Tasting Humanity in a Glass of Sherry
When “maximum intervention” winemaking is something to celebrate
There is no wine without people. For as much as wine lovers have built up naturalistic fantasies about “low intervention,” “naked,” and “raw” wines, those concepts are something of a misnomer. Wine does not make itself. The process of taking grapes from vine to glass requires a significant amount of human work.
Yet the appreciation of craftsmanship — the human component of winemaking — has been lost somewhat as the popularity of terroir-driven wines has grown (at The Drop, we recently ran an op-ed by Zach Geballe on this topic that got a lot of people talking).
That op-ed got me thinking. What is the highest-touch style of winemaking? Not an industrial wine with a ton of additives, but a wine of beauty and authenticity that is totally reliant on people power to reach its full potential.
That would be Sherry.
This fortified white wine from the south of Spain is — to me — the highest pinnacle of human ingenuity in winemaking. It’s a wine that makes you think differently about the winemaking process. With Sherry, the terroir of the bodega (winery) and the choices of winemakers are just as important — if not more so — than the vineyards where the grapes were grown.
It is also arguably the most most labor-intensive of all wines. I asked Antonio Flores, Tio Pepe’s enologist and master blender, to estimate how many more human hours go into making a Fino Sherry as compared to a still white wine. “I would anticipate that the work to produce a Sherry is 6 or 7 times more,” he said.
That’s because much of Sherry’s flavor and character comes from what happens after fermentation. These processes include a crazy kind of biological aging under a yeast layer called flor, which eats every little tidbit of sugar and glycerin, making the wine bone dry with a crisp, clean texture. And then there’s the solera system of fractional blending, where wines from different barrels are mixed over several years to achieve a desired style.
If you’ve never tried Sherry, you might be surprised by the range of flavors and taste experiences. There’s delicate, fresh Finos. Deeply flavored, yet crisp Amontillados. And rich, complex Olorosos. And that’s all before getting into the sweet stuff. These wines are also a tremendous value, with excellent bottles selling for $20 or less.
What to Know
Let’s mentally transport ourselves to Andalucia in the south of Spain. It’s sunny and hot here, known for flamenco dancing, incredible horse festivals, and Sherry. And if you’re looking for authenticity receipts, you’ve come to the right place: Sherry is one of the oldest wines in the world, dating back to the Phoenicians in 1100 BCE through to the Romans, Moors, and beyond. So the Sherry styles you’re sipping today are a result of some 3,000 years of experimentation. No biggie.
The Sherry-making area is shaped like a triangle with three cities as it vertices: the inland Jerez de la Frontera, and the two coastal cities of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. For winegrapes, conditions here are tough. Between the heat, early summer rains that cause rot and mildew, and infestations of grape moths, spiders, and green mosquitos, organic viticulture is a challenge.
Sherry is made from white grapes, mostly Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. The finest grapes — grown on the region’s famed chalky white soils — are reserved for the most delicate styles of Sherry: Fino and Manzanilla. Grapes grown on heavier soils are most often go into richer, heavier Sherries like Oloroso.
First, grapes are fermented into a wine of 11% ABV. Then winemakers taste each batch, and decide on one of two routes. One option is to make biologically aged sherry — Fino and Manzanilla — which mature under the flor yeast layer. In this method, the base wine is fortified with grape spirit from around 11% to 15% alcohol. Then a blanket of yeast forms naturally to prevent the wines from oxidizing — this generally happens in barrels, in a warm, humid environment. The effect is kind of astounding. The wines remain pale straw in color, and take on umami flavors, like bread, yeast, and salt, while getting crisper in texture, and losing any residual sweetness.
Or, a winemaker can go down the oxidative sherry path, to make Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, or Pedro Ximénez styles. These mature either partly or entirely without flor. On this path, the base wine may fortified a bit higher, to around 18%. The oxidative aging gives a darker caramel color, and nutty flavors.
Now this is where things gets interesting. Sherries aren’t just bottled up and sold in a year or two, like most white wines of the world. No, they’re run through a solera system.
Here’s how that works: Imagine a stack of barrels. The barrels at the top are filled with the new wine. Every so often, some of the wine from the top barrels get funneled into the lower barrels, and wine from those lower barrels go into the barrels below them, and so on. Each style of wine — Fino, Amontillado, etc. — has its own set of barrels, which may be a few barrels or thousands of barrels, depending on a winery’s size.
For Fino and Manzanilla sherries, this blending happens over a 3 to 5 year period. Constant monitoring of the flor is required so it doesn’t die, which would allow the wines to oxidize. For Amontillado and Oloroso, blending happens several times a year, over a period of 10 years or more.
Some of these solera systems have been running for a long time. Really long. One of my favorite Sherries, Bodegas Barón’s Xixarito Manzanilla en Rama, comes from that winery’s oldest solera, which has been in continual use since 1631, meaning that “the wine has particles of more than 380 years old,” says Enrique Pérez Rodríguez, a co-owner and marketing/export manager for Bodegas Barón.
I mean, that’s just incredible. It’s a literal taste of hundreds of years of collective work. No other wine can deliver that experience. As Pérez Rodríguez put it: “Sherry wines are the most ingenious and creative wines created by humanity.” Clearly, I agree.
7 Sherries to Try
On the purchasing front, you’re in luck. Sherry is an undervalued category, so bottle prices are very affordable. My suggestion is to try a couple of different styles to see which you like best. Below, I’ve described several Sherry styles, and given bottle recommendations for each.
But first, let’s clear up the sweetness question. No, most Sherries are not sweet. That’s a common misnomer. And so far, we’ve only talked about dry Sherries. These are the ones I like most, and the ones that pair best with food.
However, I did broaden the scope a bit to include a naturally sweetened Sherry (Pedro Ximénex) in case you’re in the market for an after-dinner sip. (Though I’ll put in a plug for dry — but rich — Palo Cortado or Oloroso after a meal). And if you want to tip the sweetness scales even further, to liqueur-like wines, I’d be remiss for not mentioning Cream Sherries, which are big sellers in the UK.
These are the key styles, and great (insanely affordable) examples of each:
These wines are clean and dry, and have a salty, savory quality. The tend to be pale straw in color, and light and dry on sipping. I love these Sherries with tapas like olives, jamon Ibérico, and anchovies. Also, it’s a great pairing with sushi and most fish dishes. Serve cold, and keep the bottle in the fridge. This wine will start losing flavor in a week or two. To use up the bottle faster, whip up a batch of Sherry cocktails, like the Adonis or Bamboo.
Bone dry and mouthwatering, this Fino tastes of sea shells, bread dough, and lemon zest.
Tio Pepe is widely available, and a great value. It’s dry and crisp, with apple, sea salt, and almond flavors.
Manzanilla Sherries are made in the same way as Fino. It’s the “where” that’s different. They’re aged in the coastal town of Sanlúcar, which is cooler than the other Sherry areas, giving a unique character. These wines tend to have subtle fresh and floral notes, and a delicate saltiness.
Top pick. “En Rama” is a Sherry technique to only lightly filter the wine, with the goal of preserving flavors and textures. That works beautifully in this fully-flavored Manzanilla. It’s fresh with apple-y acidity, a ripe melon funk, and a salty finish.
These wines start their lives as Finos or Manzanillas that age under flor. At some point, the flor is killed off (either intentionally or not) and the wine starts to oxidize. Dry and complex, these have a darker color and richer flavors than Finos, but are still crisp when sipping. I like Amontillados paired with hard cheeses and charcuterie. It’s already oxidized, so an open bottle can stay flavorful in your fridge for a couple of months. Serve slightly chilled.
A dry, complex Sherry with lively acidity and flavors of nuts and salty caramel.
I’m a sucker for Palo Cortado. I can’t see one on a menu and not order it, usually after a meal. It is the rarest style of Sherry — a bridge between the more delicate Amontillado and richer, rounder body of an Oloroso. In the fridge, it will stay fresh for a few months. Let it warm up before serving.
Full bodied and rich, but still dry. With aromas and flavors of raisins, butterscotch, and salt, and lemon zest.
A fully oxidative style of Sherry, this style never sees flor. It starts out as a heavier base wine that’s fortified, then enters an Oloroso solera, where it is blended and aged over several years. The long aging in wood barrels tends to add structure and additional spice and tobacco notes. Serve slightly cool to room temperature, with aged cheese or dark chocolate.
Dry and rich, with flavors of caramel, hazelnuts, and dried orange rind and a long finish.
And now, the sweet! This is a category of naturally sweet wines from grapes that are very ripe or dried in the sun. They are deep brown and highly aromatic, with a liqueur-like texture. Serve cool to room temperature with blue cheese or biscotti. Pedro Ximénez can stay fresh in the fridge for several months.
Dark, sweet, rich, and mouth-filling, with flavors of dried fig, raisin, and caramel.