Sherry – or How I Met A Mistress!

 

If you have been following things on Vinelives, you will know I have a not-so-hidden interest in sherry.  Ah. Sherry. At risk of repetition, it’s not all Grannies and dare I say “cooking blends”. And this isn’t a prejudice against sweet sherry either. There’s average sweet and, for me, rather bland sickly stuff, which, like lift music, is made to not offend anyone (except me), or there’s proper sweeter sherry that still has some acidity. Not to everyone’s taste but worth a try.  

Despite the decline in sales over the decades, and some well-meant but inevitably failing attempts to “modernise” the drink – trendy ideas about adding lemonade and a slice, or lots of ice and even coke, well……haven’t worked. No.

So it’s a real shame that the fabulous idea of sherry and nibbles, or tapas of course for the purists, is retreating evermore into the distance. Please try it and let us know. info@vinelives.com or on our social media.

I am lucky enough to have been to the home of sherry – Jerez in southern Spain – just opposite the Brexit nightmare of Gibraltar. The first thing you notice is the bright bright sunlight and, in the vineyards, the white even brighter white chalky soil. It looks like pure lumps of chalk. This all reflects heat and light to the grapes. The type of grape grown for sherry is called the white Palimino variety.

Jerez itself is a lovely old town and you can’t avoid sherry advertising, all the many different “Houses” – a few you might recognise (Gonzalez Byass, Tio Pepe etc.) but there are lots of more national or regional names. I was fortunate to meet the then “Mr Byass” in a tapas bar for my work, and he turned to me at one point early on, gestured to a young lady next to him, and said with utter confidence,”….and this is my mistress.”  Oh I see. We are in Spain aren’t we.

The making of the wine is also fascinating. It is, like port, fortified – alcohol is added to bring flavour, power and, as was originally intended, to preserve the original wine. Like port, sherry has great British links from our past wars with France, and the added alcohol kept the wine better for the long trip home. You see, most things are there for a reason.  “Sherry” is an English corruption of Jerez.

Basically, the white grapes are picked, crushed and the juice and yeasts which have been on the skins, remain to start the fermentation process. I’m not clever about the chemistry, and it is very complex, so to oversimplify, the sugars in the juice are changed into alcohol by the yeast.

Now the clever bit is called the “solera system”. As the style of sherry varies so much from year to year, the question must have been asked once upon a time, of how to get consistency (particularly for brands – Harvey’s Bristol Cream say must be the same each time you buy it). So the solera system is a way of putting new wine in the top, letting it mature, and then having a constant blending process that produces the same wine at the end. It works like this: barrels are arranged in rows, one above the other.

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Mature wine is drawn off from the bottom barrels, leaving space (a third or so maximum) for wine from the second row up to be added. This, in turn, means wine from the upper row can be moved into the second row, and so on. So younger wine is put into the top row of barrels, and then drawn off regularly (maybe two or three times a year) and moves into more mature wine to create a consistent blend. So there is some very very old wine in every bottle you buy, in a way, and as the marketing people will no doubt tell you. It is however very time consuming and takes years to establish a consistency – so you can’t make changes quickly if your customers decide they don’t like the style anymore.

It gets even more interesting, as some maturing wine develops a special coating of a yeast called flor over the surface, which seals it and produces wines that will be drier. These are what will become the dry “fino” wines.

 
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(Above) Flor covering the wine and creating even more complex chemical processes of fermentation.

The darker wines, without flor, become the “Amontillado, cream sherries and oloroso” wines. These have more powerful favours.  Look for these names on the labels.  Sweet sherry is usually a dry dark oloroso, with wine made from dried grapes added, to bring that sweetness – or this can be left out to produce a dry oloroso.  A mid-colour sherry is a blended amontillado – often with added sweet wine. You can get dry amontillado which I find nicer, but this is up to you and a matter of personal taste.  

I could go on here, but won’t. This is worth a revisit sometime as there’s lots more to tell.  Suffice it to say, just try a dry sherry (a fino or manzanilla) and compare with a cream or sweet oloroso. Get some nice Spanish ham and a few olives for the dry wine and maybe Christmas cake or a rich pudding for the sweet wine. There, shut your eyes and you could be back in Jerez – without the sun, warmth, shady avenues and bars .……and the mistresses. Maybe we are all safer staying here…… with the sherry.