Sherry 101: An Introduction To The Hippest Old-person Drink Around

Posted: May 14, 2018

Spain boasts some of the world’s most renowned drinking traditions. Depending on where you are, you may be enjoying a gin and tonic, tomando un vermút ("taking a vermouth"), or sipping the country’s other beloved fortified wine, sherry. And if you’ve been to an American cocktail bar in the past five years, you may have noticed that sherry is all the rage this side of the pond as well.

What Is Sherry?
The word sherry is the English name for the Spanish Jerez, which refers to Marco de Jerez, the viniculture area in the westernmost region of Andalucía, in southern Spain, where grapes for sherry are grown. Sherry production is regulated by Spain’s Denomination of Origin (DO) system—equivalent to the protocols that exist in France for Champagne, or in Italy for Chianti—to ensure that only fortified wines made within a specific region, following specific procedures, are labeled as sherry. In addition to specifying the region in which the grapes must be grown, the DO ensures that the wines have been aged using a solera system (we’ll get to that later) within the famed "sherry triangle," the vertices of which are the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Before we get into the specifics of sherry production, though, let’s start by clearing up a major misconception: Not all sherry is sweet. Though you may be most familiar with cream sherry, the syrupy, old-school post-dinner drink is just one of many sherry styles, the majority of which are actually dry, sometimes verging on savory. Drier varieties, like Fino and Amontillado, have more in common with wines than with digestifs, while sweet sherries, like the delightfully raisin-y Pedro Ximénez (PX), are complex sippers (I also enjoy mine splashed over some ice cream). I’m hard-pressed to think of a sherry style that doesn’t make an excellent addition to cocktails.

"What's fascinating about sherry is that there's so much range," says Chantal Tseng, a Consejo Regulador–certified sherry educator and bartender at The Reading Room in Washington, DC. "You can't think about sherry without thinking of 3,000 years of history, time, place. You can go from town to town and see that each town has so much of its own personality [bound up] in sherry."

Tseng explains that all sherry is made using only white grapes, with the dry styles coming from palomino fino grapes and the sweet styles using moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grapes. Sherry wineries, called bodegas, age wine in one of two ways, depending on the characteristics of the grape and the intended result. Fino and Manzanilla sherries are subjected to biological aging, in which flor, a layer of naturally occurring yeast, creates an anaerobic environment that reduces glycerol content and boosts savory notes of almonds and herbs. Meanwhile, Amontillado and Oloroso sherries—which often employ heavier, fuller-bodied musts—undergo oxidative aging, in which the wine comes in contact with the air, allowing for a subtle sweetness and generally darker color.

Once the intended type of sherry is chosen, the producer uses a strict aging structure known as the criaderas-and-soleras system, which involves a pyramid-like stacking arrangement of the aging casks based on vintage: The oldest tier of wines is on the bottom, and the newer ones are on top. Some wine is periodically removed from each of the various casks and replaced with new wine in a fractional blending process of "taking and adding," thereby blending various vintages at different points in the aging process to create consistent bottlings.

But the allure of sherry isn't just its quality, or the intricacies of its production; it's the drinking traditions associated with it. "Sherry hour is a way of life," says Tseng. "You walk in and you have your Fino, your hams, and your olives. You’ll snack and talk for a wonderful amount of time. It’s something places in the US often try to re-create."

Ready to dive in? We asked Tseng to break down the major styles and share her picks for each category.

A wineglass of light-colored Fino sherry, with a bottle in the background
The driest of the styles, Fino is biologically aged under flor (the yeast that forms a layer to prevent oxidation) and matured for at least two years in barrels, usually oak. The best Finos, bottled at between four and seven years, are pale in color and typically offer strong notes of minerality, with hints of almond, oak, and sometimes even vanilla.

A bottle of Amontillado next to a wineglass of reddish-gold sherry on a wooden table
Amontillado is what happens to a Fino or Manzanilla when it continues to age after the flor dies off, at which point it can interact with oxygen. As the sherry base oxidizes, it takes on a nuttier character and a fun savory element—notes of peanuts and hazelnuts are good indicators—along with a dry, salty-caramel quality.

An amber-colored Oloroso sherry being poured into a wineglass
Oloroso sherries are aged primarily without flor. They go directly into the solera system with a higher alcohol content—a level at which flor does not grow—and are sweeter and fuller-bodied. Oloroso means "fragrant," and, true to their name, these sherries are bursting with aromas and flavors that range from dried fruit to leather, tobacco, and wood. Though less dry than the Fino and Amontillado varieties, Olorosos are still dry overall, but with a rounder mouthfeel and light sweetness.

Palo Cortado
A wineglass of amber Palo Cortado sherry, with a bottle in the background
Another in-between category of sherry, Palo Cortado is the least defined and trickiest to nail down. Often described as having the nose of Amontillado with the body of an Oloroso, Palo Cortados typically have aromatic nuttiness, a honeyed quality, and a thicker texture than an Amontillado. But they’re still dry, with less than five grams of sugar per liter.

Sweet Sherries
A dark Pedro Ximénez sherry being poured into a wineglass
Sweet sherries are known by their grape varietal rather than a specific style. Pedro Ximénez sherries make up the lion’s share of this category, with a few Moscatels here and there, as moscatel grapes prefer a different, chalkier type of soil. Pedro Ximénez sherries have a higher natural acidity and sugar content due to their fuller, plumper, and thinner-skinned grape. After harvest, the grapes are left to dry out and become raisins. These concentrated sugars are then fermented, which converts them to alcohol, and the resulting wine is blended and aged oxidatively using the solera system.

Blends and Creams
A diagonal line of wineglasses containing a range of sherries, from light to dark, on a marble countertop
Typically pairing Oloroso with one of the sweet varieties, blends come in a wide range of profiles and combinations. It’s worth noting that cream sherries were once the most popular category of them all. To produce cream sherries, the blended wine is moved into its own separate solera system for further aging.

By Dan Q. Dao
May 2018
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