Popular in the United Kingdom as well as some neighbouring countries like France, sherry is a celebrated fortified wine that is known for its characteristic flavours.
In our introductory guide to sherry, you will learn about its history, what it is, and how it tastes:
- What Is Sherry?
- Sherry Wine History
- What Does Sherry Taste Like?
- Drinking Sherry
- Port Vs Sherry
- Other Substitutes
- Benefits Of Sherry Wine
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read the entire guide. We also have more sherry guides, which you’ll see in the menu below.
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What Is Sherry?
Sherry is a white wine from Spain that has been fortified with brandy. It’s made following a similar process to regular table wine where cultivated grapes are pressed and fermented.
However, it is then fortified with a strong 70% ABV brandy called “destilado'”, which is sourced further inland. Once fortified, it is then aged following one or a combination of two distinct processes.
You can learn about the process with our full guide on how sherry is made.
Sherry Vs. Jerez Vs. Xérès
It’s not uncommon for sherry to also be referred to as either “Jerez” or “Xérès”. In fact, its designation of origin or “Denominación de Origen” (DO) is “Jerez-Xérès-Sherry”.
In all cases, its names derive from its home, the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. Sherry is largely referred to as simply “Jerez” in Spain and “Xérès” is merely the French spelling of the word that was often used as well.
However, when the British began importing sherry, it was initially referred to as “Sherris sack”. Sherish was the town’s Arabic name during Moorish rule, which itself has Greeks roots from “Kerrat”, which was Romanised into “Ceret”.
Meanwhile, “sack” was short for “sacar”, a general term for exported wine. Eventually, the Arabic term was corrupted over time into the English “sherry”.
Sherry Wine History
Even when the Romans conquered Spain in 206 BC after three centuries of Carthaginian rule, the region had been producing wine for nearly a millennium.
Under the Romans, it became known as “Ceretanum” or “Vinum Ceretensis” or “wine from Ceret” and was distributed throughout the empire. Furthermore, it was during this period that inhabitants developed a primitive technique of boiling the grape must to produce a rudimentary sherry.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Andalusia came under Moorish rule until the 13th century. Winemaking continued although alcohol was outlawed and the region was introduced to Arabic distillation with the use of an alembic.
Initially, it was used to produce grape liqueur. However, the new technology would set the wheels of sherry’s evolution into motion.
Sherry’s Rise To Popularity
By the 14th century, Sherish had been rebaptised as Jerez de la Frontera. Its new name referenced its position as a border between Christian and Islamic territories. It was also the main gateway of the Mediterranean and mainland Europe and so Jerez became a major trading hub.
For instance, the nearby port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda was a common launchpad for many expeditions to the New World. Explorers would frequently supply themselves from Spain’s southern ports before embarking and often spent more on wine than on armaments.
Sweet and strong wines were in vogue and most came via Venice from Greece, Cyprus, and Balkan states like Cyprus and Hungary. However, the Ottoman Empire’s influence made them challenging for merchants to acquire.
Meanwhile, England’s access to French wine was limited due to recurringly strained diplomatic relations. To respond to demand, the Spanish Duke of Medina Sidonia abolished wine export taxes in the region in 1491.
Sherry & Conflicts With the United Kingdom
As a fortified wine, sherry didn’t spoil despite the long journey back to Britain and it became enormously popular in England. As a result, English merchants were so esteemed that they even retained the right to bear arms when travelling in southern Spain.
However, the 16th-century English Reformation resulted in the wine merchants unexpectedly falling under the Spanish Inquisition’s scrutiny. Those who didn’t leave Spain were often arrested and imprisoned as they refused to renounce their king.
Nevertheless, sherry’s prominence persisted through other conflicts, including the Spanish Armada. In fact, sherry captured from Spanish warships only renewed interest in the fortified wine. Its popularity was represented by William Shakespeare’s depiction of Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV.
Sherry’s New Portuguese Rival
With the War of the Spanish Succession, sherry sales faltered again as England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty in 1703. A military and commercial pact, it offered modest import taxes on Portuguese wine.
As sweet port wine had been discovered only thirty years earlier, English tastes quickly adapted to the cheaper alternative.
Spain was initially a French ally during the Napoleonic Wars. Consequently, sherry experienced brief popularity with its continental neighbour where it was known as “Xérès”. However, the relationship was short-lived when France occupied Spain in a bid for control of the Iberian Peninsula.
When discovering how these processes produced new flavours, it renewed Britain’s interest in sherry. Today, these are recognised as characteristic techniques as you’ll learn in our dedicated sherry making guide.
What Does Sherry Taste Like?
There are several distinctive styles of sherry, which all result in different flavours. Indeed, you can find both dry and sweet sherries! Nevertheless, the vast majority of sherry is dry.
Likewise, it typically has low acidity and its relatively strong alcoholic content is often masked by its full flavours.
Typically, sherry will either taste like biscuit and almond or walnut and caramel depending on how it was aged. Those that are lighter in colour and have biscuit flavours tend to have been aged under a layer of yeast called flor. Meanwhile, nuttier sherries will have likely undertaken oxidative ageing as well or instead.
Otherwise, sweet sherry will have an almost black colour with notes of dried fruit. On some occasions, it can be compared to port. Yet, the process of making the two are quite different.
Similarly, its level of fruitiness will depend on how long it was aged. As there is a variety of styles of sherry, their flavours will vary. We suggest that you learn more about their flavours via our guide to the different types of sherry!
Traditionally, sherry is enjoyed as an apéritif. Indeed, its glass placement around a plate is often on the far righthand side, which indicates that it is to be used first.
However, sherry is also an excellent accompaniment for certain dishes, cheese courses, and desserts. Of course, when and how you drink it also depends on the style of sherry that you have chosen.
Whatever you choose, we insist that there is no right or wrong way to drink something as long as you enjoy it that way. Nevertheless, you can refer to our guide on how to drink sherry to find ways to heighten the experience.
Alternatively, sherry is a fascinating and overlooked cocktail ingredient that you could consider! If you want to learn about ways to integrate it into your recipes, check out our guide to the best sherry cocktails!
Port Vs Sherry
As you may have noticed, we have compared Spanish sherry to Portuguese port wine on several occasions in this guide. After all, both are fortified wines with a lot in common given their historical prominence in England.
In many ways, they were also rivals and renewed popularity in one often resulted in losses for the other. For instance, when port wine was the subject of a scandal due to unscrupulous practices in the 1740s, their sales were replaced by sherry.
However, it’s hard to imagine a quintessentially British Christmas without both. Indeed, the sherry is often enjoyed as an appetiser and a glass is left for Santa Claus with a mince pie. Meanwhile, the port is served with the cheese course and finished by a roaring fire.
Nevertheless, both are quite different. First of all, port is a red wine while sherry is a white wine. Yet, what distinguishes them the most is when the wines are fortified.
Brandy is introduced to sherry after the wine has fermented. However, port is fortified during the fermentation, which kills the yeast and leaves more residual sugar. As a result, port wine is sweet and sherry is typically dry.
Even sweet sherry is fortified after it has fermented. As the grapes are dried until they are almost raisins, their sugars are so concentrated that it remains sweet without needing brandy to stop the process.
Other Sherry Substitutes
Another well-known fortified wine from the Iberia is Madeira. Like port wine, Madeira is Portuguese but it is produced on the island of the same name off the coast of Morocco.
Madeira can be fortified before or after fermentation. Yet, it differentiates itself by using an “Estufagem” ageing process. This technique consists of heating the wine while it’s ageing in barrels to simulate the same storage conditions it experienced when transported on ships.
Otherwise, French ratafia is a fortified wine produced from grape must, a winemaking byproduct wine. Although present in most regions of France, Ratafia de Champagne is probably the best well-known abroad.
Finally, sherry isn’t dissimilar to either cognac and Armagnac. Although these are alcoholic spirits, they evolved from the same distillation process introduced by the Moors. Initially, both cognac and Armagnac were used by Dutch merchants to fortify wine that was exported from France.
Eventually, the distilled wine became a precious commodity in itself and was eventually exported instead. Like with port, Madeira, and sherry, these beverages became popular thanks to their resistance to adverse conditions when travelling.
Sherry Health Benefits
Given that port is made from red wine and sherry is made from white wine, it’s often presumed that only the latter has many health benefits. While it’s true that port wine does have antioxidants, it’s also loaded with sugar!
Meanwhile, sherry contains a specific type of antioxidant called polyphenols. These reduce the oxidation of Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL), which are known to cause coronary artery disease.
Furthermore, sherry also increases your High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL is often regarded as the “good” cholesterol, which aids in longevity and even decreases the chances of developing coronary artery disease.
Not only is alcohol and appetite suppressor but it can also help promote weight loss thanks to the process described above. Since dry sherry is quite low in sugar, a small glass after a meal can be a healthy alternative to dessert.
Of course, the above is mostly true in moderation. Excessive consumption of alcohol will result in negative side effects that far outweigh any benefits!
Now that you have read our introductory guide to sherry, let’s dig deeper and learn more!