You may recall our recent installment where we spoke in detail about the wonderful Porto wine. Today, we will focus on its sister-wine, Sherry. Sherry, often called Jerez, is a fortified wine similar to that of Port, but made from white grapes grown deep in the heart of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. Much drier than Porto, Sherry is produced in various styles just like her sister, but made primarily from a grape called the Palomino.
Despite being content using Palomino, there is still a wide range of Sherry from light wines reminiscent of a Fino wine, to a much darker and fuller range called Amontillado and Oloroso that were oxidized during the aging process. There are also sweeter versions more similar to that of Port that are made from Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes, and sometimes blended with Palomino-based Sherries.
The History of Sherry
Since wine making was introduced to Spain in 1100 BC by the Phoenicians, Jerez has been its epicenter charting its course throughout history. As Rome took control in 200 BC, practices were continued in similar fashion until the Moors conquered the land in 711 AD and introduced distillation which eventually led to the humble beginnings of brandy and other fortified wines.
It was during this time, that Jerez was actually called Sherish, which is where Sherry and Jerez get their names. Similar to Port, Sherry has also undergone a fairly tumultuous history. In 966, Al-Hakam II, ordered the complete destruction of all the vineyards in Spain. It was only due to the locals plea that Al-Hakam was led to believe that raisins produced on those vines were integral to the health and dietary requirements of his soldiers. Because of this appeal, two-thirds of the vineyards were spared, which many historians believe was the sole saviour of Sherry as we know it today.
By the middle of the 16th century, Sherry had accrued a reputation in Europe as the world’s finest wine.
Then, thanks to Christopher Columbus, Sherry was transported to the New World and became a household name around the globe.
Sherry is heavily protected under Spanish law, requiring any bottle labeled as such to be distilled from what is commonly known as the Sherry Triangle, an area in the province of Cádiz between Sanlúcar de Barrameda, El Puerto de Santa María and Jerez de la Frontera.
Sherry was initially called Sack, a derivative of the Spanish word “saca”, meaning “extraction”.
Similar to other spirits, after the fermentation process is complete, the wine is fortified with a grape spirit for the purpose of increasing the alcohol content. For Fino and Manzanilla wines, because they’re able to be aged, they are fortified to 15.5% volume. Then, once placed in the cask, they grow a layer of film similar to that of yeast that naturally protects the wine from excessive oxidization. For wines that undergo aging like Oloroso, they’re fortified to at least 17% since they don’t develop a flor and will oxidize as they age, giving them a much darker color in comparison to their counterparts. Since Sherries are typically dry due to the fortification process happening after fermentation, any sweetness found in Sherry is typically added after the fermentation process is over. As we discussed in the Porto guide, the reason port is considerably more sweet is generally because it’s fortified midway through fermentation which prevents much of the sugar from being turned to alcohol.
Typically, Sherries from different years will then be aged and blended using the Solera system prior to bottling which is why most bottles don’t advertise a specific year on their labels.
The Solera System
The solera process is often used for aging various types of alcohol from wine to beer and even vinegar.
The process involves filling a sequence of casks with the Sherry over a series of intervals. Once the final barrel has been filled, the distiller will go back to the first and tap it for bottling. Then, the container is refilled using Sherry from the next oldest cask, continuing down the line until the youngest container is left, which is then refilled with the new product. The process continues over and over again at the end of each aging interval process.
Since none of the casks are ever actually fully drained, there is always some of the younger Sherry still contained in each cask. This is one reason why in every bottle you purchase (with some exceptions), there will always be some Sherry that is much older than the bottle may advertise, even if your particular bottle of Sherry is 100 cycles in.
The Mathematics of Aging
The actual age of the Sherry from the initial bottling is calculated using the number of casks in the system, multiplied by the aging cycle. As the intervals grow, the average age of the Sherry asymptotically approaches one plus the number of the casks, minus the top barrel. Therefore (K) divided by the fraction of a cask transferred or bottle (α), or (1 + K/α). 
As the solera matures, the average age of product asymptotically approaches one plus the number of containers (excluding the top container) (K) divided by the fraction of a container transferred or bottled (α), or (1 + K/α).
Suppose, that the system has three casks of Sherry in it and half of each of the barrels is transferred once a year. By the end of the third year, and each year thereafter, half of the third container is bottled. Therefore, the first bottling is aged three years. The third cask is refilled with half of the Sherry from the second cask, making it 2.5 years because by the end of the second year, it was half 2 year old Sherry and half one year old Sherry, making it 2 1/2 years old. Then, at the end of year three, before the transfer is done, it has had the chance to age for another year making it 2 1/2 years old. The second bottling of the Sherry will then be half 3 1/2 years old, whereas the wine left in the last cask from the previous interval will be four years old giving an ager age of 3.75 years. The third bottling will then be an average of 4.25 years from one half Sherry that was left over from the second bottling, averaging 4.75 years old and the one half transfered from the second barrel after the second bottling, averaging 3.75 years.
If we continue this process, after 20 years, the Sherry would be a mix from 3 to 20 years old, averaging just under five years causing the average age to asymptotically converge on five years as the process continues.
Since it’s a blend of different years, Sherry can’t formally advertise a vintage date, however some still do, but only for marketing purposes or if they’ve been aged in a different manner. Even then, unlike Scotch, it’s difficult to know whether that age is an average age or the eldest age.
The Solera Investment
While the actual cost of setting up a Solera system is minimal, because the actual output of the Sherry is just a fraction of the product still contained in the cask, it makes the Solera investment a large one for any micro producer, and even some of the larger producers. This can often be the largest investment any producer owns so it stands to reason that they care for the system and contents therein far better than most producers of other spirits would. In family owned manufacturers, the solera is often handed down within the family.
Types of Sherry
Today, there are eight types of Sherry available for consumption.
Fino. One of the most popular types of Sherry is Fino, meaning ‘fine’. Fino is the driest and whitest of all the traditional variations. Aged in barrels under the film of flor, it has virtually no sweetness to it whatsoever.
Manzanilla. Another type, which is really just a lighter version of Fino is called Manzanilla.
Pasada. The third type is another form of Manzanilla called Pasada which is just a Manzanilla that has either been aged for a significantly longer period of time, or has been partially oxidized to give it a richer, more full mouth feel.
Amontillado is the fourth type of Sherry which is first aged under the yeast-like Flor, but then quickly exposed to oxygen which makes it significantly darker than a Fino but still lighter than an Oloroso. Like Fino, it’s a dry wine, however producers will often add sugar to give it a sweetened taste. However, if it is sweetened, it can no longer be labeled as an Amontillado Sherry.
Oloroso is my favorite type of Sherry. It’s a much darker and full bodied wine with the highest alcohol content. Sometimes, like the Amontillado, an Oloroso will be sweetened which is then given the name of Cream Sherry.
Palo-Cortado. Another type is the Palo-Cortado which is agreed similar to that of an Amontillado for around four years, but then somehow develops a character more complex and similar to that of an Oloroso. Typically, this is accidental as the the flor will die or be killed during filtration.
Jerez. Finally, we have Jerez Dulce which is a far sweeter Sherry similar to that of Port. It is typically made by fermenting Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes which give it a dark, brown or sometimes black color to the wine.
How to Store and Drink Sherry
Ideally, Sherry should be stored in a cool, dark place and upright, rather than on its side. Both Manzanillas and Fino Sherries should be consumed fairly soon after purchase as they will spoil, even in a sealed bottle. Unlike many Sherries, both the Fino and Manzanilla can keep for awhile after opened so long as they’re stored in the refrigerator.
Amontillado Sherry can stay in the bottle for anywhere between 2-3 years, but should be consumed fairly quickly once the bottle is opened. Amontillados should be served either chilled or at a crisp room temperature. While many enthusiasts will argue that it can keep in an opened bottle for a few weeks or even months, I would encourage you not to attempt this and to simply enjoy it as soon as you possibly can after cracking the bottle.
The rest of the sweeter and darker Sherries can all be stored in a sealed bottle for many years and don’t need to be consumed immediately after purchase. Unlike the Amontillado it should be served at room temperature.
Unlike Port, Sherry doesn’t benefit from aging and it can be consumed immediately upon purchase, typically without having to be decanted. One thing to note is that light Sherry needs to be consumed quickly and in most cases will be ruined if left for more than a single day. Darker, sweeter Sherries can often survive up to a week without any significant issue.
Traditionally, the host would use a Venenciador, named after the special cup called the Venencia which is a silver cup attached to a long whalebone handle. The cup, which is narrow enough to pass through the bung hole, captures a the Sherry which is then ceremoniously poured from head height into a Copita glass held in the host’s opposite hand. For those wishing to simply serve it without a show, Sherry is typically consumed in a Copita which you may remember reading about in our whiskey guides.
Pairing Sherry with Foods
Sherry is not just a fantastic dessert wine, but it also pairs well with other foods. Bear in mind that each person’s taste buds are different and what some people love may not appeal to you. At the same time certain flavor combinations are often favored by and hence the following is supposed to
Sven Raphael Schneider’s favorite Sherry is the Lustau “Emilin” . Priced At $22- 30 a bottle it is a bit more pricey but compared to most reds, it’s a great price. It is a perfect dessert wine and pairs well with custards such as Crema Catalan, Banana Cream Pie or Creme Brulee. The wine tastes like candied orange peel with dried fruit notes all glazed with honey, and is simply great even on its own.
Often served chilled it pairs well with green olives, cheeses, almonds, manchego cheese, prosciutto or jamon, dried salamis, and kinds of tapas tapas.
Manzanilla is excellent served chilled with sea food like calamari, fish tapas or shrimp.
Try it with fresh figs, bacon wrapped dates or tapanades.
Pairs well with blue cheeses or butter scotch pudding.
Nice with poached pears, fruit pies or brie cheese with toasted almonds.
Pedro Ximenez (or PX)
Serve it with dark chocolate, strong cheeses, and dried figs, apricots or prunes.
Fino Mandrino Martini
Makes 1 serving
2 ounces orange vodka
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
1 ounce dry sherry
Twist of orange peel
1. Combine vodka, Grand Marnier and sherry in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously.
2. Strain into a Collins glass and garnish with an orange peel.
Makes 1 serving
4 ounces Spanish Cava
1 ounce medium dry sherry
Fill Champagne flute with Cava then top with sherry.
Makes 1 serving
1 ounce brandy
1 ounce medium dry sherry
1 ounce brandy cream
Splash of heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
1. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously.
2. Strain into a brandy glass and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
Sherry is a very underrated wine in my opinion. Like most wines there is a vast difference in flavor profiles and only by trying them, will you be able to determine which you like. For those who find Porto too sweet and Brandy too potent, Sherry can often be that perfect balance in between. In the event that Sherry isn’t the drink of choice, it still deserves your respect as many of the world’s finest whiskies are aged in sherry casks.
Books on Sherry
If you are now hooked and want to learn more about Sherry, this book is probably a good start.
Here a quick video by the author.