(I know, I know, I’ve been so delinquent. I’m still around, and still learning about and enjoying wine, and still planning to keep sharing those adventures here!)
Until recently, when I heard the word ‘sherry’ I thought of warm fires and Sunday night family dinners, complete with a little late-afternoon libation of cream sherry. Harvey’s Bristol Cream was my family’s brand of choice. I will forgive you if your mind calls up a similar image before dismissing the idea of sherry completely. Surely it wouldn’t be appropriate for the hot summer weather we’ve been having, right?
Well think again, my friend! This delicious fortified wine is so much more than that. Don’t believe me? Keep reading – you are about to get a crash course in the fascinating and delicious world of Sherry.
Sherry… I mean Jerez… I mean…
First, let’s talk about where sherry comes from. It’s not England, contrary to that country’s strong affinity for the stuff. Sherry actually comes from Spain. Yes, hot, southern, seaside Spain – Jerez, to be specific. Jerez sits in the southern part of Spain, just south of Seville and right by the port city Cadiz.
The way I learned about the origin of sherry is this:
Those smartypants Spaniards in Jerez have been making sherry for years. Like, years and years. Centuries, even. They have it down. Multiple types (we’ll get to that later), a great storage system that doubles as a quality control method (ditto); seriously, they know what they were doing. And then can you guess what happened? Colonialism happened, of course!
Those pushy Brits came to down, tried sherry (or jerez in Spanish… see what’s going on there?) and began taking over the sherry business. This is why many of the best and most well known sherry houses have British names even though sherry is a historically Spanish drink and has (and continues to be) made in Jerez, Spain. Yay imperialism?
Flor, Sherry’s BFF
The coolest thing about sherry is made is this glorious and adorable thing called FLOR, used in making Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado sherries. Flor is the type of yeast used to make sherry and is pretty unique compared to other yeasts. First of all, it’s native to the same region of Spain known for making sherry – convenient, no? Second of all, flor is a unique strain of yeast because unlike other types it rises to the liquid’s top to form a layer on top instead of immediately dying off once its done its part in the fermentation process.
I know what you’re thinking, why does this woman care so much about yeast all of a sudden? Well, because this layer that flor forms on top of the fermenting sherry essentially seals things up, blocking oxygen from mingling with the sherry. This means that as long as the flor is alive and sitting there on top of everything the sherry’s aging process is put on hold, since it’s oxygen that causes a wine to age.
Basically, flor is some kind of crazy Borg-esque suspended animation thing, but also the most adorable loving yeast, tucking in its sherry and protecting it for as long as the producer wants. Flor is adorable. LONG LIVE FLOR!
I should note that flor can’t survive once the alcohol percentage gets higher than 15%. The poor little yeasties will die off once the sherry reaches that level, which is the case with Oloroso, the highest ABV sherry.
So many types!
That’s all fine and dandy, but what about the actual drink, right? Turns out there are a bunch of different kinds of sherry, each with their own distinctive flavour profile and way of being made.
Sherry is a fortified wine so it gets fermented and then fortified and is then often aged depending on the type of sherry we’re talking about. Also, it comes in both sweet and dry versions, just to further complicate things.
To avoid going down the sherry rabbit hole, I’m just going to talk about the four basic types of dry sherry. There are sweet sherries but to me the dry ones are more interesting. They are:
Most dry and most pale on the sherry scale. Often has a salty, saline-like flavour, which sounds completely gross but actually pairs deliciously with other salty foods like olives and nuts. Fino is all flor all the time, with no oxidative aging.
Similar to fino in dryness, paleness, salinity and use of flor (and not oxygen), but comes specifically from the coastal port town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Drink this (again, with salty things) on a hot summer day and imagine you’re in coastal Spain. Thank me later.
Middle of the road on the sherry scale in terms of dryness and paleness – less than Fino and Manzanilla, more than Oloroso. It’s initially fermented with flor but then aged a little with oxygen, which gives it some nuttiness and depth in the flavour, but not so much that it feels heavy. A good entry point into the world of dry sherry.
Mmmmmmm Oloroso. The most oxidatively aged sherry and the one with the highest alcohol level. Oloroso has a lovely deep, rich, nutty flavour, mostly from being oxidized during its aging process.
Solera = Love
One more cool thing about sherry – its aging process. Like most releases of champagne and port, sherries aren’t released in using an annual vintage system. This means it is incredibly rare to see a year on a sherry bottle. I’m not going to say they never have years on them, mostly because I’m still learning and also because I wouldn’t be surprised if some makers put the year of bottling on the label as opposed to the year of harvest (like with most wines).
Why don’t they put the year of harvest, or vintage? Because of the way sherry producers age sherry, using the solera system.
The solera system is essentially a giant cascading system of aging sherry. The oldest barrels and sherries are on the bottom level, which is the level producers take from when bottling. It’s important to note that the bottom barrels are never completely emptied. As each year’s sherry is made the barrels are topped up, starting at the top and working down through the layers of barrels, which allows the younger and older sherries to comingle and get to know each other. This gives sherry producers the power to harmonize their sherry year over year, and is also the main reason why the idea of ‘vintage’ sherry just doesn’t exist. The whole aging process is built on ensuring a consistent product year after year. Pretty cool, right??
So, are you interested in sherry yet? Good! Here are some sherries in the LCBO I find particularly alluring.
Tio Pepe Extra Dry Fino Sherry
Note the descriptor ‘briny’ and pair with appropriately salty things.
Orleans Borbon Manzanilla Fina
Again, ‘iodine’ and ‘sea breeze’ are clues to temper the salinity with some salty chasers. Manzanilla is a tough sherry to get into but the payoff is huge.
El Maestro Sierra Amontillado
The happy medium. If you can’t decide which one to try, I recommend this one to get the full effect of sherry but not be too off-put by the salty sea-ness.
Lustau Dry Oloroso Don Nuovo
Lustau is one of the heavy-hitter sherry houses, and is a dependable brand. This would be a great after dinner drink, especially as these summer evenings start getting a little chilly.
Now that I’ve got you all excited about this wonderful drink maybe you want to make your way to Toronto for an awesome sherry event? Maybe I’ll see you there.