Location: Spain, Andalucia, Cadiz
Grape(s): White- Palomino, Pedro Ximenez, Moscatel
Soil(s): Albariza (white soil, inland), Barros (clay, inland), and Arenas (sand, coastal)
Climate: Maritime, quite hot inland
Ah Sherry, and the wonderful world that is Andalucia. Nestled into the southwest corner of the country between Gibraltar and Portugal, this region boasts its incredible beaches, laid back lifestyle, and of course, the distinctive savory beverage that has been a world favorite for more than 8 centuries. Sherry is a fortified wine made from Palomino grapes that is aged with the help of flor, a native wild yeas that forms on the top of the wine naturally and gives it its distinctive salty/nutty quality. That is the technical definition. What truly makes Sherry incredible, is one part mystery, one part tradition, and the rest is in the unique process by which it comes to be.
Sherry… a fortified wine originating in Southern Spain near the cities of Jerez de la Fronteira and Sanlucar de Barrameida. Probably the most misunderstood and maligned beverage out there today. The age old tradition of blending various barrels over many years makes this such an incredible and versatile style of wine. The depth and complexity of these wines is stunning, especially as they grow older and older. It is the perfect accompaniment to Jamon Serrano, olives, nuts, cheese, hummus, anything with tahini, most eggplant dishes, the list just goes on. Considering the wine is judged and scrutinized from the beginning of its life all the way through bottling, it is no surprise that it shrugs off all of our notions of its’ qualities. For many years all we saw is what we were told to see by the conglomerates who imported wine into the US. Hello 21st century and hello to the world of real Sherry. We bring you the best loosely kept secret of the beverage scene.
First of all, Sherry falls into the same subset of beverages as Port, Madeira, Marsala, Vins Doux Naturels, Mistelles, and a few other more obscure styles. They are all Fortified Wines, meaning that they have had a spirit added to the fermented grape must in order to raise the final alcohol level. This is done for a few reasons, originally it was mostly for transport reasons, but later on it was discovered that fortification is also very beneficial for aging purposes. A historic sidenote: Porto, or Port, was first fortified as a direct response to the treaty of Methuen. Because of continuous British and French conflict, the British Empire signed a peace/trade treaty with Portugal to import their wines into England. This was designed to hurt the French wine industry and limit trade between the two nations. As the wine now had to travel to England from Porto instead of the much closer (and colder) port of Bordeaux, the wines started arriving spoiled. They were then intentionally fortified in order to ensure the wines would arrive intact and drinkable. This practice was then later adopted with Madeira and Sherry.
This part of Andalucia (southern Spain) is hot, very hot. Production of Sherry itself is centered around the triangle of Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. By law, all Sherry must be aged and released from one of these three cities. Aside from the dry heat that can reach 104 degrees on a day to day basis all summer long, the wines of the region are affected by two specific wind patterns. The hot and intense levante wind blows from the east, while the cool and humid poniente wind blows in from the Atlantic. It is the convergence of these two different streams of air that allows flor to grow and flourish. Because Sanlucar de Barrameida is literally on the sea, temperatures here are often 20 degrees cooler than in Jerez, contributing to the different flavor profile of the two styles. The Guadalquivir River serves as another moderating influence to the wines. There are nine towns which are allowed to produce Sherry, but as stated before, all of the maturation and shipping has to be done in Jerez, Sanlucar, or El Puerto de Santa Maria.
Three principal soil types characterize the Jerez region: albariza, barros, and arenas. Albariza is chalky, porous, a bright white color and produces the best Sherry. The moisture-retentive albariza retains water from autumn and winter rains, while the friable soil structure allows vine roots to penetrate deeply in a search for water trapped beneath its baked, impermeable surface during the arid growing season. The more fertile, but harder to cultivate, barros soils have a higher proportion of clay and are prominent in low-lying valleys. The sandy arenas soils are most common in coastal areas.
We arrived at El Maestro Sierra at 10am. This historic bodega has been in existence since 1830, and is generally seen as one of the best boutique producers in the area. We were met by Ana Cabastero, the only female capatista (cellar master) in Jerez. A whirlwind tour around the winery included over 20 barrel samples as Ana demonstrated the variability of each barrel and the daunting task of attempting to categorize them by similar flavor profiles for further blending in the solera process. The solera is scattered across the entire building and there does not seem to be a rhyme or reason in its organization, but Ana knew the details of each barrel we tried. The process outlined in the illustration below is only the sorting process.
The blending is done by hand through a no-frills old school system of pumping out of one barrel into another. We also were able to see the flor in action in a hollowed out barrel.
El Maestro Sierra is even more hands on that other bodegas in the region. It is the only one that still coopers their own barrels. Sherry barrels are continuously evolving and no two have the same flavor profile. It takes a barrel 25 years to achieve its peak in complexity and sherry barrels generally live for at least 50 years. If one develops a crack of a leak, it is always repaired instead of replaced. El Maestro Sierra also labels all of their higher end unique bottlings by hand, a tedious process that ensures their labels cannot be forged or duplicated.
After the tour and barrel samples, we thought we were finished as we headed to a beautiful courtyard behind the main building. This led to perhaps the greatest tasting at a winery I have ever been a part off. We tried the entire line up including the VORS 1/7 Oloroso, my favorite wine of all time. The minimum age of the grapes is 55 years, with some going back 112 years to the beginning of the Solera in 1903. The nutty, rich, powerful, and infinitely complex wine is not even available in the US. The Amontillado Solera dates back even further, with a small percentage of the wine going back all the way to 1830! After such generosity, we definitely brought back some unicorn wines with us to the states.
Our afternoon appointment was at Bodegas Grant, a small family owned winery started in 1847. We met with Edmundo Grant, the seventh generation wine maker at the historic winery. Edmundo is truly a master of his craft. He effortlessly poured us tastes out of barrels using the traditional tool called the venenciadora, a much more difficult task than it seems, without even looking. He and his sons also treated us to a great lunch of fresh fish, fino sherry, and our favorite Amontillado with dessert.
Our last stop was at Bodegas Tradicion, a newer company founded in 1998 with its traditions going back all the way to one of the oldest and most legendary family wineries in Jerez founded in 1650. In 1998, the owner Joaquin RIvero, bought control of some of the oldest and most historic criaderas in Jerez. These were transferred to a single facility and the blending process was able to be restarted. They have some of the largest stocks of VOS (Very Old Rare Sherry) and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) in the region. These wines are particularly rare as for every liter drawn out of them 20, and 30 liters, respectively, must remain. We are proud to carry VORS Palo Cortado, the rarest style of Sherry out there, on a permanent basis.
Reeds Wine List:
NV. Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla, “Fino en Rama”. Unfiltered Fino Sherry. $36, $24 to go (375mL)
NV. Bodegas Tradicion “VORS Palo Cortado”. Minimum 30 year old Palo Cortado Sherry. $197, $146 to go