Anyone that has ever drunk a range of sherries will notice that they come in a range of styles and flavours. It is fantastic when you are told that all these styles all come from the same grape: Palomino. Palomino is a white grape variety that produces wines that are very bland and neutral – making them a perfect grape to lend them to a process that will allow for flavour. Sherry is that process.
Sherry is a process as well as a region in the south of Spain, locally known as Jerez, that was the first region in the world to use the process of the same name.
The process of Sherry revolves around yeast and flavours that it can impart in wine. Wines made from a base of Palomino that have been fortified with neutral spirit to about 15% are used to fill up oak barrels to about 80% of the way allowing for a fair bit of room between the wine and the top of the barrel. The wines then rest for a period of months and in this time a layer of yeast forms in this space. This layer of yeast is called ‘Flor’. More Flor means more yeasty flavours are imparted into the wines whilst they are sitting there.
Flor - the thick white layer above the ageing Sherry wine. It is a particular strain of yeast which helps to give Sherry wines their unique flavour.
All of these wines are then classified after roughly 6 months. If there is sufficient Flor development, the wines are called ‘Fino’. If there isn’t enough development of Flor the wines are called ‘Oloroso’. Oloroso wines are then fortified to 16-17% to kill off the small amount of Flor that developed. The two styles are then separated in the winery and left for another series of months until the second classification.
In the second classification the wines are again judged on their Flor development. The Fino sherries should still have a thick layer, if so they remain as Fino. If the layer of Flor has died down and naturally started to become an Oloroso, they are called an Amontillado. Oloroso sherries will still all be classified as Oloroso as no development of Flor was possible after the further fortification.
The Solera system is a unique ageing system that Jerez has adopted for making Sherry. The youngest wines are added up the top and slowly are blended into the older wines below. Sherry ready to be bottled is drawn from the oldest (average) wines at the bottom of the Solera producing an incredibly complex wine.
Once these three styles are classified they are then transferred into a ‘Solera’ system. A solera system is a tiered-ageing system that allows for the youngest wines to slowly blend into the older one. Each level, or Criadera, is made up of the sherries of a certain vintage. Each of these levels will slowly trickle into the level before it, and so on. The oldest sherries down the bottom this system are now a mix of many years – and this is what is drawn out and bottled. The Solera system allows for all the years wines to stay refreshed due to the constant topping up with new wines. Most Solera systems can have between three to fourteen levels, sometimes more, in total.
Styles of Sherry
Fino sherries are the most classic style of Sherry. They have been solely aged under Flor their whole life as a sherry, thus have strong flavours of yeast. These flavours are reminiscent of bread dough, almonds and shortbread. There will also be flavours of sea salt, herbs and lemons but the most important are the bread dough-like aromas.
Manzanilla sherries are exactly the same as Fino sherries it is just produced in the more eastern region of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Fino sherries, and the rest, are made in the Jerez region.
Amontillado sherries have been partly aged under the Flor yeasts but between the first and second classification lost their Flor development. This has lead to a sherry that is exactly between an Oloroso and a Fino. The resulting sherries have fresh nutty, bready flavours like those of a Fino but also have a range of dried fruit, chocolate and toffee flavours like those of an Oloroso.
Oloroso sherries have been aged without Flor practically from the beginning so have no yeasty flavours but rather oxidative and oak-derived flavours. These flavours are akin to fruitcake, walnut, toffee, chocolate and baking spices.
Cream sherries are dry sherries that have been sweetened. They are either sweetened with sugar, sweeter sherries or grape must. Pale cream sherries are Fino sherries that are sweetened, Medium are Amontillado and Cream are Oloroso sherries.
Pedro Ximinez, or PX
PX is a sherry style that is very rare and hardly produced but in the best of years. Unlike all other sherries that use Palomino as the grape behind the base wines, Pedro Ximenez use Pedro Ximenez grapes. These grapes are dried out in the sun until they turn into raisins – in this process they gain complex flavours but also increase their sugar content tenfold. These grapes are pressed and fermented making very sweet wines, they are too high in sugar to develop Flor yeasts so are fortified and aged in a Solera.
Amontillado, Oloroso and PX sherries can all hold specific age statements of 12 or 15 years old. This will mean that the sherries in these bottles have been in a Solera system for a minimum of either 12 or 15 years, on average. In a Solera there will always be wines that are much older then these – so age statements like these all have to be averages. This is basically sherries that are in a Solera with 12 or 15 levels – which gives the wines a year to trickle down a layer, this is then repeated over 12 to 15 years producing on average a very old sherry.