Jerez de la Frontera Part 2

Last week I went through the history of the region of Jerez de la Frontera, the region best known for producing Sherry. As with many of the world’s best appellations, history plays a major part in why a region makes what it does, so last week I gave a (relatively) brief summary of how the past has shaped the region and the styles of Sherry it produces. This week, we’ll delve into what makes this town and the wine it produces so individual, as well as the differences between the various styles of Sherry, and a note on the future of this unique fortified wine.

So to speak about what makes Sherry so individual, we need to draw upon several pages from the history book of this region. Firstly, and most obviously, Sherries are fortified, and this is due to several reasons. One, it is to allow them to be transported over long sea voyages without spoiling- a direct result of them being the drink of choice (along with other fortified wines Port and Madeira) in the New World. Two, it was a way to preserve some natural grape sugars in some styles of Sherry, which was important during the Age of Discovery; wine was not only for fun- the alcohol killed bacteria and disease and the sugar was a valuable source of calories. Finally there is the ageing in barrel before release, which again gives the wines more longevity, but served the best producers well in their leanest years during the 1920’s and 30’s, allowing them to survive.

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Sherry is a dry style of fortified wine, with a very recognisable aroma and flavour, reminiscent of nuts and oxidised apples, with a distinctive lemon-chalk character which comes from the unique soils of Jerez de la Frontera. These soils can be broken down roughly into three key types. The most important is albariza, a blindingly white, light-texted marl composed of clay, calcium and marine fossils. This type is particularly valued for its ability to reflect sunlight back up to the vines, which helps to ripen the grapes. Their high moisture retention is also a significant boon, as this corner of Spain endures the hottest temperatures found anywhere on the entire Iberian Peninsula. The other two soil types are barros and arenas. Barros is high in clay, with a little chalk, and found mostly at the foot of local hills. Arenas simply means sands, and is naturally found in most coastal areas. Grapes destined for Fino, which is a lighter style and requires mineral finesse, come from the albariza soils, while the deeper, richer wines, which are more about oxidative ageing like Oloroso, use grapes grown on the other two types of soil.

Now to a summary of styles; there are 4 major styles of Sherry (there are of course many more, but I have to keep this relatively brief). Going from driest and simplest to sweetest and most complex, they are;

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Fino Sherry; the palest in colour and lightest in style, made from 100% Palomino grapes, and only lightly fortified to around 15.5%, these wines are then aged in barrel for several months. Within the barrels exists a certain species of benevolent, film-forming yeast- an offshoot of the same family responsible for alcoholic fermentation, which feeds on the nutrients in the young wine. This yeast, known as Flor, replaces the fresh fruit aromas with acetaldehyde notes, giving aromas of nuts and oxidised brown apples distinctive to Fino Sherry. The layer of Flor is totally oxygen proof, meaning that while the wines ages in barrel gaining complexity, it never oxidises. Manzanilla is a type of Fino Sherry made only in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Because the more humid environment in the bodegas here encourages a thicker Flor layer, these wines are typically lighter and even fresher than Fino, often with a distinctive salty tang and a delicate aroma of Chamomile- which Manzanilla is the Spanish word for!
Amontillado Sherry; has a slightly darker colour, with more nutty, rich flavours, but is still dry and relatively light in style. This is because Amontillado Sherry starts its life out as Fino Sherry. During the ageing process however, the anoxic layer of Flor dies for some reason, allowing slow oxidation to occur late in the ageing process and giving the wine more of an earthy, raisined flavour.  The wine is fortified to a slightly higher level of 17% to further prolong its ageing once the Flor dies off. This style, like Fino, is aged using a fractional blending, or Solera system; each year, about half of every barrel is drawn off to bottle and sell, and the youngest, newest wine is then used to top up these barrels. This adds complexity by giving a small percentage of young, old and in-between wines to all bottles. This style originated in the most inland part of Jerez, called Montilla (hence a-Montilla-do) which is the driest part of the region, meaning the Flor struggles in this part the most.
Oloroso Sherry; is an even darker nut-brown colour, and is more complex and rich in aroma and flavour. Oloroso wines are 100% palomino, and are aged in a Solera system just like the other two, however the all-important layer of Flor never develops in the barrels, meaning long, slow oxidation occurs throughout the whole process, and the oxygen adds nutty, caramel and spice elements to the wine. Oloroso Sherries are fortified to a higher 17-20% abv; too high for the Flor to survive in.
Pedro Ximénez (or PX); is the ink-black and marvellously complex, sweetest style of Sherry. It mostly comes from Montilla, the dry inland part of Jerez. As mentioned above, this is the driest part of the whole region, and best suited to the unique Pedro Ximénez grape variety which is the heart of this style of Sherry. These grapes are picked and allowed to desiccate on mats in the dry air for several weeks, achieving sugar levels of around 450g/L! Intense! This is way too much sugar for yeast to survive in, so the only alcohol in the wine is the fortification spirit, which is usually between 15-17% abv. These wines are amongst the sweetest and most intense on the planet- more like molasses than wine, but amazing over ice cream!

Now a quick few lines on the future of Sherry. Since 1970, sales of Sherry have plummeted in every market across the globe. Sherry is seen as a very ‘old fashioned’ style of beverage, and the current global trend towards drier, lower alcohol wines, brought about by our consciousness over health, has also attributed towards this downwards spiral. That said, this is one of the most unique styles of wine on earth; many regions are yet to grasp one distinctive style, let alone the four mentioned above to suit different tastes, foods and situations. Sherry is not only an interesting page in the history book of wine, it makes up an important part of human cultural history. So all I ask is that if you find it on a wine list, at least think about having a glass- you might be surprised how much you like it, and how well it matches to food. If this topic seems too confusing, that’s because it is- 300 years of evolution can tend to complicate things, but if you’d like to know more about Sherry, please get in touch- as you might have been able to see, I love talking about it!

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager