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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.

In an effort to compete with the higher alcohol wines being produced in Portugal, the Jerez winemakers began fortifying their wines with brandy. They soon found, however, that the amount of brandy that was added to individual barrels either resulted in thinner layers of flor or prevented it from forming at all. Those wines with thinner layers oxidized slightly, turned darker, developed rich nutty flavors and eventually developed into the style of sherry known today as amontillado. The higher fortified wines oxidized even more, turned a deeper brown and developed even richer flavors. They became the styles of sherry known as olorosos.

When the Jerez winemakers lost the English market they had no recourse but to let their wines sit for extended periods in the barrels. As the few orders for sherry trickled in, merchants bottled small quantities then topped up the barrels with newer wine. This gradually led to the system of fractional blending known as solera. Today soleras are comprised of 600-liter oak barrels that are stacked one row on top of the other with each stack four or five rows high. As wine from the bottom row is bottled each barrel is replenished with an equal quantity from the barrel above it, with the top barrel receiving wine from the current year. Because the barrels are never completely emptied they may contain wine made two hundred years ago.

Cream sherry is a relatively new style that was developed for the English market. Like finos, amontillados and olorosos, cream sherries are made from the palomino grape; they are olorosos sweetened with wine made from a grape called pedro ximenez. At their best cream sherries are lush and complex. At their worst they are syrupy and cloying—the domestically produced imitations. The rarest of all styles of sherry is the ultra-sweet, eponymous Pedro Ximenez. Drinking an aged PX is like drinking dessert.

Because of its unique historical development and its array of distinctive styles, sherry is one of the world’s most fascinating and complex wines. Siciliano’s stocks the entire gamut of styles—from the crisp, pale finos and monzanillas to a 1984 Pedro Ximenez that is as dark as blackstrap molasses. What better time than the holidays to enjoy this truly distinctive and intriguing wine.


Yumi Vega
Yumi Vega

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