A Hidden Gem: The Wines of Jerez

10 minute read

A glass of Amontillado Gutierrez Colosia

Quick summary notes:
  • Contrary to popular belief, most sherry wine styles are bone dry
  • According to an article on Tim Atkin's site, sherry is the go-to wine style for sommeliers
  • Sherry is aged under a veil of living yeast called flor
  • The wine is fortified to favour the formation of the naturally occuring flor 
  • Historically, fortification also kept wines from going bad on long overseas voyages
  • Sherries can last in an open bottle for months (up to a year, depending on the style)
  • The Solera method of ageing is an endless living and breathing wine maturation process (the flor is kept alive by the addition of wine from the latest harvest)
  • Soleras can be hundreds of years old
  • Sherries undergo either biological ageing under flor or oxidative ageing by exposure to oxygen (some styles undergo both ageing processes)
  • All dry sherries are made from the same grape, Palomino Fino, and only differ in ageing processes (the styles covered in this article are: Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, and Oloroso)
  • There is a sherry for any time of day (hehe that's what we like to hear)
  • The ultimate reference to learn more about sherry wines
  • Bonus! Sherry cocktail recipes

The Bodega of Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera
The beautiful vaulted bodega of Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Wipe That Slate Clean

If you were to Google “misunderstood wines,” one of the first links to come up is an article on Tim Atkin’s website - guess which wine he mentions first? Despite sherry’s fame among sommeliers and winemakers alike, it is often dismissed due to one simple misconception: assuming all sherry is sweet. Contrary to popular belief most sherry styles are dry, and actually all the dry styles start life in the same way; as white wine made from Palomino Fino grapes. It is only the various ageing processes that differentiate them.

"What is it about these wines that gives them the ability to fox and alienate consumers? In the case of Sherry the most damaging trick ever pulled was showing people its sweet side by way of an introduction. Ask any wine scribe or sommelier what their go-to wine styles are and they clamber over each other to extol the virtues of Sherry (dry, of course, and always incredibly good value for money)."
- Chris Wilson for Tim Atkin Master of Wine

We want to dispel some of the confusion surrounding one of the oldest wine regions in the world (with over 3000 years of history), wipe that slate clean! Let’s explore the fascinating secrets of sherry, or as we like to call them, Albariza Wines (referencing the calcareous soil - Albariza - unique to the region).


The Albariza soils are the result of marine sediment turned to chalk from an ancient inland sea. Mixed with limestone and clay, the soil is so bright it's even visible from space. An advantage of Albariza is its ability to soak up water like a sponge, sustaining the vines during the hot summer months. The only other place in the world with a similar soil composition is Champagne in France. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Where do they come from?

Beside the Atlantic coast in south-western Andalusia, lies a small area of land with blindingly white chalky-soils and a rich history of producing wine unlike anywhere else in the world. This land is known as the “Sherry Triangle” in the province of Cadiz of which the vertices are the three cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa Maria.

One of the Pagos (vineyard) of M. Sanchez Ayala Bodegas Barrero 1798, beside gardensJose Manuel Aldomar and Jose Luis Barrero walking through gardens near some of the vineyards owned by M. Sanchez Ayala - Bodegas Barrero 1798. 

Winemaking was first introduced to the region by the Phoenicians in 1100 BCE, continued by the Romans, and followed by Arab Moorish rule before returning to the Spaniards. For centuries the port of Cadiz was the most important in the Mediterranean for trade and was a major cultural hub. During Arab Moorish rule, the city of Jerez de la Frontera became known as Seris (pronounced Sherish) and is the origin of the Anglicized version, Sherry. The official D.O. (designation of origin) Jerez-Xeres-Sherry was the first of its kind in Spain, established in 1933.

Arrumbadores: the workers whose job it is to organize and look after the barrels in the cellar.
Arrumbadores in the early 1900s, whose role it was to do all the physical labour in the bodegas such as stacking, organizing, and checking if any barrels needed repair. Photo courtesy of the Consejo Regulador de Vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla.

It isn’t only the unique soils which make the region special, but the perfect climatic conditions necessary for the survival of the naturally occurring flor (yeast) used in the biological ageing of Sherry (and it must be said that Sherry really becomes Sherry during the ageing process).

Yes, that’s right, these wines are aged under a layer of living yeast! This method of ageing is now being mimicked in regions such as the Jura in France and many others, but it originated and has been perfected over centuries in the sherry triangle. We’ll get into that more, later…

"In a recent poll of sommeliers for a feature on summer drinking, Manzanilla and Amontillado both got a shout, no-one plumped for Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, not even in its racy Burgundian guise. This shows that somms can be painfully contrary and like nothing more than recommending something that’s less than mainstream, but it also shows that Sherry really is the perfect summer serve."
- Chris Wilson for Tim Atkin Master of Wine
 
Painting of Arrumbadores in a bodega in Jerez
A painting depicting Arrumbadores in a bodega around the turn of the century. Photo courtesy of the Consejo Regulador de Vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla. 

Why is it fortified?

Perhaps one of the more widely known characteristics of Sherry is that it is a fortified wine, one to which a certain amount of a neutral wine spirit has been added in order to control the ageing process and favour the formation of flor. Interestingly enough, the origin of this practice is rooted in a clever solution to an age-old problem with wine; how do you stop it from going bad?

Fortifying wine originated centuries ago from the need to stabilize wines which were to be consumed in distant markets, and thus needed to be "protected" during their long overseas voyages. As it is said, “Sherry is a wine that travels.” However, fortifying wine also allowed for the intentional oxidation of wine during ageing (exposing it to oxygen) to impart complex and luxurious flavours, such as toasted almonds and caramel, exponentially increasing its complexity.

Sherry advantage numero uno: because of its higher alcoholic content it lasts longer in an open bottle! Depending on the style of sherry, an open bottle of amontillado, palo cortado, or oloroso, for example, can last for up to a year after opening, while a fino or manzanilla can last 2 weeks in the fridge once opened. This is why sherry is typically enjoyed by the glass, no need to finish the whole bottle off in one sitting, although, most of the time it’s hard not to!

Anyway, let's get into the ageing process...

Manzanilla Gabriela in Sanlucar de Barrameda
Holding up a glass of freshly extracted Manzanilla at M. Sanchez Ayala - Bodegas Barrero 1798. Unfiltered and unrefined glory! Photo by Igor Aldomar

Ageing & the Solera Method - Endless Living & Breathing Wine Maturation 

There are fundamentally two types of ageing when it comes to sherry: biological ageing, which is the process of ageing the wine under a velo de flor (veil of yeast), and oxidative ageing, which is when the wine is intentionally exposed to oxygen and no longer protected by the flor

You can think of flor sort of like the “mother” when making kombucha; it's a living organism that helps the wine age in a particular way, and feeds off the nutrients in the wine. The flor also lends the wine a sharp pungent note and enhances its dryness on the palate. 

As the yeast consumes nutrients, it produces acetaldehyde, a compound that is up to 10 times more common in biologically aged sherries than in still wines. It adds a range of flavors such as: bread dough, lemons, almonds, Mediterranean herbs, apple cider, oyster shells and even sea spray.

The natural layer of yeast, called flor, formed inside a barrel of sherry.
A sherry barrel with transparent ends, displaying the layer of naturally occuring flor. This is what biological ageing looks like. Photo courtesy of El Consejo Regulador de Vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla. 

So why does this veil of yeast form? Apart from the perfect climatic conditions of the region and the carefully controlled humidity in the bodegas (cellars), sherry barrels are never filled completely. They are left with a pocket of air in them. Typically, oxygen in a wine barrel is a bad thing - that's why in any other region the barrels are filled to the brim with wine. However, with sherry, the air in the barrel is good for the yeast and also important when oxidizing the wine.

Solera System Schematic - Albae Wine Club
A schematic depicting the Solera system and the process of ageing. By Igor Aldomar

Sherry ageing occurs in what is called a Solera system, in which barrels are arranged in different groups or tiers, called criaderas (nurseries), stacked ontop of each other. Depending on the type of sherry they can contain up to 14 levels of criaderas! The oldest group from which the sherry is bottled is called the solera and sits on the ground of the cellar. The youngest wine from the latest harvest, called mosto, sits on the top tier which is called the sobretabla.

When a fraction of the wine is extracted from the bottom tier for bottling (this process is called the saca, which means the extraction), it is then replenished with the same amount of wine from the criadera above it, containing slightly younger wine. That criadera, in turn, will be filled up with wine from the one above it, and so on. The sobretabla, which holds the youngest wine, is topped up with the wine (mosto) from the latest harvest.

This cascading process of removing and replenishing the wine down the groups of criaderas is called rociar, “to wash down”, and it is essential to sustain the yeast, as the addition of mosto from the latest harvest provides essential nutrients for its survival.

The most significant result of the Solera system is ensuring continuity, consistency, and wonderfully nuanced wines. By blending vintages, the variability of each year is lowered – after a certain amount of years – and the bottled wine maintains a constant average age. Young wine is only gradually introduced to the system, and the influence of the young wine disappears as it takes on the characteristics of the older sherry quite rapidly. When you open a bottle of sherry, you know you are getting wine that is already very mature, sometimes with an average age of over 50 years!

Some of the criaderas at M. Sanchez Ayala - Bodegas Barrero 1798 in Sanlucar de Barrameda
M. Sanchez Ayala - Bodegas Barrero 1798 in Sanlúcar de Barrameda has 9 levels of criaderas for ageing their Manzanilla. Some parts of the cellar are below sea level. You have to be careful not to slip on the stone floors due to the high levels of humidity. These are the best conditions for the yeast in the casks! Photo by Igor Aldomar

Ultimately, a Solera system is a living and breathing ageing system, gradually growing older. Once mature, it will show its own unique personality, the identity of the Solera. The most reputable and sought-after Soleras gain legendary status and can be hundreds of years old, producing wines that are absolutely exquisite. Some wineries go as far as purchasing wine from other reputable Soleras in order to start their own. 

Barrel of Fino at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia
A barrel of Fino at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia in El Puerto de Santa Maria. It’s tradition to mark Sherry barrels with messages written in chalk. At this particular bodega there is also a cask signed by the former King of Spain! Photo by Igor Aldomar

Barrels of Sherry at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia

Different Styles

To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the dry styles of sherry; Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Palo Cortado. 

It’s important to note that the only thing that differentiates all these styles are the steps in their ageing process (except for Manzanilla which can only come from Sanlucar de Barrameda). They all start out life as naturally fermented white wine made from Palomino Fino grapes. The different barrels of the young white wine, called mosto, are individually tasted by the cellar master in order to grade them and decide which style of sherry they would best be suited for. 

The grapes themselves can come from different vineyards, however there are also single vineyard sherries which are more rare and refined, such as all the wines from M. Sanchez Ayala Bodegas Barrero 1798 and Fernandez-Gao 1750, which you can get your hands on through the club. ;)

Fino - The standard of happiness

Juan Carlos Gutierrez Colosia holding a glass of freshly extracted Fino. Juan Carlos Gutierrez Colosia holding up a glass of freshly poured Fino extracted from a barrel at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Production
A dry white wine made from the complete natural fermentation of Palomino Fino grapes, biologically aged under a veil of flor. The young wine is initially fortified to 15% to favour the development of the flor. Fino does not undergo oxidative ageing, which is why it retains its pale gold or straw-like colour. The ageing occurs in the traditional Solera system with a required minimum of 2 years, although it is usually bottled after 3-5. It is mainly produced in Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa Maria, but also produced in smaller towns within the Sherry Triangle. 

Tasting Notes
Fino fills you with good vibrations. A delicate bouquet of fresh dough (think bakery), almonds, wild oceanside herbs, and flowers. Light, refreshing, and dry on the palate. Truly thirst quenching with a delicate lingering aftertaste of almonds. 

Serving Tips 
Always serve well chilled in a wide rimmed catavino or white wine glass. Fino must be refrigerated after opening, and will keep for 2 weeks in the fridge. 

Perfect for any time of day - even breakfast! -with or without food. Ideal as an aperitif or to accompany a wide range of savoury dishes. Pairs particularly well with seafood, spicy dishes, soups, and due to its low acetic acid content it goes well with acidic dishes.

Manzanilla - The wine of the Ocean, to float past your worries

Jose Luis Barrero pouring a glass of Manzanilla using a Venencia at M. Sanchez Ayala Bodegas Barrero 1798 in Sanlucar de Barrameda
Jose Luis Barrero, owner of M. Sanchez Ayala - Bodegas Barrero 1798, pouring a glass of freshly extracted Manzanilla using a traditional - venencia - this tool is used to break through the thick layer of flor (yeast) and pull a sample of wine from the center of the barrel. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Production
The same as Fino, but special because it can only come from Sanlucar de Barrameda, a small oceanside town with the perfect microclimate to produce the strongest natural veil of flor with special characteristics. Located where the Guadalquivir river meets the Atlantic, some bodegas in Sanlucar are actually BELOW sea level! The relative humidity and ocean breezes create veils of yeast so thick that Manzanilla can undergo biological ageing for long periods of time, typically bottled after 3-5 years, but can reach 7 years.

Manzanilla has its own protected D.O, Manzanilla - Sanlúcar de Barrameda D.O.P

Read more about what makes Manzanilla so special here. 

Tasting Notes
Breezy, fresh and flowery! If you could bottle a picnic on the beach by the ocean, Manzanilla would be it. The strong flor creates a fascinating and totally unique flavour profile. Bright floral aromas, especially chamomile, freshly baked bread, and almonds. On the palate it is dry and even more delicate than a Fino, with citric notes, apples, yeasty notes, and a touch of saltiness. Yum!

Serving Tips 
Always serve well chilled in a wide rimmed catavino or white wine glass. Manzanilla must be refrigerated after opening, and will keep for 2 weeks in the fridge. 

Much like Fino, serve any time of day. Ideal as an aperitif or to accompany a wide range of savoury dishes. The king of seafood pairing. Goes exceptionally well with raw seafood, sashimi, oysters etc. Also great with soups, and due to its low acetic acid content it goes well with acidic dishes.

Try the single vineyard Manzanilla Gabriela - Aged 6 Years in Solera 
$24.79 / btl 

 


Try Manzanilla En Rama Gabriela Oro - 8 Years in Solera
$38.57 / btl


Oloroso - Bold and intense yet smooth

Examining a sample of Oloroso and its beautiful colour at Bodegas Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera.
Admiring the deep colour of this Oloroso sample at Bodegas Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Production
Oloroso differs from other sherries, as it only undergoes oxidative ageing, clearly visible in its deep amber colour. The fully fermented young Palomino wine - mosto - is selected by the capataz (cellar master) at a very early stage for particular qualities that make it ideal for oxidative ageing. The wine is immediately fortified to 17% to prevent the formation of the veil of flor. The oxidative ageing occurs in the traditional Solera system and the wine slowly ages in constant contact with oxygen. Over the years, the water content in the wine decreases due to evaporation through the wooden walls of the casks, which increases the wine’s concentration. This process adds to oloroso’s structure, smoothness, and complexity.  

Tasting Notes
Oloroso translates to “fragrant”. These wines are dry and seriously smooth due to their high glycerine content, with the most luxurious aromas and flavours. On the nose, notes of walnut, dried fruit, apricot, tobacco, autumn leaves, vanilla. In the mouth it is complex and persistent. Its roundness plays tricks on your palate, making it seem sweet, even though it is bone dry, with notes of golden tobacco, spices, truffle, vanilla and a very pleasant lingering finish of noble woods and leather. 

Serving Tips 
Serve only slightly chilled in a wide rimmed catavino or white wine glass. Ideally enjoyed by the glass, an open bottle can last up to a year if stored in a cool place.

Perfect to accompany foods with intense flavours. Pairs well with red meats and game, casseroles, well cured cheeses, wild mushrooms, stews and rich flavours.

Cool Fact
Traditionally, some olorosos were called “vinos de pañuelo” which means “handkerchief wines” because, they smelled so good that people would use them as a perfume, dabbing a bit on their hankies (back when everyone carried hankies, I guess now you could do the same with your anti-covid mask!)

Amontillado - Aperitif? Main? Digestif? All of the above!

A glass of freshly extracted Amontillado at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia in El Puerto de Santa Maria
A glass of freshly extracted Amontillado at Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Notice the bits of yeast in the glass, straight from the barrel! Photo by Igor Aldomar

Production
Amontillados, my personal favourite, are notable for going through both biological and oxidative ageing, giving them a balance of qualities from both processes. Made from Palomino grapes,  they start life as a Fino or Manzanilla, ageing under the layer of Flor (yeast) until it no longer has the nutrients to survive and begins to disappear, at which point the wine is fortified from 15% to 17% and begins to age in an oxidative way. 

Tasting Notes
Due to the dual ageing process, Amontillados are elegant and refined. Ranging in colour from light topaz to amber, they have a subtle and delicate bouquet of hazelnut, aromatic herbs, and dark tobacco, with hints of vanilla. Very ethereal! On the palate they are surprisingly light and smooth, with very well-balanced acidity. Luxurious and complex giving way to a dry finish with lingering notes of spices, nuts, and exotic woods.   

Serving Tips 
Serve only slightly chilled in a wide rimmed catavino or white wine glass. Ideally enjoyed by the glass, an open bottle can last up to a year if stored in a cool place.

Though they are traditionally consumed before a meal, the magic of Amontillados is that they are equally fantastic as an aperitif, during a meal, or as a digestif. They are my personal go-to!

Perfect to accompany foods with medium to intense flavours. Pairs well with soups, consommés, light meats, blue fish (tuna), semi-cured cheeses, wild mushrooms, stews and rich flavours. Delectably good paired with a dessert as well.

Cool Fact
Amontillados can vary in style depending on how long they spend in either the biological or oxidative phase of the ageing process. Some Amontillados have a paler colour with sharper notes and faint hints of yeast, from being aged longer with the flor. In others, however, the rounder mellow notes of oxidative ageing—spices and wood—predominate.

Palo Cortado - Makes you melt into your chair

Several glasses of Palo Cortado at Bodegas Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera.
Sampling several glasses of Palo Cortado at Bodegas Fernandez-Gao 1750 in Jerez de la Frontera. Photo by Igor Aldomar

Production
Historically shrouded in mystery due to the unpredictability of winemaking in the past, there were many subtle differences from cask to cask. Palo Cortados are made by careful selection of the finest Palomino musts. Initially fortified to 15% like a Fino or Manzanilla, to favour the growth of flor, however, after only spending time in the top tier of the Solera system, they are selected for their delicate properties, and fortified to 17% to continue on with oxidative ageing. Like an Amontillado, but pulled out of the biological ageing process much sooner, so also displaying properties of an Oloroso.

Tasting Notes
The delicate bouquet of an Amontillado with the body and smoothness of an Oloroso. Chestnut to mahogany in colour. Enchanting aromas with citric notes of bitter orange and walnut, maple, and fermented butter. On the palate it is dry, smooth and persistent with velvety texture. Lots of depth and complexity, you could ruminate on the flavours for hours. Spices, roasted nuts, vanilla, very warm and comforting. Definitely a meditative and pensive wine, perfect for melting into your chair. 

Serving Tips 
Serve only slightly chilled in a wide rimmed catavino or white wine glass. Ideally enjoyed by the glass, an open bottle can last up to a year if stored in a cool place.

Palo Cortados are best slowly enjoyed on their own to truly appreciate their elegance. When paired with food they go well with nuts, cured cheeses, consommés, stews, and gelatinous meats. 

Cool Fact
Palo Cortados derive their name from the markings made on the casks in the bodega (cellar) by the capataz (cellar master). Palo translates to stick, and is the slanted line drawn with chalk on all sherry casks destined for biological ageing. Once it is decided that a particular cask has the right properties to become a Palo Cortado, they draw a horizontal slash through the stick, cutting it (cortado means cut). At this point the wine is fortified to 17%. The language of chalk markings on sherry barrels is a fascinating topic in itself!

Try the Palo Cortado from Fernandez-Gao 1750 - Over 20 year-old Solera

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