A traditional product of Spain, sherries are wines made from white Palomino grapes that are fortified with brandy after their fermentation process has ended. Genuine sherry wine is produced only in the “Sherry Triangle” region of Spain, an area within the province of Cadiz that includes Jerez de la Frontera, an area widely considered to be the capital of sherry wine production. In fact the name “sherry” is an Anglicization of the word “Jerez.” Only wine produced in this designated area can be called “sherry.”
When you’re shopping for sherry wine you’ll notice that there are several varieties and styles available, from very dry to very sweet. You may also come across bottles that are labeled “sherry style” or “fortified wine,” which are wines that are made using the sherry-making process that aren’t produced the Sherry Triangle region of Spain and therefore cannot call themselves “sherries.”
Sherries tend to range in price from quite expensive to very inexpensive. Since the process for making sherries is quite labor intensive and requires a minimum of three years of aging (some are aged for as long as 30), genuine sherries can be costly. Less expensive versions tend not to be aged as long, may have been fortified with an inferior grade of brandy or both.
How Sherries Are Made
Genuine sherries are always made from white Palomino grapes. To make sweeter sherry varieties, such as cream sherry, fermented juice from Pedro Ximenez grapes, traditionally used to make sweet dessert wines, may be added to dry sherry.
The product of the grapes’ first two pressings is used to make the finest grade sherries. Anything produced by third or subsequent pressings is used to make cooking sherry and sherry vinegar, both common in Spanish cooking.
After the grapes are pressed they are allowed to ferment for about two months, at which point they are fortified with brandy. After the brandy has been added, the sherry is aged in a series of oak barrels in a process known as “solera.”
During the solera process, sherry is moved from one barrel to the next as it ages, with the newest sherry wine in the first barrel and the oldest in the last. The sherry is moved to a new barrel about once a year. No barrel is ever completely emptied, meaning that some older wine is always left to mix with the newest batch–something which sherry experts attribute sherry wine’s unique flavors.
Once the sherry has reached the last barrel in the solera aging process, it is bottled and sold. Unlike some other types of wine, sherries are never aged in the bottle. The amount of time sherries are aged and the number of barrels they cycle through in the solera process will ultimately determine their quality, grade and price.
Sherry Wine Styles
Sherries can be divided into a few broad styles. You don’t need to be an expert to choose a great sherry. Keep these basic styles in mind when you shop or order in a restaurant.
- Cream sherry: Unlike their name suggests, cream sherries are not creamy. They are oloroso or fino sherries that have been sweetened using fermented juice from Pedro Ximenez grapes. Cream sherries are popular in England and are traditionally drunk as cordials or with desserts.
- Fino: A variety of dry sherry with an alcohol content of about 15 percent, fino (meaning “fine” in Spanish) is golden in color and served chilled. Within the finos family are Manzanilla sherries–crisp sherries produced in the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda on Spain’s Atlantic coast–and Amontillado sherries, which are aged longer than other fino sherries, giving them a darker color and higher alcohol content.
- Oloroso: Aged longer than fino sherries, olorosos tend to be dark and have an alcohol content of about 20 percent. They are often sweetened to make cream sherries, but true aficionados prefer to drink oloroso in its true, dry state. Olorosos are often drunk as aperitifs.
Sherry Wine Substitute
Because genuine sherries tend to be expensive, you may come across a sherry wine substitute or “sherry-style” wines while shopping. While some of these may be quite good, others may not be. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell without trying them.
One popular use for these sherry wine “substitute” options is in cooking. Many recipes, especially those from Spain, call for dry sherry as an ingredient. If you need dry sherry for a recipe and don’t want to use the real thing or purchase one of these substitute sherries, dry white wine usually works well as a sherry wine substitute in most recipes.
Sherries with Food
In Spain, there is a long tradition of serving sherry wine with tapas: small, shared plates typically served in bars. As tapas have gained popularity in the United States, more Americans than ever have had the chance to try both dry sherry and sweet sherries, making sherry wine a popular choice for pairing with meals at home.
If you’d like to try serving sherry with food there are some basic guidelines you can follow to help you get the hang of it:
- Cream sherries: These very sweet wines are best served with desserts, or as a dessert themselves. They also pair well with fruits and cheeses.
- Finos: Fino pairs well with traditional tapas dishes, such as olives, sardines, Spanish cheeses and cured meats. You could also serve fino with any type of food that would pair well with a very dry white wine.
- Olorosos: Because of their stronger flavors and higher alcohol content, olorosos tend to go well with heavier foods such as beef, winter stews, sausages and oily fish.