Sherry has been enjoying a comeback lately, and deservedly so. No longer viewed as the sweet aperitif sipped in lace-curtained drawing rooms, this fortified wine from southern Spain has found a new generation of aficionados. Sherry is made in a number of styles, which vary dramatically from light and dry to lusciously sweet. Here is a brief description of those styles to help you differentiate your finos from your amontillados and explain the intricacies of the solera aging system.
Fino: The lightest style of sherry, finos are bone dry and pale in color with flavors of almonds, biscuits and citrus. Some people describe the taste of sherry as having an oxidative character, but finos actually age under a veil of yeast, called flor, which protects the wine from oxidizing. Their signature flavor comes acetaldehyde, a compound produced during the aging process. The flor also consumes whatever sugar and glycerol remains in the wine, giving finos that extra crisp dryness. Finos are often filtered before bottling, but some producers choose to leave the wine on the lees (dead yeast). These wines are labeled en rama and come closest to what sherry tastes like right out of the barrel. Finos are aged using the solera system (see below) for a minimum of 2 years (4 to 7 years is more common). Do as the Spaniards do and drink them as an aperitif with olives and almonds. They should be consumed young, within six months of bottling if possible, and once opened, should be finished that day. A fino sherry that has been sweetened is called a Pale Cream Sherry.
Manzanilla: These are simply fino sherries that have been aged in Sanlucar de Barrameda, a township southwest of Jerez on the Atlantic coast in southwest Spain. The area’s cool ocean breezes create a thicker flor and a lighter wine with scents of chamomile and the sea.
Amontillado: Wines destined to become amontillados begin their lives as finos, but after a few years the flor dies (either naturally or intentionally by increasing abv to 17.5%). For the rest of the aging process they are exposed to oxygen. The wines are still light in body but because of the oxidative aging, they turn amber in color. Amontillados are bone-dry wines and retain some of their fino flavors but with added hints of hazelnuts and caramel.
Palo Cortado: A bit of a mystery wine in that you can ask 10 people how they’re made and get 10 different answers. As with amontillados they begin life as finos, and then at some point in the aging process their flor mysteriously dies. Even though they retain their fino-like aromas, style-wise they are fuller bodied than amontillados, leaning toward olorosos with their weight.
Oloroso: The only style of dry sherry that does not spend any time under a veil of flor, these wines are made from weightier musts and are a little coarser and much darker in color. Their distinctive oxidative flavors of walnuts, raisins and toffee are a result of aging in barrels that allow for controlled exposure to oxygen. Olorosos are mostly dry, though some can be sweetened with Pedro Ximenez. These are called Cream Sherries.
Pedro Ximenez (PX): Thick and lusciously sweet, these wines taste of raisins, dates, caramel and roasted walnuts. They’re made from Pedro Ximenez grapes that have been dried in the sun before pressing and fermentation. The must is so thick and sugar levels so high, at most the wine reaches 4% abv. The wine is then fortified with grape spirit to around 19% abv.
Moscatel: A sweet style of wine made from dried grapes and tasting of flowers and honey. This accounts for only about 1% of plantings, mainly near the Atlantic town of Chipiona, and is declining.
How Sherry is Aged–The Solera System
Unlike most still wine, you’ll rarely see a vintage indicated on a sherry label since one of the unique characteristics of most sherries is that they are a mix of different years. This blending of vintages is achieved by means of the solera system, which was developed in the mid-1800s as a way to maintain consistency in the wine year after year.
Palomino is the predominant grape variety used for dry sherry, and although it has an affinity for the chalky white albariza soil of the Jerez region, it makes a dull, acidic white wine. Miraculously, however, the wine is transformed during the intricate solera aging process, developing nuance and complexity. Whether destined to become finos or olorosos they all begin their life as dry wines, which are then placed in 600L casks and categorized according to their finesse and weight. Finos, which are made from the lightest pressing of the grapes, are marked with una raya (/) and fortified with the addition of grape spirit to 15% abv. A little air is left in the top of these butts, as they’re called in Spain, allowing the flor to form over the wine. An abv of 15% turns out to be the ideal level of alcohol for flor to thrive; any higher and the flor will die. Coarser wines (and wine from firmer pressings) will become olorosos (marked with dos rayas //) and are fortified to at least 17.5% abv to prevent any flor from forming and then entered into the solera system.
The term solera is derived from suelo, meaning ground or floor in Spanish, and refers to the lowest level of barrels, which used to rest on the floor of the cellars. These barrels contain the oldest average-age wines, and when it comes time for bottling, up to one third of each barrel’s volume is withdrawn (typically it is closer 10 to 15%). The amount removed from each barrel in the bottom level is then replaced by wine from the next level up, and so on until the very top level is filled with new wine. Each level is called a criadera, and the number of criaderas in a system varies by producer. While it’s easier to visualize the criaderas layered one on top of another, with the wine filtering down from level to level, in reality, different criaderas are often stored in different cellars.