Produced in southern Andalusia, sherry is Spanish white wine fortified with a spirit and aged in such a manner that the finished product falls into one of several categories, including fino, manzanilla and oloroso. Much loved by the British, these gourmet wines can be enjoyed on their own or as part of a meal.
Sherry – a pure product of Spain
You need to go to Andalusia in southern Spain to find the sherry region.
Jerez de la Frontera (15km from the sea), Puerto de Santa Maria (on the coast, south of Jerez) and Sanlucar de Barrameda (on the coast, further north) are the main towns producing sherry in the region.
Although their wines are all fairly similar in style, each of these towns has their own ‘star sherry’:
- Fino for Jerez
- Amontillado for Puerto
- Manzilla for Sanlucar de Barrameda, which has its own appellation of origin.
This appellation is divided into two areas: ‘Jerez Superior’ which includes Jerez, Puerto Santa Maria, Sanlucar and Rota; and ‘Zona’ which includes Chiclana, Chipiona, Lebrija, Puerto Real and Trebujena.Contrary to French wines, sherry does not have vintages. With an ideal and consistent climate (lots of water in the winter and a hot, sunny spring/summer), bad harvests are rare. The last ones date back to the 20th century: 1915 and 1979.
Bodegas – the heart of the sherry market
In Jerez, the term ‘bodegas’ refers to all the prodcuers involved in the sherry market: not only those that produce the wine and those that are responsible for ageing it, but also those that market it. The market is extremely fragmented and there are very few producers capable of managing the whole process from start to finish.
There are three types of producer:
- Processing Bodegas: in charge of pressing and the production of new wine, these producers sometimes take the form of a cooperative.
- Ageing Bodegas : wineries or stores specialized in ageing, these producers have to be based in the area around Jerez (El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlucar de Barrameda) in order to qualify for the appellation of origin. They sell to the ‘shippers’.
- Shipping Bodegas: these producers (about 70 of them) are located within the production area and sell the sherry from the ageing stage. Among the most reputable are Pedro Domecq, Gonzales Byass, Hidalgo, Osborne, Harvey’s, Sandeman, and Lustau.
An exceptional chalk terroir
The production of sherry is highly controlled and demarcated: any wine coming from the areas outside of the terroir does not qualify for the appellation and cannot be mixed with sherry.
Furthermore, the vines planted for sherry production grow on three very specific types of soil: Albariza, Barro and Arena.
- Albariza (‘white’): mostly located north-west of Jerez, this terroir is particularly rich in calcium. It is made up of chalk (between 30 and 80%), sand and clay. Planted 100-150 metres above sea level, these vines have constant sunshine and produce small grapes that develop slowly, absorbing all the nutrients in the soil.
- Barro: covers mainly all of the south coast of Spain (from north of Sanlucar to the Straits of Gibraltar), this darker terroir produces more structured wines and its yields are 20% higher than those of Albariza. However, only a portion of this land is used for wine production: the south-west of Sanlucar and the south-east of Puerto Real.
- Arena: lower in quality, this terroir is mainly made up of sand. Yields here are high but the quality of wine is lower.
These terroirs are divided up into ‘pagos’, plots from two to several hundreds of hectares. Some have a better reputation than others:
- Balbaina, Anina and Los Tercios are all renowned for their Finos.
- Macharnudo produces Finos that develop into very good Amontillados.
- Carrascal is well-known for its Olorosos.
Three main varietals
The sherry varietals are dominated by three white grapes:
- Palomino : also known under the names of Listan, Horgazuela, Gencibel, Seminario, Xeres, Palomina, Temprana and Alban, this varietal comes from the Albariza area and is considered the most traditional. This is the base varietal for all the top-class sherries: Jerez wine is therefore stamped with its characteristics. It produces medium-sized, sweet, aromatic grapes, which are harvested during the first three weeks of September. It is the only one that produces dry sherry.
- Pedro Ximenez: this other traditional varietal also grows on Albariza soil. It produces sweet grapes, harvested during the first two weeks of September. Once harvested, the bunches of grapes are left in the sun to concentrate their sugar content. This varietal is used only for sweet wines.
- Muscat: mainly planted on Barro soil, near the sea, this varietal has a high yield and produces generous grapes. Harvested in mid-September, this sweet wine is used for blending due to its pronounced aromas of honey.
There are other varietals, such as Conocazo, Molar Blanco, Mantuo, Albillo, Perruno, Castellano, and Calgalon. These varieties produce good quality wines but are more prone to disease.