Sherry is made by using a variety of unique and influential processes, which have since been adopted by other beverages like rum. In this guide, you will learn all about how sherry is made and its ingredients:
- What Is Sherry Made From?
- Is Sherry A White Wine Or A Red Wine?
- How Sherry Is Made
- Adding Brandy To Sherry
- How Sherry Is Aged
- What Is Solera?
- How Strong Is Sherry?
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How Sherry Is Made
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Where Is Sherry Made?
Although it may no longer sound like it in the English language, sherry is named after the Spanish city Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia. However, the association becomes much clearer when sherry is instead referred to as either “Jerez” or “Xérès”.
That being said, its production isn’t limited to Jerez de la Frontera and its outskirts. In fact, the region where it’s made is referred to as the “sherry triangle” with Jerez de la Frontera at one point and Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María at the other two.
At the far south-western coast of Spain, it tends to experience particularly hot summers. However, its vineyards benefit from oceanic breezes from the Atlantic, which provide cool air and moisture.
Sherry production may take place on the coast or further inland. Needless to say, where the sherry is cultivated and aged will have an effect on its resulting flavours.
The Jerez region hosts a diverse variety of soils, which have been broken down into three categories:
- Albariza: White soil with 40% chalk and clay-sand blend content.
- Arenas: Yellow soil with 10% chalk and high sand content.
- Barros: Brown soil, 10% chalk and high clay content.
Albariza is often regarded as the best soil for producing sherry. For this reason, 40% of a sherry’s grapes must have been cultivated on Albariza soil by law.
Its white colour helps promote photosynthesis by reflecting sunlight back onto the vines. Meanwhile, the vines can feed off residual moisture retained by the absorbent clay elements as the sand allows excess water to drain.
What Is Sherry Made From?
Sherry is typically made from one of the following grape varieties:
- Pedro Ximénez (PX)
Today, Palomino is almost exclusively used to produce dry sherry. Before the turn of the 20th century, there were hundreds of different grape varieties. However, a phylloxera outbreak in 1894 essentially wiped them all out.
Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes are instead used to make sweet sherry. They aren’t as common as Palomino with Moscatel being the rarest of the two. Unlike Palomino grapes, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes are typically grown in Arenas and Barros soil.
Although a sherry will be made from a single grape variety, a dry Palomino sherry may be blended with either Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel sherry to make a sweet cream sherry.
Is Sherry A White Wine Or A Red Wine?
While some older ones that have been oxidatively aged may develop particularly dark colours, sherry is indeed a white wine. This characteristically is quite evident when tasting those matured using flor ageing. are distinctively lighter.
Although initially fermented from the same grape, flor-aged sherries usually have a characteristically pale yellow colour.
How Sherry Is Made
Sherry grapes are harvested in early September and Palomino varieties are immediately sent to be pressed.
Meanwhile, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes are dried under the sun for several days until they look like raisins. This step evaporates the grape’s water content and concentrates the sugars, which results in a sweeter wine.
Palomino grapes are pressed lightly in two stages called “yemas”. The first pressing extracts and lighter juice, which is used for making Fino sherry. As for the second pressing, it yields a bolder juice, which is usually destined for making Oloroso. The remaining grape juice is then used for making brandy and vinegar.
Inert stainless steel tanks are typically used for fermenting the juice into white wine. However, some brands continue to use oak barrels. Palomino grapes will produce a dry white of around 12% ABV.
Conversely, the aforementioned Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel wines are only partially fermented to around 10% ABV. Rather than complete the fermentation, they are fortified sooner, which interrupts the process and leaves a significant amount of residual sugars.
Adding Brandy To Sherry
Sherry is fortified with “destilado”, a brandy of at least 70% ABV produced in the inland La Mancha region from airen grapes. Rather than being added directly to the sherry, it is first diluted “mitad y mitad” (half and half) with an equal amount of mature sherry wine.
This mixture is only then added to the wine to avoiding shocking and spoiling it. Producers will fortify the wine to either 15% or 17.5% ABV according to the style of sherry that they wish to produce.
The fermented wine is first sampled to determine its flavour and potential for a particular style of sherry. The finest and most delicate wines are deemed suitable for making either Fino or Amontillado sherry. Their vats are marked with a single slash and they are fortified to 15% ABV.
Heavier, full-bodied wines are marked with a slash and a dot, indicating that they are to be fortified to 17.5% ABV to make Olosoro sherry.
Meanwhile, those marked with two slashes have yet to be decided whether they will become Fino or Oloroso sherry. Therefore, they are fortified to just 15% ABV and left to continue developing.
Finally, wines that have poorly developed are marked with three strokes. These will be distilled into Brandy de Jerez, a wine-based spirit similar to cognac but is aged in a Solera like sherry.
How Sherry Is Aged
Sherry barrels are aged in cellars called “Bodegas”. They typically consist of 500-litre butts that are only filled five-sixths full, leaving an empty space that is two fists in height above the wine.
The barrels are crafted from particularly porous North American oak, which allows for a greater level of air exchange between its contents and the outside environment.
For this reason, the sherry-seasoned casks that have become popular for ageing Scotch whisky and occasionally rum aren’t those that have been used for making the fortified wine. As the wood is too porous and largely inactive due to their size and age, new casks are specifically made for ageing other spirits.
Ageing sherry follows one or a combination of the two following process:
Oxidative ageing isn’t dissimilar to most barrel-ageing whereby the wine is exposed to prolonged air contact. Meanwhile, biological ageing exploits a natural phenomenon called “flor”.
In both cases, the wine is fortified and barrel-aged in a solera system, which we describe below. However, the two ageing techniques are uniquely different and result in distinctive wines.
What Is Flor?
Flor is a naturally-occurring layer of yeast that develops on the wine’s surface. It functions as a barrier by absorbing oxygen and protects the wine from air exposure.
As mentioned earlier, a space of one-sixth of the barrel is left empty. In this case, it provides a sufficient supply of oxygen to encourage healthy flor growth. Furthermore, the flor also feeds off the wine’s acidic compounds, which converts them into aldehydes, rendering it alkaline.
As it thrives only in a limited alcoholic strength of between 14.5% to 16% ABV, sherry that follows a flor ageing process is only fortified to 15% ABV.
Flor is also sensitive to humidity and lower levels of ambient moisture will produce a thinner growth. For this reason, the flor is particularly thick near the coast, which results in even lower oxygen contact and more delicate flavours.
When ageing sherry under a layer of flor, care must be taken not to damage it when transferring the wine to different barrels. Therefore, traditional tools like a “canoa” and “rociador” are used, which mean “cane” and “sprinkler” in Spanish respectively.
Nevertheless, transferring the wine is vital to promote healthy flor growth as it revitalises the barrel’s contents.
Sherry aged under a layer of flor will often take on the flavours of the yeast, which are typically evocative of bread and biscuits. It also retains a pale colour due to its limited contact with oxygen.
You can learn more about the sherries influenced by this technique with our guide to the different types of sherry.
Oxidative Sherry Ageing
Sherry that has been fortified to over 17% ABV will instead undergo an oxidative ageing process. This term means that the wine matures through prolonged direct air exposure.
Likewise, the casks have one-sixth of empty space. However, on this occasion, it increases direct oxygen contact with the wine. Similarly, the choice of porous oak allows for better circulation.
Oxidative sherry ageing isn’t dissimilar to the processes used for rum, whisky, and other alcoholic spirits like brandy. However, the goal isn’t to take on the cask’s woody flavours but the air instead. Indeed, the casks are quite old, which reduces its influence, and their large size allows for little contact with the wood.
On some occasions, sherry may first experience a biological ageing process until it is refortified to around 17% ABV. The increase in alcohol strength then kills the flor and launches a process of oxidative ageing.
Sherry that has been oxidatively aged will have a distinctively darker colour. Similarly, it will take on rich flavours of dried fruit, nuts, and caramel. As before you can learn more through our guide to the different types of sherry.
What Is Solera?
Often referred to as a Solera system, this technique consists of partially transferring sherry along a series of casks while it ages.
When sherry is removed from the last cask in the series to be bottled, it is topped up with more from the previous barrel. Each barrel is will be refilled in order, eventually leaving room in the one with the youngest sherry to be replenished with new sherry.
Historically, the barrels were stacked in a pyramid and each row represented a different stage in the ageing process. These groups were referred to as “scales”, “criaderas” (Spanish for “nurseries”) or “clases”.
The youngest scale was at the top while the oldest ones at the bottom were known as the “solera”, which means “on the ground” in Spanish. While some producers continue to perform the process by physically stacking barrels, many clearly label them and have them arranged in a way that saves space.
Solera System Benefits
As the sherry is only partially emptied each time, it allows for young and mature sherry to mix together and marry their flavours. Consequently, the process allows the sherry to be simultaneously blended while it ages. In theory, the oldest solera cask may contain traces of wine that is several decades old.
For this reason, accurately determining a sherry’s age is particularly challenging. Therefore, when age statements are rarely used, they are based on an average calculation.
Furthermore, the average age continuously increases since the wine is usually transferred across barrels at yearly intervals. As a result, active solera systems that have been constantly running the longest produce highly sought after sherry.
Although traditionally associated with sherry, solera ageing has been incorporated into the production of other beverages. For instance, some Spanish-style rums will use solera ageing, too.
How Strong Is Sherry?
As you will now have gathered, there are effectively two different strengths of sherry. Lighter sherries tend to be around 15% ABV whereas full-bodied sherry is usually just over 17% ABV.
You can learn about which varieties have different strengths in order guide to the different types of sherry.
Having now learned about how sherry is made, check out more of our resources on the fortified wine: