Ah, sherry. So delicious. So diverse. So misunderstood.
A lot of times people want to jump in, and start talking about sherry in terms of the different styles. We’ll get to that. But the first thing that needs to be discussed — the thing that is the basis for all sherry — is the solera system. Sherry wine (‘Vinos de Jerez’) is believed to have the unique property of taking on the characteristics of older wine when blended. In a solera system, older barrels of wine are topped with young wine to create a consistent flavor profile. It usually takes at least 4 years for wine in the solera system to reach the profile of the house style, at which point it can be bottled.
So, while a lot of the wine produced in the world will change from vintage to vintage depending on the weather and conditions that year, the object of Sherry houses is to create a consistent product from year to year. The solera system not only creates this consistent style, it also allows the wine to take on the benefits of both old and young wine: older wine is refreshed by younger juice, and younger wine gains complexity from blending with the old.
Each barrel in the solera system is a 550 liter butt, but is only filled to 500 liters. This takes us to the next important aspect of sherry: the interplay of the wine, oxygen, and a magical substance called flor. Flor is the layer of yeast that develops on top of sherry in each butt. Although the specifics are complicated and somewhat vague, flor grows nowhere else in the world: there is something about the unique conditions of Jerez and Sanlucar in southern Spain that allow this magical film to develop. Flor gives sherry many of its unique characteristics. That nutty, green apple taste you get in a fino sherry is a direct result of the strains of yeast found in flor.
After 3-5 years on average, sherry butts are assessed. If the flor has stayed strong and resilient and the sherry inside is delicate and unoxidized, this wine is slightly fortified and bottled as fino sherry. This is our first style! Delicate, with green apple and nougat notes (now you know where that comes from!), fino sherry is a wonderful food wine. Drink it chilled, with shellfish, tapas, or some of those hard to pair foods like artichokes and asparagus.
Finos that are made in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda are called manzanilla sherry. Because of the proximity to the sea, these wines are often more briny and salty than finos, as well as a touch more savory and bitter. Drink chilled with some green olives or marcona almonds. Nom nom.
When a butt is assessed and it is NOT fit to become a fino (i.e. the flor is not still intact, and the flavor is a little too broad and robust), the wine remains in the barrel to become a different type of sherry. Barrels that are not destined to be finos will often be coerced into becoming an amontillado. The flor is deliberately compromised, which allows the wine to become oxidized. Aged for 8 years, this style of sherry is still dry, but much darker, more nutty and full. Usually fortified to around 17.5% alcohol, and exposed to oxygen in their aging process, amontillados survive longer after being opened than finos and manzanillas do. Great on its own, amontillado also goes quite well with salty, gamey dishes (think: beef stew, duck, and anything wrapped in bacon).
Palo Cortado is a rare kind of sherry, in which the flor dissipates on its own accord (magically!) part way through the aging process. This makes true Palo Cortados quite expensive, because you never quite know when one is going to turn up.
Oloroso sherries develop in the barrel without any sort of oxidative protection (no flor!). These wines — although naturally dry — are robust and nutty, with lots of dried fruit and toasty flavors. Pedro Ximenez wine can be added to Oloroso sherries to make them sweet. Olorosos can be paired with rich cheeses and terrines, as well as venison, veal, and the like.
Welcome to the wide world of sherry. Enjoy.