A Short History of Sherry

By Steve Siciliano

I find it intriguing that serendipity often played a major role in the development of certain wine styles. The accidental “discovery” of Champagne arose from the exasperating tendency for wine bottled in northern France’s cold winters to re-ferment and pop corks when the weather warmed in the spring. Winemakers in the Bordeaux region were pleasantly surprised when the wine produced from grapes infected with an unsightly mold turned out to be incredibly luscious and ultra-sweet. Today Sauternes, the fortuitous result of that sugar concentrating “noble rot,” are considered to be some of the finest dessert wines in the world. Port developed into its unique style because Portuguese wine merchants found that if they fortified wine with brandy, it wouldn’t spoil during the sea voyage to England.

Perhaps no style of wine more than sherry owes its development to happenstance. Sherry is the anglicized version of Jerez, a city in southern Spain’s Andalusia province where an indigenous strain of wild yeast called flor thrives in the distinctively cool yet humid maritime climate. Before Jerez winemakers understood the beneficial effects of flor they were horrified whenever a thick layer of white film appeared on the surface of wine aging in some of their barrels. They discovered, however, that the wine produced from those “sick” barrels was lighter, fresher and had a distinctive bouquet and flavor. Eventually they learned that if they left empty the space of “two fists” in the barrels the flor always magically appeared and the wines were consistently good. The style of sherry known as fino or “fine wine” had been born.

Flor is so dependent on Andalusia’s unique climate that if removed from the region it doesn’t survive and, in fact, it behaves differently from one section of Andalusia to another. A fino produced around the port city of Sanlucar de Barrameda has a thicker layer of flor which produces crisper wines that have the flavors and aromas of apples. This subset of fino is called manzanilla, the Spanish word for little apple. Sanlucar de Barrameda, it is worth noting, was the port from which Columbus and Magellan set sail on their exploratory voyages. Before leaving they filled their ships’ holds with fino which gave sherry the distinction of being the first European wine drunk in the new world.

When England went to war with France in the late fourteenth century the English lost their access to French wines and Jerez wine merchants filled the void with sherry. Sack, the English term for sherry, became England’s preferred wine and for a while Jerez winemakers prospered. But when the English began to acquire a taste for fortified, port-style wines the demand for sherry was drastically reduced; and when Spain went to war with England that once lucrative market disappeared entirely. Those events had a major impact on the development of sherry’s distinctive styles.