Considered a delicacy in the culinary world, sherry is one of the more intriguing sub-categories in the field of wine. The history of sherry dates back to the days of ancient civilizations, long before Spain–the country from which sherry originates–ever existed in the form it’s known today.
The Earliest Origins of Sherry
The word “sherry” is essentially an English-language pronunciation of Jerez, the town in Spain from which sherry originates. In contemporary Spain, sherry is referred to as “vino de Jerez.”
The earliest written records of Spanish history regarding wine production in Jerez date back to the 8th century, when the Moorish Muslim civilization controlled Spain. Over a thousand years earlier, the Phoenicians occupied this area, and are believed to have exported their own wine, though it’s not known if the Phoenicians made any wines similar to sherry.
By the 16th century, the wines of Jerez had begun to resemble contemporary sherry. These wines were regularly exported throughout Europe, particularly to England. At this time in European history, sherry was widely regarded as one of the finest wines in the world.
The Growth in Popularity of Sherry
Sherry’s popularity in Europe increased exponentially in the later years of the 19th century, almost to a degree where Jerez’s vineyards were unable to produce enough wine to satisfy the demand. A bacterial blight known as phylloxera caused severe damage to many vineyards all over Europe during this period, including those in Jerez, and many had to be replanted at the turn of the 20th century.
1933 saw a landmark in the history of sherry. In this year, a regulation entered into Spanish law formally protecting the term “sherry” as something that could only be applied to wines originating from Jerez and the surrounding areas that share the same winemaking styles.
In the middle of the 20th century, sherry exports experienced yet another boom in popularity. Jerez’s vineyards went from distributing 135,000 hectoliters (13.5 million liters) to a dramatic increase of 1,500,000 hectoliters between 1944 and 1979 (Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade, 2011). The following decade, the 1980s, saw a sudden and unexpected 50 percent drop in sherry exportation.
Sherry in Contemporary Society
Sherry exports have remained fairly static throughout the 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s, with figures ranging between 700,000 and 750,000 hectoliters. The wine doesn’t enjoy the same popularity it did in its heyday, though it’s well-regarded by numerous wine critics, and pairing sherry with cuisine is often cited as a highlight of fine culinary practice.