Spanish wine specialist Sarah Jane Evans MW talks you through the key styles of Sherry. Also see top Sherry recommendations from Decanter's tastings team...
Sherry: Quick facts
Production zone 10,000ha
Ageing zones Jerez, El Puerto and Sanlúcar de Barrameda only
Bodegas 59 registered with El Consejo Regulador
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Decanter’s guide to Sherry styles:
Fresh and salty...
Aromatic and dry...
Arguably the best of both worlds, Amontillado starts life as a Fino...
A product of natural flor deficiencies, this is one of the rarest Sherry styles...
Full bodied and relatively high in alcohol...
Best paired with chocolate or coffee, or poured over ice cream for a really extravagant treat...
The rolling landscape with its brilliant white soils – this can only be Sherry country. Other countries may have tried to make a fortified wine in the style of Sherry but none can reproduce the terroir found in this corner of Spain.
The albariza soil is up to 40% calcium carbonate, acting like a sponge for the rains. The average rainfall is 620-litres per square metre.
Another key aspect of the climate is the winds. The Poniente is the humid west wind. The Levante is the south-eastern wind, hot and dry, and renowned for driving the residents of Tarifa further down the coast road. Best to stay indoors when the Levante blows and whips up the sand and grit.
The third factor is water. The region is bounded by the Guadalquivir River on one side, and the lesser Guadalete on the other, and to the west, the Atlantic. Sanlúcar, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, shows the maritime influence most strongly with its pungent but delicate wines. Jerez finos are bolder, more structured, reflecting the more intense climate and the distance from the sea. El Puerto lies beween the two, geographically and stylistically.
Centuries of change
Winemaking began with the Phoenicians at ‘Xera’. Then came five centuries of prohibition under Islamic rule, dating from 711 AD. In the city then known as ‘Sherish’ grapes were used for raisins, for distillation for perfumes, and for ‘medicinal purposes’, though some wine was consumed. Five centuries later King Alfonso reconquered the city. As it was at the frontier it acquired the name Jerez de la Frontera.
The wine trade with England and the Low Countries prospered. In the late 19th century phylloxera interrupted supply. With the replanting, the diverse range of varieties narrowed to the three that prevail today, mainly Palomino (with some Moscatel and a little Pedro Ximénez, both used for sweet wines).
The next challenge was commercial. Inevitably, perhaps, it came from the British. They fostered the Empire’s imitations: from Cyprus, South Africa, Australia, as well as ‘British Sherry’. It was a number of decades before Sherry was able to defend its right to its own name. Its regulatory body, the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Consejo, is the oldest in Spain, established in 1933. Manzanilla was officially recognised in 1964 with the creation of the Denomination of Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Finally came the long years of decline as drinkers moved to other wines. The vineyard area diminished substantially. Too many wheat fields now stand where once were vineyards.
With the 21st century there is a renewed interest in the dry Sherries. Individuality and artisanship are in demand. Each butt in a solera differs slightly from its neighbour, depending on how close it is to an outside wall or the end of a row. Producers have begun to bottle individual butts. Some have developed seasonal bottlings en rama; others aged wines that are practically amontillados.
In the glory days of Sherry production, there was no need to provide limited editions. Today, the need to find new consumers is uncovering treasures.
Meaning ‘raw’; en rama Sherry is taken directly from the butt and bottled ‘unfiltered’. The result is a richer colour and flavour, as if tasted in the cellar itself. Currently there are no regulations about what en rama means; most producers actually filter out the largest particles.
Even the aromatically delicate Finos and Manzanillas can be kept for 12 to 18 months. Some aged Finos can develop further in the bottle. Once opened, recork the bottle and store it in the fridge for up to a week.