About Sherry Part I
„Sherry, seriously undervalued fortified wine from the region around Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia”
The Oxford Companion to Wine (Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding)
El Marco de Jerez is the most historical wine growing region in all of Spain. The neighbouring town Cádiz was founded by the Phoenicians who are thought to have brought wine making to this area. The Catharginians followed, then the Romans. Fast forward to the 15th century. In the years following his discovery of the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed again, once from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and twice from Cádiz. Both ports lie within the Sherry wine region. It was Sanlúcar, situated at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, which became most important for the transatlantic Sherry trade. It is presumed that the wines from Jerez, namely Sherry were actually the first wines to reach the Americas. After all, being a fortified wine, it was able to survive the long journey.
Between the phyloxera, two world wars and mismanagement due to nationalisation the once glorious fame of Sherry declined. A large number of Bodegas changed ownership or simply went under. Today a new generation of producers is at the helm of the industry, with innovative ideas while conserving the treasures the old tradition had produced.
In Jerez Bodegas Tradicion, Rey Fernando de Castilla and El Maestro Sierra are among them. In Sanlúcar the big Barbadillo is experimenting with new wines, while the smaller Gitana-Hidalgo keeps producing solid quality.
An interesting project is Equipo Navajos, two friends and Sherry apasionados who started buying up neglected soleras containing real treasures from several bodegas. They bottled, initially distributing among friends, mostly from the wine business, before attracting more attention resulting in more bottlings of very unique wines.
Climate and Soils
As you can see, Sherry or Xérèz is one of the oldest wines in Europe. But apart from its complex history, it is the terroir, the interaction of geography, soils and climate, which contibutes to making these wines truly unique. While Andalusian inland summer temperatures can easily surpass 40 degrees Celsius, in Jerez de la Frontera they rarely rise beyond 35 degrees. In the coastal towns of El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar de Barrameda the thermometer may not even reach 30 degrees.
The winters are damp and mild, most of the rain falls between October and April. It is only then that the soils can to soak up and store every drop for the dry summer months.
The typical soil of the region is called albariza. It consists of up to 40% of limestone mixed with clay and sand. This mix renders an amazing capacity to store water for a long period of time. Most importantly, it does not compact when drying out in summer, thus letting in oxygen and allowing important microorganisms to survive the arid summer months.
When dry albariza shines a bright white, reflecting the sun rather than absorbing its heat, another vital factor in southern Spain. The picture below was taken in November when some rains have already darkened the soil.
Grape Varietals & Viticulture
Whereas pre-phylloxera many varietals grew in the area, nowadays only three are allowed by the Consejo Regulador for the production of Sherry.
Muscat of Alexandria – mostly for sweetening
Pedro Ximenes – short PX.
In the vineyards modern techniques have led to planting in rows and wire training. Historically there were bush trained vines in a hexagonal pattern. The maximum yield (80hl/ha) is regulated as is the maximum density of vines per hectare (4.100/ha).
As is true for every wine, winemaking starts in the vineyard, where great care is taken to obtain healthy, ripe grapes. Given the climate, here the grapes will always ripen fully.
Traditionally harvest starts on September 8th and it lasts about four weeks. Due to the hot climate the picking will start before sunrise, during the coldest hours of the day. To ensure quick pressing the wineries are situated within the vineyards. The extraction rate of the press is important, the first free running juice is allocated to the best and finest wines (Fino or Manzanilla). Ensuing fermentation for the base wines takes place in these wineries. The intricate process of refining and ageing is done in the bodegas in the towns of the region.
Temperature controlled stainless steel tanks are used for fermentation, especially in the case of Fino and Manzanilla. Also, barrel fermentation is still done by some producers. This adds complexity to the wines which will later be transformed into fragrant Olorosos. Another objective of barrel fermentation is to prime the new barrels for their later use as Sherry is never aged in new barrels.
After or rather during fermentation the subsequent styles of Sherry will be determined, although the winemakers have a pretty clear idea early on and will fortify the base wines accordingly. Fortifying means adding spirits, usually grape spirits to the wines. This will prohibit any further microbiological reactions like fermentation, rendering the wine very stable. In the past this practice was the only measure to protect the wines from spoiling on their long sea voyages, either to England or later overseas.