XÉRÈS as the locals call it,to the rest of the country and sherry for us foreigners is a fine wine dying to be understood.
Jerez was introduced to wine-making over three millennia ago by the Phoenecians who occupied the region for over 400 years. It had been popularised long before the Romans arrived and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
As with many foreign names, Jerez was mispronounced by the British importers hundreds of years ago, transforming into ‘’ as we know it now. Sir Francis Drake was said to have brought the first barrels over in the 15th century and artists and noblemen alike took to the Spanish tipple almost immediately. Shakespeare allegedly wrote some of his best works after a glass or two of and Henry IV was a big fan.
Made predominantly from the Palomino grape, it is produced in a large variety of styles from dry Finos to sweet Pedro Ximenez and is seen to be the perfect accompaniment to food, and particularly tapas – in fact, you’ll not find a tapas bar worth its salt that doesn’t stock a decent selection. In, you won’t find these wines huddled together on their own page, banished to the dusty ‘fortified’ section. They sit, as they should, listed by style, Fino and Oloroso lying side by side with other great Spanish wines. And slowly, but surely, the British market is picking up on this, the more progressive thinking surprising their customers by treating Manzanillas and Amontillados as everyday drinking wines.
But sherries, though growing in popularity, are by no means mass market products – any style takes a lot of work to perfect, undergoing a lengthy, complicated, but methodical process, to achieve the results that most sommeliers would agree makes a great Pedro Ximenez as essential to creating the perfect menu as any fine Champagne or Chablis.
The process is performed in expansive wine cellars called ‘bodegas’, which are as impressive and as spectacular as the wine itself. The bodegas of Jerez have in some cases been operating in exactly the same way since the middle ages and many are open to visitors for tours that invariably include atasting.
The wine is aged for around two years in barrels and then stacked in three or four rows so that the oldest harvests lie at the bottom. As the wine ages, a unique yeast called ‘flor’ develops on the surface, protecting the wine from oxydisation. This flor grows most vigourously in less alcoholic varieties such as Fino, and gives the wine its distinctive aroma and flavour and its unique crisp dryness. At higher than 17% ABV, flor is destroyed and so the Olorosos and Amontillados have little or no presence of it in the taste and retain most of their original flavour and richness.
When wine is needed for bottling, it is syphoned from the bottom row little by little and those barrels topped up with wine from the (younger) row above. That row is hence replenished from the row above it and so on to the top of the stack. Sherries are therefore blends and not vintages though there are a few exceptional years where the wine is set aside for a special blending. In these cases, the Sherry taster takes the batch to a special part of the bodega where other particularly fine vintages have been stacked. These vintages are blended in the same way to produce the exceptional blends, the roots of which date back centuries. These blends are rarely sold, but drunk only by family members and close friends.
The blending process, known as the ‘solera’ system ensures absolute continuity in the quality of a wine. This mode of ageing produces wines of between 15% and 22%. At the lower end are Finos and Manzanillas, tasting little stronger than a conventional wine. And at the upper end, are the more mature and often sweeter styles of Oloroso and Amontillado, the Pale Cream, the Cream and the dark Pedro Ximenez.
The varieties are so different in their nature that practically every type of food has its Sherry pair. Foie Gras with a Pale Cream, game with Oloroso, ice cream with Pedro Ximénez even.
The Spanish are passionate about their Sherry and while the UK is already the biggest importer by far, it is only now that we are discovering the complexity, the delicacy and the veritable supremecy that is Sherry.