Wine 101: Spain: Sherry

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Taylor. Inspired by the traditions of Jerez, Spain — the Sherry-making that is, not the flamenco dancing — Taylor New York Sherry transports you back to a time when spirits routinely made trips on ships. In fact, in the 1500s, Sherry was the first wine to complete a voyage around the world. Today it makes a fantastic apéritif thanks to its nutty notes and dry finish. Throw in some ice and a little bit of seltzer and you have yourself a perfect drink.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” host Keith Beavers breaks down the sherry wine style and its various names, as well as some geography and a bit of history. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I just found out that strawberries are not berries. They stem from a single ovary flower. Is that where the straw comes from? I’m so confused.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair podcasting network, this is the “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers, and I’m the tastings director of VinePair. OK, we’re going to get a little complicated today. Have you ever heard of sherry? Do you like sherry? Do you know nothing about sherry? Is it annoying that sherry exists and you don’t know enough about it? Let’s break it down. It’s confusing. We’ve spent the last two episodes in northern Spain, some wild geology, some cool wine, some varieties we may have just learned about, but today we’re going to the absolute extreme south of Spain, to the hottest part of Spain, where something very, very, very special in the nature of wine happens naturally.

This product has gone through so much drama and turmoil throughout history that today, it’s on our market, but the true examples of it are often overshadowed by large commercial-style examples of it. I’m talking about sherry, S-H-E-R-R-Y. That one word is loaded as hell. Let’s get into it. First, I want to say something about these wines. When we’re talking about sherry, we’re talking about port, or next week when we’re talking about Madeira. These are wines that were popular at a time when trade and commerce was done internationally on ships, and wines that were not fortified did not last the trip. And so these wines were very popular during that time.

In the modern era, there is so much wine out there that these wines are not — I don’t want to say not as popular because people just love them, but they’re just not as prevalent on our market. The true expressions of them are sometimes a little more difficult to find. And also because of the way these wines are made, they are somewhat of an acquired taste because when you’re drinking wines that are made in these ways, you’re not drinking your typical dessert wine, you’re not drinking your typical dry wine, you’re not drinking your typical any wine.

This is a style in and of itself — the fortified wine style. This particular category, sherry, is very — I should say particular because what I’m about to tell you is wild. This is like nature doing cool stuff and humans are just like, “Oh wow, look at that.” Then making something out of it. Just like the crazy climate of Champagne, they have high-acid grapes that they make great sparkling wine out of or the Sauternes region where they get Botrytis cinerea — noble rot — but they make great wine out of it, or in the Muscadet region where they have very neutral white wines that they age on lees and make something awesome out of it, or whether it’s the Vin Jaune of Jura where they have their own film-forming yeast. We’re going to talk about film-forming yeast a lot today. This is another place that took this “nature just happening” and turned it into an industry. It’s awesome.

All the way down in the southern part of Spain, there is a province called Andalusia. It takes up the majority of the southern part of the country and almost its entire southern coastline. Andalusia has about eight provinces in it. Andalusia is one of the autonomous regions of Spain. In Andalusia, there are five wine appellations. Towards the east on the coast, you have something called Malaga. Then, just north of Malaga, in the hinterland of Andalusia, you have Montilla or Montilla-Moriles. Then heading west towards Portugal on the coast you have Jerez de la Frontera. Then you have Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and then you have Condado de Huelva, then you just hit the Portuguese border.

Of those five wine-producing areas, it is Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda that we’re going to focus on because that’s what the majority of what we’re going to see on the American market. As far as history goes, that would take an entire podcast just to talk about the history of this place. When we’re looking at the history here, this is in the southern part of Spain. Just south of Jerez de Frontera, Jerez is the name of a town — the port town of Cádiz. This is one of the most important port towns in the world. It’s one of the port towns where a lot of people made it to the new world, specifically South America.

It was a holding area for that — so were other places — but it was a big port town. From the Phoenicians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Moors. It’s been occupied by a lot of people, a lot of cultures, and a lot of ruling parties or whatever. It was the first place in Spain that phylloxera hit. It’s a rollercoaster ride. Reading the history of Sherry and this part of the world, you get dizzy. We’re not going to get fully into it because no matter what happened in the past, what’s happening right now is what you need to understand if you want to get into this product — this style of wine. I say that because this style of wine needs some explanation.

The word “sherry” is an English corruption of the town of Jerez and the French called this drink xeres. I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing it correctly, but it’s X-E-R-E-S, so sherry, xeres, it all comes together as just sherry. In Andalusia, they call it vinos de Jerez. Also, the reason why Jerez is called Jerez de Frontera is that at one time it was known as the frontier between Christian and Moorish cultures. There’s a lot here. Let’s get into the wine because the nature part is so fun. Like a lot of wine regions in history, this place grew multiple varieties, and phylloxera hit. It destroyed everything in the wine industry there, almost. Then they had to rebuild.

When they rebuilt, instead of having all the varieties all over again, they just went with three. There are a few outliers like there usually are but these three varieties are the primary-authorized varieties with one being the majority. You have Palomino, you have Pedro Ximenez, and you have Muscat d’Alexandrie. Palomino — the white wine grape Palomino — takes up about 95 percent of land under vine. After that, you have the Muscato or the Muscat d’Alexandrie which takes up only about 3 percent. From what I’ve read, Pedro Ximenez, this variety is less than 300 acres. I think it’s 250 acres in Andalusia.

This is how it breaks down. There are two main wine styles in this place across these five appellations. It’s either going to be fino, which means “dry” in Spanish or it’s going to be oloroso which means “scented” in Spanish. What they do here is harvest their grapes. They make wine from these grapes, fermenting them these days in stainless steel, but back in the day, and some purists today, in barrels. Then they take that wine and pour it into what is called a solera system. The solera system is very unique. We talked about this in the Jura episode, but the solera system is a system that is set up where you have these barrels that are called butts. If you line barrels up against the wall, let’s say. That line of barrels is called a criadera and you have stacks of criadera, which are lines of these barrels, and they’re all interconnected. When you pour wine to the top, it all goes to the bottom. The bottom criadera has the oldest wine in it and every year they top it up with the new harvest’s wine. What is going on here? We have all these interconnected barrels with really old wine in them. Well, how is it all surviving?

Well, it just so happens that in this place there is a native yeast they called flor, F-L-O-R, or flor. This is a film-producing yeast. We talked about this in the Jura episode, and I mentioned I would talk about it here because flor is a much stronger film-forming yeast.

This yeast, like all yeast, it’s in the air, it’s in the area, it’s in the wineries, it’s in the vineyards. You can also buy it at the yeast store if you need to. But what they do is when they fill out these barrels — these butts — they only fill them up about five-sixths of the way because this is the thing about flor … What happens is flor acts on any yeast, but at some point when it gets exhausted, instead of just turning into a lee or just dying, it pivots, alternates, and starts feeding off oxygen and alcohol instead of just oxygen. When it does this, it starts to form these little pods that look like a film and this film goes over the wine until the wine stops, basically to the edge of the barrel, and this is flor. This yeast — it sits there and it protects the wine from being oxidized. It’s crazy. It feeds off oxygen while protecting the wine from oxygen while imparting changes to the wine based on its interaction with the yeast.

When you draw wine from the bottom criadera off of a flor-based, or a wine aging under flor, what you have is what’s called a pale dry sherry, or a fino. Depending on which wine appellation you’re in Andalusia, the word “fino” or the wine style of fino has different names and this is why things can get a little confusing. In Sanlúcar de Barrameda they call it manzanilla and this is one of the fino sherries you’re going to see a lot of on the American market. In Jerez, they call it fino. In Montilla-Moriles they call it Montilla. Let’s say you’re aging your wine in these barrels and the flor has developed, and it’s just sitting there. This is nature so nothing’s ever guaranteed, and sometimes the flor starts to die or starts to weaken to the point where oxygen can get into the wine. Where Fino is very salty with high acid, and clean, when the flor starts to be compromised and oxygen is allowed to be exposed, that fino starts to darken, and starts to change. It stays really dry but it starts to get a little nuttier. It’s a different style now. It’s called amontillado.

Amontillado is a word used to describe the wines that are made in Montilla or maybe were. It’s just a cool reference to another wine appellation. It’s essentially aged fino because of this flor yeast — I might be wrong here — I think of it as a sourdough starter where you have to keep this thing alive. If flor was left on its own, it would do the same thing as any yeast. It would eat as much as it could, then it would just be inert or die. What they have to do is keep topping this up every harvest to keep this yeast going, and this flor can survive up to 10 years — up to a decade in a solera. That’s how the fino style is made. In different places, it’s called different things, but it is a fino sherry. As a wine, there is about 11 percent to 12 percent alcohol, and they are fortified to between 15 percent and 15.5 percent alcohol.

The thing about flor is that it can’t survive over 16 percent alcohol. When the fino is being made, they’re always maintaining a lower alcohol percentage, but the oloroso, or “scented” sherries — these wines are fortified to about 18 percent alcohol so they are not aged under flor. They’re exposed to more air. They start to decrease and evaporate a little bit and get more and more concentrated and darker and nuttier and browner and more amber, and the alcohol starts to strengthen a little bit, and it’s still dry. But again, it has this dark, nutty caramel thing. The thing is, sherries are dry — they’re very dry on the palate. They’re salty dry because flor also produces acetaldehyde which is an acid that will eventually turn wine into vinegar. Every wine has acetaldehyde. If a high-acid white wine grape is already being made into a wine that has acetaldehyde and the flor produces it, you have even more acid, so you have this very high acid, very sharp wine, but it’s still scented and it has this nuttiness to it. They’re bizarre nature things.

There’s even a style called Palo Cortado, which means “stick cut” or “cut stick.” I can’t remember which one, but Palo Cortado is even crazier because as a fino is aging under flor — well, while that’s happening, when someone pulls from the bottom and tops off from the top, this is called running the scales — you’re running the scales of the solera. Actually, the drawing of the oldest wine from the bottom is actually called the solera so the criadera are all stacked up and this process is called running the scales. Traditionally, when they were checking on the wines, they would do a white chalk mark on the barrel to indicate that it was Fino. If they found out that the yeast was starting to deteriorate, they would put a cross through that — cut or cross it — to indicate that this was going towards amontillado and ultimately would create something between an amontillado and an oloroso, so they call it Palo Cortado.

Guys, I know this can be pretty confusing stuff, but really all this is wine in a barrel being exposed to oxygen and yeast in different forms to create different styles of fortified wine that are eventually fortified with a grape spirit. It depends on whether it’s under flor or not under flor. If it’s under flor, it’s called a fino but it depends on where you get it from in the five appellations and whether it’s called fino or not, that’s the confusing part, but all is fortified wine.

That was a total crash-and-burn breakdown of sherry. One thing I want to say before we part is there’s a lot of commercial stuff out there. There’s cream, pale cream — there are all these different things. Those are fine. They’re usually added with sweeteners. The Muscat d’Alexandrie grape is often used to sweeten some of these wines. You’re going to see them out there, that’s fine if you want to try them. The true stuff is what I just talked about and if you go out searching for that stuff, you’re really going to get a sense of what sherry is like. When you’re out there, just make sure you’re asking for the right sherry or the sherry that is traditionally made, meaning that it is the flavor, the texture, everything is an absolute effect of its interaction with oxygen and flor. Everything else can be manipulated, colored, and stuff like that. Don’t worry about cream and pale cream yet. Go for the stuff we talked about, and then you can try the other stuff and you’ll realize, “OK, this is the traditional stuff that people fell in love with.” Next week, Madeira, so just get ready.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big old shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

E. & J. Gallo Winery is excited to sponsor this episode of VinePair’s “Wine 101.” Gallo always welcomes new friends to wine with an amazingly wide spectrum of favorites, ranging from everyday to luxury and sparkling wine. (Gallo also makes award-winning spirits, but this is a wine podcast.) Whether you are new to wine or an aficionado, Gallo welcomes you to wine. Visit today to find your next favorite, where shipping is available.