Sherry is a fortified white wine grown and produced exclusively in a very small region of Spain called Jerez, just outside Cadiz in Southern Andalusia. Unfortunately, because the name was not legally protected until 1996, “Sherry” has become synonymous with sickly, sweet wines from South Africa, California, and Cyprus. Sherry is now defined by law as the English name for the wines of Jerez, and, far from being sweet, most Sherry is among the driest of all wines.
Sherry is made primarily from the Palomino grape and sometimes, for sweet versions, with Pedro Ximenez. The wine is fermented to about 11 percent alcohol, and then blended with brandy to bring it to 15 percent or higher. The four most common styles of Sherry are:
- Fino: This is the palest and driest. Alcohol 15-17. Sugar grams per liter: 0 – 5
- Amontillado: Slightly darker than Fino. Alcohol 16-17%. Sugar g/l: 0 – 5
- Oloroso: Darker, fuller bodied slightly oxidized. Alcohol 17-22%. Sugar g/l: 0 – 5
- Pedro Ximénez: Dark, full-bodied and very sweet. Alcohol 15-22%. Sugar g/l: 212+
After fermentation and the fortification with brandy, the Sherry is aged using the solera system in which the barrels of aging wine are stored in a pyramid style with the oldest on the bottom and newest barrels on top. Wine to be bottled is drawn from one third of the oldest, bottom barrels, which are then topped-up with wine from the layer above and so on, until there is space in the top layer of barrels for the new wine to be added. Consequently, over the years and decades, the wines of various vintages are blended together, which is why a bottle of Sherry never has a vintage year on the label. In some cases, some of the content of the bottle could be more than a hundred years old. Dry Sherry is a popular drink all over Spain, not just in Andalusia, and has been extremely popular in England since long before Shakespeare celebrated it in his plays.
Sherry is the 'Shakespeare' of wines. Both offer the widest variety of styles, from the driest Fino to the sweetest Pedro Ximenez, or the broadest comedy of Bottom to the most sublime tragedy of Lear. They are both unique and have no peers; the solera system is unique to Sherry, and the sheer volume and range of the written word is unique to Shakespeare. Not only does Shakespeare make more than thirty-five direct references to Sherry in his plays, but during his lifetime, Sir Francis Drake “liberated” 2,900 butts of Sherry (2.25 million bottles) from the King of Spain, and brought them home to England. The richness, the range, the historic parallels, will forever unite the Bard of Avon with the sack of Jerez.
Shakespeare’s most famous Sherry drinker, of course, was Sir John Falstaff, who called it “sac” and attributes the bravery and military success of Prince Hal to his consumption of Sherry. He also adds that Sherry produces “excellent wit,” while it “warms the blood.” In conclusion, Sir John avows that if he had a thousand sons, the first thing he would teach them is to reject all small thin wines and to devote themselves to Sherry.
Part of the payment to England’s Poet Laureate, since the time of Shakespeare’s drinking companion, Ben Johnson, has traditionally been a barrel of Sherry. England’s current Poet Laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, was presented with 720 bottles of Sherry in 2012. Sherry is typically drunk as an aperitif before meals.