Guest drink: Sherry

Sherry deserves a fair crack
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Pity poor sherry: it’s simultaneously one of the most interesting craft boozes around, yet also completely unacceptable to drink under the age of 50. This regionally-protected fortified wine has a production process that is equal parts science, tradition and magic, and a vast history as dramatic and swashbuckling as one could ever hope for. Yet order a dainty glass of Amontillado at even the archest of hipster bars and the best reaction you can hope for is probably blank incomprehension. The sherry industry has tried valiantly to tackle its image crisis among UK drinkers, desperately insisting every year that it’s no longer “your grandmother’s Christmas tipple” (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and yet nothing has stuck. 

Frankly, this is a problem for more marketing-minded individuals to ponder. What we can say with confidence though is that sherry is a highly credible, complex and downright romantic craft drink with a fascinating story, and well worth exploring for the curious booze hound.

While the development of sherry into the drink we know today has been a gradual process, it has clear roots stretching back 3000 years, to around the year 1100 BC. Archaeological evidence in southern Spain reveals the Phoenicians, a trading people from the area today known as Lebanon, had brought wine presses to Cádiz – then known as Gadir – along with the knowledge to cultivate vines. These same Phoenicians also founded a settlement called Xera on the site of what is now the city of Jerez, the spiritual and geographical epicentre of Spain’s sherry region.

Once the Phoenicians had got the ball rolling, the following centuries saw a succession of civilisations continue to develop winemaking in the region, often exporting it across their territories and establishing this proto-sherry as a wine suitable for long journeys.

The eighth century kicked off five hundred years of Moorish occupation on the Iberian Peninsula, which was bad news for booze in general. However, the area around Sherish (as the new bosses dubbed it) was given special dispensation for the production of raisins and – that old chestnut – the production of alcohol for medicinal purposes. So viticulture survived again.

Once the region fell back into Christian hands during the 13th century ‘reconquest’, the heavily circumscribed vineyards around Xeres de la Frontera (as it became) sprang into life, exporting their goods via the nearby ports of Seville and Cádiz across Europe and the freshly-discovered New World. Again, the wine was found to travel superbly because of its high alcohol content, and was a useful ballast cargo, as well as being handy for warding off scurvy on long voyages, with celebrity fans including Columbus and Magellan.

In the late 16th century, Britain finally caught on, after pirates (a dubious mix of English nobles and freestyling vigilantes) began stealing sherry from the Spanish fleet and selling it in London. At this point in history, there was no love lost between the two nations, and drinking large quantities of fenced sherry became a great way for the upper classes to display their loyalty.

Even at this point in history, the wine coming into Britain would have been quite different to our modern understanding of sherry. It would have been exclusively young wine from that year’s harvest, fortified with additional spirits to raise the alcohol content and protect it from spoiling during the long journey.

Sherry as we know it today emerged through a revolution in the production process, introduced at the end of the 18th century. Rather than bottling the wine at fixed (usually young) ages, all modern sherry goes through a complex system of ‘dynamic’ maturation – known as the solera system – in which casks of different ages are partly blended to increase complexity and ensure consistency over decades.

Barrels in a solera are arranged in four tiers called criaderas, or nurseries, with each tier containing wine of the same age. The oldest tier (also called the solera, because why make it simple?) contains mature wine, ready to be bottled. When the time has come to extract wine from the solera, only a fraction is drawn from each cask – usually no more than one third. The lost liquid is then topped up from the next oldest tier, the ‘first criadera’, which is in turn topped up from the ‘second criadera’, which is finally refilled with a fraction from the youngest tier, the ‘sobratablas’. This top tier is replenished with fresh wine from the latest harvest. The precise details of how often this process of rocío will take place varies from solera to solera, depending on the conditions and the character of the sherry. 

The eagle-eyed among you may already have noticed that the solera system makes it impossible to say how old any given bottle of sherry will be, as the multiple layers of blending mean some of its component parts will be as young as a year, while some will have been in the solera for decades. By the same token, by the time the wine has reached the final criadera, it will have mingled so much with previous vintages that any perceptible differences in the character of each harvest will have been smoothed out.

The solera system is also essential for maintaining the other key feature of sherry maturation: the flor. The flor is a layer of living yeast that floats on top of the wine in each cask, protecting it from the effects of oxidative ageing and resulting in a lighter, clearer fino or manzanilla sherry. If sherry were simply left to age in a cask, this yeast would eventually die off, leaving the wine exposed to the air; it is only through the addition of nutrients from fresh batches of younger wine that the flor yeast is kept healthy. The exception to this is oloroso sherry, which is allowed to undergo oxidative ageing, resulting in a rich, dark, pungent wine.

Three markedly different grape varieties are used in sherry production – Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Muscatel – resulting in an even wider spectrum of flavours. The grapes are immediately pressed after harvest to prevent spoilage, except for Pedro Ximénez, which is laid out on esparto grass to dry in the sun and intensify the sugar. 

Bearing all of this in mind, from the history to the tradition and the special, mineral-rich agricultural conditions of the region, it’s little surprise that sherry is now protected under strict DO (denominacion de origin) rules, which limit its production to three small areas. As much as any beer, wine or spirit in the world, sherry is a true expression of the lands and cultures that brought it into being, stretching back millennia. If you enjoy an adventure, we’d recommend finding a nearby sherry tasting, where you can walk through the various styles side-by-side, and prepare to be surprised by the breadth and complexity of what you find. You won’t be sorry.

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