The starting point of any quality wine is in the vineyard and the unique soils of the Jerez region make it ideal for the production of these superb styles. In the winery, the sherry-making process is one of the most complex of any wine but a thoroughly rewarding experience for the producers who have mastered the art.
In the vineyard
In the Jerez (sherry) region, the superb ‘albariza’ soil with its chalky white colour and content is the key to providing the perfect fruit for sherry. It provides excellent drainage while retaining moisture and reducing evaporation after the sun bakes a crust on the top. Over 80% of the vines in the Jerez region are now grown on albariza.
The principal grape variety is Palomino Fino, which thrives on the albariza soil and in the sub-tropical climate. It’s a delicate, thin-skinned variety and is carefully picked by hand. A small percentage of Pedro Ximénez (PX) is also grown, which is often used to sweeten wines.
Each September, the harvest takes place. The Palomino grapes are pressed, with the first 70% of the juice used for Fino and lighter sherry styles, and with the next 20% used for Oloroso and heavier styles. The remainder is sent for distillation. The PX grapes are left to dry in the sun on ‘esparto’ grass mats to concentrate the sugar levels.
Selecting a style
December or January, the base wine will be tested and officially classified as either Fino or Oloroso, the only two styles at this stage. In each barrel a layer of yeast, known as ‘flor’ will have developed on the surface of the wine. Flor has an important effect on the style, and it will only work at certain temperatures. Inland in Jerez, it will only be active in the spring and autumn, while wine maturing in ‘bodegas’ (wineries) in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda will be active all year round, thanks to the more temperate climate.
Fortification is carried out by blending in high-strength alcohol and old wine, with the proportions varying from company to company and depending on the desired style. Fino is typically fortified to 15%, the perfect strength for the flor to survive. Oloroso is fortified to 18-20%, preventing the existence of the flor and allowing oxidation to start.
After fortification, the wine is transferred to barrels and left to mature for about six months. After this time, those with a thicker layer of flor will be destined to become Fino; those with a thinner layer will become Amontillado. Fino that is maturing in Sanlucar will develop a slightly salty tang as a result of its coastal location; this will become Manzanilla.
The secrets of Solera
Continuity of ‘house style’ and consistent quality is achieved through blending, known as the ‘solera system’. Parcels of wine of four different ages, known as ‘criaderas’, are regularly blended to achieve this. Younger wine is blended into older wine, and the finished wine is drawn from the final parcel, which is known as the ‘solera’. This process can take three to five years for Fino and Manzanilla and up to ten years for Amontillado and Oloroso. The finest wines may take 25 years or more. Finally, bottling takes place and the Sherry is ready for sale.