Sherry is truly one of the world’s noble wines. It has been produced in some form for millennia. Its place in humankind’s history and the colonization of the ‘New World’ is notable: Columbus had Sherry on his sails to the Americas, and it has been written of by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Like many historic wines, Sherry’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed – it was the wine of choice in the mid-ninteenth century and in the 1950’s, Harveys ‘Bristol Cream’ could be found Malta to Mendoza, and was more ubiquitous than Kendall Jackson Chardonnay was in the 1990’s. For the past few decades however, it seems that only British Royalty and assorted old people have been drinking Sherry…and they don’t drink very much of it. Indeed, Sherry is at a near-low of popularity and ‘coolness’ right now, and this is exactly why it is poised for a comeback. Consider this: with its better-than-ever quality (because of both to advances in production standards and ageing stocks), and very depressed pricing due to lack of popularity, Sherry truly represents one of the best values in the world of wine today. And in this twitter and facebook era, these things don’t remain a secret for very long.
Produced in and around Jerez de la Fronterra, in the sunny, hot, southwest corner of Spain, Sherry is an example of a divine combination of the right varietal in the right location and production methods adapted to the situation at hand to produce a singular, and in this case, magical wine. Most varietals would not thrive here or better said, might thrive here, but would not produce grapes that were capable of producing great wine. The Palomino grape however (about 95% of the area’s plantings), when planted in the finest ‘Albariza’ soils (as white as chalk) delivers grapes that are perfectly suited to undergo the unique process that turns their juice into Sherry. The other two allowed grapes – Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel – are used to sweeten certain styles of Sherry, or to make sweet ‘Vino Dulce Natural’ on their own.
As you might know, Sherry is an ‘oxidized’ wine. Though most table wines have moderate interaction with the air – small amounts help stabilize wines – generally speaking, oxygen is the enemy of wine, and much is done to protect wine from exposure to the air during production and ageing. Most Sherry on the other hand is oxidized purposely; it is ‘controlled’ oxidation, but it is oxidized nonetheless. Both by leaving headspace in partially filled barrels, allowing exposure to the air, as well as by extended cask maturation for some styles. Of the two basic types of Sherry – fino and oloroso – fino has only moderate oxidation: the exposed wine mysteriously develops a cap of yeast on its surface (called flor) which protects the wine from the oxidation that would normally take place in a partially filled barrel. Once the flor begins to die off, these wines are immediately bottled, maintaining a freshness and vivacity, albeit a pungent one, that makes fino a singular aperitif – and one you will fall in love with if you ever have the good fortune to spend a summer week in coastal Spain (choose Marbella!). The Gonzales Byass ‘Tio Pepe’ is the iconic wine of this type.
For those barrels that do not develop the protective flor, oxidation indeed begins to take place. Once this path has been determined, these barrels are added to one of Sherry’s famous ‘Soleras’ where barrels are stacked up on top of each other, three or four barrels high, and connected. As wine is taken out to bottle, it is withdrawn from the lowest (oldest) barrel — typically 25-33% is drawn a year. The barrels above replenish this missing wine (and subsequently the barrels above those replenish their neighbors), and as this wine comingles with the remaining older wine, it becomes ‘educated’ and more mature, but at the same time adds a freshness to this older wine. It is a brilliant system. Sherry is not cheap to make; time is one of the main ingredients for the best versions, and time is money. Some soleras are withdrawn much more slowly (5-10% a year), so the average age of the composite wine is much older – getting 20 or 30 year average-age Sherries is easily possible, but the pricing is more than fair since the younger wines balance the carrying cost incurred by the older wines. Note too that due to the heat and the lack of humidity, significant evaporation takes place as well, which serves to concentrate the wines dramatically. Some soleras were started many decades or more than a century ago; though there is likely not much left of the original wine in the Gonzales Byass ‘Solera 1847’, there is something special going on here that only time and nature can have wrought (it’s amazing).
So, if you consider yourself a ‘true wine person’, and don’t know Sherry, we contend you are not a true wine person (how’s that for throwing down the gauntlet?). Hopefully, our advocacy for this noble wine will inspire you to explore and educate yourself (we’ll help). And again the value part of its appeal cannot last forever. Indeed, we are not alone in ringing the bell for this wine; at New York City’s famous wine bar ‘Terroir’ where they truly are ‘Terroirists’ (in July, you can only drink Riesling there—if you don’t want Riesling, leave), they are currently on a Sherry thing and everyone that walks in gets a half glass of some sort of Sherry. They see it, we see it, we hope you will see it. Our grandmother indeed drank Sherry, so why would we? But she is no longer with us, so maybe it’s no longer not cool. And now that we’ve tried some great Sherries, maybe we now know why grandma was always in a good mood and giving us cookies and stuff. It turns out grandma was cool. Way cool.
Check these Sherries out…
- Gonzales Byass
- Dios Baco