History of Sherry
Jerez has been a center of viniculture since wine-making was introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. The practice was carried on by the Romans when they took control of Iberia around 200 BC. The Moors conquered the region in AD 711 and introduced distillation, which led to the development of brandy and fortified wine.
During the Moorish period, the town was called Sherish , from which both Sherry and Jerez are derived. Wines similar in style to sherry have traditionally been made in the city of Shiraz in midsouthern Iran, but it is thought unlikely that the name derives from there.
Though the drinking of alcohol is prohibited in the Qur'an, wine production continued through five centuries of Islamic rule. In 966 the Caliph of Cordoba Al-Hakam II ordered the destruction of the vineyards, but the inhabitants of Jerez appealed on the grounds that the vineyards also produced raisins to feed the empire's soldiers, and the Caliph spared two-thirds of the vineyards.
In 1264 Alfonso X of Castile took the city and it was renamed Xeres. (Over time the spelling was adjusted to Xerez, and finally Jerez). From this point on, the production of Sherry and its export throughout Europe increased significantly. By the end of the 16th century, sherry had a reputation in Europe as the world's finest wine.
Christopher Columbus brought sherry on his voyage to the New World and when Ferdinand Magellan prepared to sail around the world in 1519, he spent more on Sherry than on weapons.
Sherry wine became very popular in Great Britain, especially after Francis Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587. At that time Cadiz was one of the most important Spanish sea ports, and Spain was preparing an armada there to invade England. Among the spoils Drake brought back after destroying the fleet were 2,900 barrels of sherry that had been on shore waiting to be loaded aboard Spanish ships. This helped to popularize sherry in British Islands.
Because sherry was a major wine export to the United Kingdom, many English companies and styles developed. Many of the Jerez cellars were founded by British families.
In 1894 the Jerez region was devastated by phylloxera. Whereas larger vineyards were replanted with resistant vines, most smaller producers were unable to fight the infestation and abandoned their vineyards entirely.
Styles of Sherry
The "Sherry" brand
Spanish producers have registered the names Jerez / Xérès / Sherry and will prosecute producers of similar fortified wines from other places using the same name. In 1933, Article 34 of the Spanish Estatuto del Vino (Wine Law) established the boundaries of sherry production as the first Spanish wine denominación. Today, sherry's official status is further recognized by wider EU legislation. Sherry must come from the triangular area of the province of Cádiz between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. However the name 'sherry' is used as a semi-generic in the United States where it must be labeled with a region of origin such as American sherry or California sherry.
Production of Sherry
The Jerez district has a predictable climate, with approximately 70 days of rainfall and almost 300 days of sun per year. The rain mostly falls between the months of October and May, averaging 600 l/m². The summer is dry and hot, with temperatures as high as 40 °C (104 °F), but winds from the ocean bring moisture to the vineyards in the early morning and the clays in the soil retain water below the surface. The average temperature across the year is approximately 18 °C (64 °F).
There are three types of soil in the Jerez district for growing the grapes for Sherry:
The albariza soil is the best for growing the Palomino grape, and by law 40 per cent of the grapes making up a Sherry must come from albariza soil. The barros and arenas soil are mostly used for Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes.
The benefits of the albariza soil is that it can reflect sunlight back up to the vine, aiding it in photosynthesis. The nature of the soil is very absorbent and compact so that it can retain and maximize the use of the little rainfall that the Jerez region receives.
Grapes used in Sherry
Before the phylloxera infestation in 1894, there were estimated to be over 100 varieties of grape used in Spain for the production of Sherry, but now there are only three white grapes grown for Sherry-making:
Sherry-style wines made in other countries often use other grape varieties.
The Palomino grapes are harvested in early September, and pressed lightly to extract the must. Only the must from the first pressing, the mosto de yema, is used to produce Sherry; the product of additional pressings is used for lesser wines, distillation and vinegar. The must is then fermented in stainless steel vats until the end of November, producing a dry white wine with 11-12 per cent alcohol content.
Immediately after fermentation, the wine is sampled and the first classification is performed. The casks are marked with the following symbols according to the potential of the wine:
The Sherry is fortified using destilado, made by distilling wine, usually from La Mancha. The distilled spirit is first mixed with mature Sherry to make a 50/50 blend known as mitad y mitad (half and half), and then the mitad y mitad is mixed with the younger Sherry to the proper proportions. This two-stage procedure is performed so the strong alcohol will not shock the young Sherry and spoil it.
The fortified wine is stored in 600-litre casks that are made of North American oak, which is slightly more porous than French or Spanish oak. The casks, or butts, are filled five-sixths full, leaving "the space of two fists" empty at the top to allow flor to develop on top of the wine.
Sherry is then aged in the solera system where new wine is put into wine barrels at the beginning of a series of three to nine barrels. Periodically, a portion of the wine in a barrel is moved into the next barrel down, using tools called the canoa (canoe) and rociador (sprinkler) to move the wine gently and avoid damaging the layer of flor in each barrel. At the end of the series only a portion of the final barrel is bottled and sold. Depending on the type of wine, the portion moved may be between five and thirty percent of each barrel. This process is called "running the scales" because each barrel in the series is called a scale.
So the age of the youngest wine going into the bottle is determined by the number of barrels in the series, and every bottle also contains some much older wine. Sherry is aged in the solera for a minimum of 3 years.
Storing and drinking
Once bottled, sherry does not benefit from further aging and may be consumed immediately, though the sherries that have been aged oxidatively may be stored for years without losing their flavor. Bottles should be stored upright to minimize the wine's exposed surface area. As with other wines, sherry should be stored in a cool, dark place.
Fino and Manzanilla are the most fragile types of sherry and should usually be drunk soon after opening. In Spain, finos are often sold in half bottles, with any remaining wine being thrown out if it is not drunk the same day it is opened. Amontillados and olorosos will keep for longer, while sweeter versions such as PX, and blended cream Sherries, are able to last several weeks or even months after opening, since the sugar content acts as a preservative.
Sherry is traditionally drunk from a copita, a special tulip-shaped Sherry glass. Sampling wine directly from a Sherry butt may be performed with characteristic flourish by a venenciador, named after the special cup (the venencia) traditionally made of silver and fastened to a long whalebone handle. The cup, narrow enough to pass though the bung hole, withdraws a measure of sherry which is then ceremoniously poured from head height into a copita held in the other hand.
After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy. Because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine (for example) is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.