Rediscover the Spanish libation in its homeland
Sherry might have fallen out of fashion, but it waits to be rediscovered in its homeland in southern Spain
If you find yourself in southern Spain and want to learn more about sherry, a tour of the bodegas is a must. These are the only wine cellars in the world that can officially produce this fortified wine created from grapes grown in Cadiz province’s Sherry Triangle. I choose the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez, producer of the famous Tio Pepe sherries. It has guided tours, and as well as touring the various buildings you also get an insight into the history and process of sherry-making. As with other wines, much of this comes down to the grapes and the soil, which is nearly white from the high chalk content. “The chalk retains moisture despite the dry climate here,” my guide explains, crumbling some earth in his hand. “The grapes are not irrigated, so the sea mist and the water in the soil is what gives the grapes their unique flavour.”
Stepping into a bodega, you leave the dry heat of Andalusia behind and the respectful hush of the cellar envelops you. Barrels are stacked in rows, three casks high, as far as the eye can see. Each has white writing on its face – dedications and quotations from famous visitors including royalty, from Harold Lloyd to Steven Spielberg. My favourite: “History, Love, Colour. All inside a bottle of Magic from Jerez.”
As the tour continues we also get a lot of local, and then world, history. Andalusians in this area have been producing wine since the Phoenicians arrived in 1100 BC. During Roman times, wine production became an important part of the local economy, with wine shipped throughout the empire. Sherry quickly became known for one of its most celebrated characteristics, one that endures to this day: sherry is a wine that travels well.
During Moorish times, the town of Jerez was known as al Sherish, which is where the modern-day name for sherry comes from. Despite the Qur’an prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, somehow wine production continued to flourish. The Moors even introduced a distillation process for fortification of the wine that has remained virtually unchanged for 500 years.
After King Alfonso X reclaimed control of the area in the 1200s, the sherry region began large-scale production, exporting bottles around the world during the Middle Ages. Even Shakespeare was a keen drinker. In his own words, “all drinks stand hat-in-hand in the presence of sherry.”
As the tour and history wind to a close, I am ready for the grand finale: the tasting. My guide hands me over to
Even Shakespeare was a keen drinker: “All drinks stand hat-in-hand in the presence of sherry”
Simon, the sommelier, to explain the various methods of production of each of the sherry-filled glasses before me. They remind me of a painter’s palette, ranging from a pale liquid to a dark, rich caramel. We start with a fino. It is made from the first press of the Palomino grapes and aged for four years under a protective layer of f lor yeast so that the wine never comes into contact with the air. The yeast feeds on the acids and sugars, leaving the wine extremely dry and pale. Simon tells me this sherry goes well with sushi, spicy foods or creamy soups, and is often drunk as a palate cleanser between courses. He is very professional, sipping, swirling and spitting… I am not a professional, and take a good mouthful and swallow it. I think I am expected to wax lyrical about the hint of almond flavour, but for me this is too dry. I soldier on however and finish the glass. Simon is ever the professional and hides any disapproval at my “tasting technique”.
We move on to an amontillado. Like the fino, it is aged for four years under a protective layer but at that
The sherry-filled glasses remind me of a painter’s palette, ranging from pale to a dark, rich caramel
point the yeast runs out of nutrients and dies away, exposing the wine to the air. It continues to oxidise and age for another eight years. It is darker than the fino with a dry, nutty flavour and an almost salty aftertaste, which is ideal for rice dishes and white meats, Simon informs me. Bottles are often sold out as soon as that year’s supply is released. I make a note and happily finish the glass.
My third glass is a palo cortado. There’s quite a story behind this one. Once upon a time, barrels were each marked with chalk to record what was inside. One scratch (palo) meant fino. If the yeast died off for some reason, a line was drawn through the scratch (the palo cortado) and rather than being sold, it was given to the workers. The bottles of palo cortado became highly sought after, and about 40 years ago the bodegas started to produce them commercially. The process, however, is a bit like alchemy: each bodega has its own means of producing this sherry. I thoroughly enjoy my glass – it is less dry than the others, and has not just the colour of caramel, but also a hint of the flavour too.
Next comes the oloroso, which loosely translates as “pungent”. Simon explains that the amber colour and fuller body is due to the sherry coming from the second pressing of the grape. It is aged for eight years but without any protective yeast layer, so it takes more flavour from the American oak barrels in which it is stored. There is definitely a taste of oak and spice, and something akin to vanilla about this sherry.
Our penultimate glass is dulce, a sweet sherry, and more reminiscent of what I think of as a classic sherry. Simon explains a complicated method of mixing Palomino grapes (as used in an oloroso) and Pedro Ximenex grapes with the must (the pulp and juice extracted from the grape) from each aged separately for four years, then blended and aged under full oxidation for a further four years. Just like Goldilocks, I find this the most delightful of all the sherries, not too dry and not too sweet.
Finally, there is the icing on any cake, the sweetest nectar of them all, Pedro Ximenez, a dessert wine, sweet, dense and as dark as coffee. These grapes are left on the vine much longer, then dried in the sun for several weeks to concentrate the sugars before they are put through a strong press and aged for at least eight years. The sherry tastes a bit like figs and raisins. Simon tells me this particular sherry has been aged for 30 years, and locals like to pour it over ice cream as a favourite dessert. “You don’t happen to have any ice cream?” I ask hopefully. “No,” says Simon, as he gently guides me to the door…
ABOVE: The soil of southern Spain’s vineyards is very high in chalk content, producing a unique flavour in the grapes
CLOCKWISE FROM OPPOSITETOP: Sherry ranges widely in both colour and taste; a bottle of Tio Pepe Pio X 1903; barrels in the cellars of the Gonzalez Byass bodega bear words of praise from famous visitors