Wines to which spirits have been added are called “fortified wines.” That includes sherry, port, Marsala, Madeira, and dessert wines. The alcohol content is usually between 15% and 22%.
If penicillin can cure those that are ill, Spanish sherry can bring the dead back to life." - Sir Alexander Fleming
Much beloved in Spain, underappreciated in the U.S., sherry is a fortified wine produced from Palomino grapes in southwestern Spanish Andalusia near the town of Jerez de la Frontera. It comes in several different styles ranging from very dry to very sweet. It is made by an intricate process called “solera,” a blending of younger wines into older wines. Sherries are typically served in Tapas bars with a wide variety of appetizers from olives and nuts, to seafood, hard salamis and raw cured hams, to the firm to hard sheep and goat cheeses of Spain.
The beautiful area is known for its horses, fighting bulls, winds and hot sun. The 300 days per year of sunshine and the drying winds make for a great grape climate. The majority of the region is made of chalky, calcareous soil that retains the moisture of winter rainfall, and nourishes the vines.
Three grape varieties grow in the Jerez region: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. Most of the grapes are handpicked to ensure quality. Grapes destined for sweet wines are laid on grass mats in the sun to dry out and sweeten. Grapes used to produce dry wines go directly to wineries for light pressing and during fermentation a dry white wine with 11 to 12.5 percent alcohol content is produced.
At this point, the ancient processes of Sherry production come into play.
Sherry's secret is in the flor – an oxygen-proof, protective layer of yeast that develops spontaneously on the surface of the wine after fermentation. After the wine has fermented, individual winemakers sample barrels to determine how the wine will age. Paler, lighter wines will age under a coating of flor to become Fino or Manzanilla. Fuller-bodied wines will age without flor and become Olorosos. Finos or Manzanillas are fortified up to 15 percent ; Olorosos are fortified to 17 percent or higher.
Fortified wines are transferred to oak barrels, to begin aging. Finos and Manzanillas are capped by flor, which prevents oxidation and imparts flavors and aromas to the sherry wine.
In Olorosos, the higher alcohol content prevents the growth of flor. The sherry is aged according to the solera system, in which the barrels of wine are stacked according to their age in three or four levels. The lowest row of casks, containing the oldest wine, is known as the solera. As wine is removed from the solera, it is replaced with wine from the level above it. The second level wine is replaced by the third and so on.
The "solera" process of producing sherry means that what you drink today could contain trace bits of wine 200 years old!
A Variety of Styles
Sherry is one of the most diverse and versatile wines on the market. The array of Sherry consists of a vast spectrum that ranges from dry to sweet and light to dark.
Fino—Aged under flor, fino is a pale color, low alcohol, dry and tangy, perfect with seafood. Serve well-chilled and fresh, like a white wine as an aperitif. Or try this classic: Chilled Fino Spanish with Grilled Garlic Shrimp.
Manzanilla—Also aged under flor but in the seaside town of Sanlucar, Manzanilla is pale, dry, delicate and crisp, with a slightly salty and nutty flavor. Served well chilled and fresh with Spanish Marinated Olives, salami, and Spanish Manchego cheese from your D&W Fresh Market deli.
Amontillado—When the protective flor is lost, the wine becomes partially oxidized and produces a medium dry, aged fino, amber in color and with rich, round nutty flavors. Serve chilled with toasted, Spiced Almonds, olives, and cheese.
Oloroso-- Aged entirely without flor, Oloroso is oxidized, which gives it a mahogany color and distinctive aroma. Smooth and full-bodied, it has a slightly higher alcohol content.
Cream—A semi-sweet, velvety blend of Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez, Cream Sherry is mahogany colored, with rich fig, raisin and nut flavors. Serve a chilled glass at the end of the meal with dried fruit, nuts, and biscotti.
Pedro Ximénez—Made from sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes, this is a sweet, dark, almost syrupy luscious sherry with a deep rich aroma of raisins. Chilled it and serve on its own as a dessert wine. Or try this Spanish treat: Pedro Ximénez sherry poured over vanilla bean ice cream.
Moscatel—A very sweet, soft dessert wine made only from sun-dried Moscatel grapes. Serve with crème brulée or a fruit tart.
Sherry is best when poured straight from a bottle that has been stored in a refrigerator. If no dessert wine glasses are available, use white wine glasses or Champagne flutes.