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Sherry:  What is it?

 

Geographic origin:
Genuine Sherry is produced only in the southernmost part of Spain, near the town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Grapes:  
The only grapes allowed in Sherry are white.  They are Pedro Ximenez, Palomino and Moscatel.  

Vineyards:  
The best vineyards have a very chalky soil (albariza) that has concentrations of lime and magnesium. 

Harvest:  
Beginning in September and lasting about three weeks, the harvest is entirely by hand.  Once picked, the grape bunches are laid on straw mats to reduce the moisture content and concentrate the flavors.  

Fermentation:  
Sherry comes in different styles based on the level of sweetness.  The style is decided during fermentation.  If wine in a cask is affected by a local yeast (flor) then it will develop into a dry style known as Fino.  If the wine in a cask is not affected by flor, then the wine will be a much sweeter style called Oloroso.  It is easy to know if a cask has been affected since the flor develops as a layer on top of the wine in the cask.  The layer of flor (if it develops) protects the wine in the cask from oxidizing and it therefore keeps a delicacy.  If the flor does not develop, the wine is not protected and it begins to oxidize.

Storage and Aging:
After fermentation and the initial classification as either Fino or Oloroso, the wines are put in oak barrels to rest for about 1 year.  At the end of this period, the Finos are again classified to see how they have developed.  If the flor layer has survived, the wine will be very delicate and vibrant.  If the flor layer has disappeared, the wine will have undergone some oxidation and will be classified as an Amontillado.

After Sherry is fermented, it is aged in an unusual manner.  It is aged and blended in Solera systems.  Soleras are racks of barrels that are used to age the wine and to create a consistent taste.  In a Solera system, wine is drawn for bottling from a set of barrels at one end of the Solera and those barrels are then "topped off" wine wine from the next set in the rack.  Each barrel is topped off with wine from the next set of barrels along the solera.  When the last set of barrels is reached, it is topped off with new wine that is just entering the solera.  The end result, many years into the life of a solera, is sherry coming out that has complex and mature flavors (from the older wines) and a fresh crispness (from the younger wines).

Fino is very dry and delicate and has a life after opening of about 1 week.  This is an extremely delicate wine that has a very short shelf life.  It is best consumed within 6 months of bottling.  Otherwise, it will begin to oxidize.  Do not let the short life dissuade you.  Finos are wonderful.

Amontillado sherry has a nutty flavor and is sweeter, softer and darker in color than finos.

Oloroso sherry, often labeled Cream Sherry is fuller in flavor and  is darker than dry or medium sherries.  

Sherry is currently almost a forgotten wine as far as consumer trends are concerned.  It has avid devotees and attracts a few new drinkers each year, but it is not a part of the consumption pattern and has almost no share of mind for the average consumer.  It tends to be a very trendy wine that cyclically becomes a favorite of sophisticates and then falls out of favor. 

Dry Sherry is delicious as an aperitif or with appetizers and cheeses.  Dry sherries are usually consumed chilled.  Sweet sherries are served at room temperature and may be served after dinner.