Its popularity, however, has resembled a seesaw of rise and fall. Its monumental surge in the late 1970s and 80s brought ample attention. But with this attention, it felt visible dents on its quality and image. This led to a consortium of Sherry producers to rally at the EU. The order was to limit the production region and successfully establish a legally protected wine-style in the 90s. Today, Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda form the ‘Sherry Triangle’ in Andalusia. Easily accessible from Seville, Cordoba or Granada, it makes a great a day-trip option
MAKING IN THE VINEYARDS
In winespeak it’s said, let your vines suffer and they’ll yield you the best produce. Vines here suffer way more than any of their other European counterparts. If it weren’t for the ocean winds, Sherry wouldn’t be in production today. The average seasonal temperatures spike up to 40°C in Jerez, rendering viticulture impossible. And the Levante, the strong, dusty, dry, piercingly hot wind of the western Mediterranean Sea and the southern coast of Spain that blows towards the east adds to the problem. At times its wrath is so fierce that viticulturists fear even venturing out into the vineyards. It’s the cool and porous, white chalky Albariza soil, the hardy Palomino grape, and the breezy, soothing, westerly, Poinente winds that counter the heat, and bring some respite.
Harvests begin in early-September, and the grapes are pressed almost immediately to retain freshness and acidity. Usually this is done in different stages; the first pressing produces the best juice, and the last is suited only to being distilled into local brandy. As the fermentation finishes, wines are left to age on lees, and are tasted periodically; at this point, winemakers segregate them for their destined styles. The lighter, elegant ones become Fino, marked with a single slash on the barrels; heavier ones are set aside for Oloroso, bearing two slashes. Finos are fine, dry, yeasty, crisp, and elegant wines that are aged biologically. And, Olorosos are nutty, candied, complex, oaky wines that are matured in the presence of oxygen. All sherries conform to these two basic styles initially, and evolve thereafter.
NATURE TAKES CONTROL
From the first ferment, base wines are blended and shifted to 600-litre American oak butts. They’re filled only up to the 500-litre mark, leaving a chamber of air on top. They are fortified to 15% alcoholic strength with a neutral grape spirit. This creates ambient conditions for a naturally occurring yeast, called flor, to develop, inviting it to reside above the liquids. The flor sits like a blanket between the oxygen chamber and the wine beneath. It protects it from oxidation and adding its own special characteristics. The wine continues its process of ageing and blending in the pyramid-styled solera. Barrels are arranged in a certain hierarchical way, following a simple system of younger wines progressively topping up older wines as they are taken out.
Each top up is called a criadera or nursery – the Spanish expression for raising a child. Each year a proportion of wine from the final stage of the criaderas is extracted and bottled, and the same amount of new wine is added to the system, maintaining freshness and balance. This last stage of the formation, also confusingly called Solera, is the closest to the ground, which in Spanish is called suelo, hence the name.
Since the wines keep moving within the solera, a wine’s age and the vintages contributing to its final blend can only be guessed. This makes it possible to state only an approximate average age of the wine. Interestingly, it can be estimated that some liquid from the solera’s founding year is still present in the system. This makes its contents probably the oldest living liquid in the world! Amongst the oldest soleras still in use are those at Osborne (Capuchino laid down in 1790 and Sibarita in 1792), El Maestro Sierra (1830), Valdespino (1842) and Gonzalez Byass (1847).