will ferment until almost all the sugars have been converted into alcohol and the base wine will naturally develop a layer of flor. This is due to the very particular and special climactic conditions in and around Jerez in southern Spain.The flor is a thin layer made uo of yeast cells and it looks like a waxy foam and is absolutely essential for the production of sherry. It protects the wine from coming into contact with air and spoiling. For the sweet wines of course, the sugars are needed and so the fermentation is slower and carefully monitored until the juice gets to around 10% before being fortified.
The wines are monitored very closely and classified. The finest will be fortified to about 15% abv using a neutral grape spirit. The wine is meant for ageing naturally under a layer of flor. Wines that show less finesse at this stage will be fortified to 17-18% abv which kills off the flor - at this point the wine is matured in a deliberately oxidative way - so it is deliberately allowed contact with air and it then becomes an olorosso sherry.
Wine that is still going - under flor will be re-classified and then transferred to a solera system; a barrel system whereby the newest wine is on the top level and is then transferred through the system over a number layers and of years.These wines are destined to become Fino or Manzanilla. Over the course of this process, some flor will die off and begin oxidative ageing and thus become olorosso.
Sometimes the cellar master may decide to deliberately introduce fortification to kill the flor- these wines become Amontillado or Palo Cortado - absolutely delicious (and quite similar) but with slightly different organoleptic qualities.
When the Fino or Manzanilla is bottled it is usually filtered and cold stabilised. However we are definitely seeing a move towards en Rama styles which aims to show the wine just as it would be directly from the cask.
The wines are blended, sometimes they are re-fortified and sometimes sweetened with Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel sherries that are naturally sweet to create a cream style sherry. Basically its up to the winemaker and the particular style of wine being created.
These days no holiday is booked unless it is in a wine region - the picture here is from a couple of years ago - and my daughter looking remarkably happy despite being trudgged around yet another winery! Behind her is some sherry in cask. She's choosing the next holiday I'm told and it won't be near any wine...
Thanks for reading.