Discovering Dry Sherry
Parte Uno: Fino and Oloroso
Britain has enjoyed Sherry since the 14th century and was primarily responsible for its subsequent worldwide popularity through merchant trading. It comes in all sorts of dry (and sweet) versions. This first piece focuses on Discovering Dry Sherry, the Vinos Generosos, Spain’s great gift to the world. Part 1 of this article covers these two styles: Fino and Oloroso.
This article from 2016 has been updated and republished in anticipation of International Sherry Week 2023, which runs from 6-12 November. Recommendations, prices and stockists shown are as at September 2023. While sweet styles are available, this article is about dry styles, given that the sweeter styles are usually created by adding grape must or a little sweet PX after the wine is withdrawn for blending and bottling.
Winegrowing in Jerez predates the Romans. However, from the time of Shakespeare, Sherry became hugely popular in Britain. It was then known as Sack*. However, in late 20th-century Britain, it had become stubbornly unfashionable. A brand image based on cheap, sticky, and sickly sweet wines so beloved by ageing Aunts (more tea, vicar?) lingered on. How many of us have endured compulsory family visits at Christmas, politely sipping a musty sweet sherry with a plate of fondant fancies? At my Aunt Lil’s, desperation would set in early. Her Aspidistra became discreetly used as a spittoon and seemed to thrive on it.
The fashionista tapas bars and restaurants of Barçelona and Madrid have always known better. Dry Sherry is an undervalued wine, and, most importantly, it tastes glorious. Now it’s slowly becoming fashionable again in Britain, partly due to the emergence of some excellent Tapas bars over here and recent rejuvenation amongst producers and the emergence of new players. Another plus is that Sherry is always widely available.
The Sherry region
Sherry must come from a wine region in south-east Spain, near the port of Cádiz, in Andalućia. There are three main towns: Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria, and Jerez de la Frontera. It was Jerez that gave Sherry its name. The name Sherry is restricted to the wines of this DO. Wines from other areas and countries made similarly cannot be called Sherry.
Wine regions usually have ideal conditions for grape growing, but arguably, Sherry doesn’t. While proximity to the sea brings some moderation, further inland, it’s blisteringly hot and dry in summer, the grapes sustained by the water retention ability of the white Albariza soils.
The Palomino white grape best suits these harsh conditions and makes a neutral, dry white wine. It accounts for 95% of the vineyards (there is also a little Moscato and Pedro Ximénez, plus a few remnants of rare grapes that survived phylloxera, namely Beba, Perruno and Vejeriega).
Consequently, the secret of Sherry is how human ingenuity transforms this humble white wine by giving it a very complex maturation process, resulting in two alternative dry wine styles (Fino and Oloroso) that are the basis for all others.
Discovering Fino Sherry
Firstly, the white grapes are fermented out to dryness, creating a base white wine of only about 12% alcohol. They are then fortified with pure spirit to around 14.5% and put into wooden casks, known as butts.
However, these casks are only filled to about 85% of capacity, leaving ample air space above the wine. Under such conditions, a strain of yeast known as flor grows on the surface of the wine. It feeds on nutrients in the wine and, in so doing, adds unique flavours and protects the wine from oxygen in the air. In spring, those casks that have grown the most flor (which by then is an unattractive foaming scum) are then fortified again to 15%. This new alcohol replenishes nutrients and feeds the flor. Eventually, these casks will become Fino sherry, created by the biological action of yeast.
Fino is always the lightest, most delicate and driest style (usually bone-dry), often made from the best base wines. It’s highly aromatic and characterised by salty, apple and almond flavours. Most Fino is between three and seven years old. Fino is best served well-chilled and is brilliant with seafood, grilled fish or gazpacho. There is no better partner for oysters, sardines or mackerel. I like it with asparagus, too. It also makes a brilliant apéritif – olives or anchovies destroy most wines, but not Fino.
Fino En Rama
An exciting recent addition to the Fino style is known as En Rama. Think of it as “raw sherry”. Pioneered by Barbadillo and Gonzales Byass, most Sherry producers now offer this style. It’s as close as possible to a draught sherry in its natural state. These have minimal filtering and clarification, so they can be slightly cloudy but have more flavour intensity. Annual limited releases have now become anticipated events. Drinking these wines within three months is important, as the lack of filtering leaves some of the flor particles in the wine, meaning that they are less stable wines with a shorter shelf-life.
Discovering Oloroso Sherry
The Oloroso Sherry butts have an entirely different destiny. Instead, they are initially fortified to a higher 17% alcohol. This strength means that flor cannot grow. Therefore, the wine in the cask is directly in contact with the air in the barrel, so it starts to oxidise slowly. Eventually, oxygen exposure over many years creates Oloroso sherry.
Oloroso is a more alcoholic drink reliant on oxygen to work its magic and needs at least ten years of ageing. Over this time, the wine concentrates through evaporation, becomes golden, richly textured, and can eventually achieve 20% strength. Indeed, Oloroso is potentially one of the world’s longevous wines and can evolve for over a century.
The aromas are of Walnut and Brazil nuts. These powerful dry wines have nuts, figs, dates and raisins on the palate. You’ll find “age-dated” releases – not a vintage year but rather an average age, for example, at 20 years (VOR) or 30+ years (VORS). Serve slightly chilled; roasted meats, hams or mushrooms work well. A glass with a large piece of Manchego cheese also hits the spot.
Whether the intended style will be Fino or Oloroso, it’s time to introduce the new, unfinished wines to maturation. This uses a unique technology for ageing and blending invented in the nineteenth century – the Solera. The Fino and Oloroso wines start the same but are kept separate in their respective soleras.
It’s easiest to imagine a whole Solera as a collection of connected sherry butts organised into a pyramid, with the casks from each year stacked in rows. The oldest wine is at the bottom of the pile, and the youngest is at the top. Up to 33% of the contents can be drawn off each year to bottle and sell. This is known as the saca, hence Sack. By drawing off and replenishing, Flor can stay alive in a Fino Solera for up to ten years.
Once the bottom row (the solera) has had the oldest wine taken out, these are topped up with younger wine from the next most senior in the row above (the criadera). The process repeats for each row. The top row will now have space for adding the new wine (called the añada). This process of withdrawal and top-up is known as running the scales.
In this way, the wines become fractionally blended, the youngest wines slowly taking on the character of their forbears over time while the older wines become refreshed. This process may take from three years to over one hundred years and is why most sherry is non-vintage. Such blending also means that the wines are consistent because it irons out any differences between individual barrels.
Discovering Dry Sherry Recommendations
Discovering Dry Sherry has never been more exciting. So here are some favourite Fino and Oloroso recommendations to get you going. Most of these are widely available.
Inocente (Valdespino) £11.50 half-bottle (37.5cl) Oxford Wine Company
Tio Pepe (Gonzales Byass) £6.00 half-bottle (37.5cl) Ocado
Tio Pepe En Rama (Gonzales Byass) £15.50 full bottle (75cl) The Wine Society
La Ina (Lustau), £10.50 half-bottle (37.5cl) The Wine Society
La Bota de Fino 115 (Equipo Navajos) £30.50 full-bottle The Fine Wine Company
Alfonso (Gonzales Byass) £12.50 full bottle Underwood Wines
Don Nuño (Emilio Lustau) £17.99 full bottle Hedley Wright
Encontrado 1-5 (Sánchez Romate) £17.50 half bottle The Wine Society
1/14 Oloroso (Bodegas Alonso) £110.00** half bottle The Great Wine Company
In Parte Uno of Discovering Dry Sherry, we met Fino and Oloroso. They start the same, yet two distinctly different styles emerge according to whether they mature with flor or air exposure.
In Parte Dos of Discovering Dry Sherry, we’ll see how Fino and Oloroso can create other dry sherry styles: Amontillado, Manzanilla, Manzanilla Pasada and Palo Cortado.
Consejo Regulador de la DO Jerez Xérès Sherry
Avenida Alvaro Domecq, 2
11402 Jerez de la Frontera (Cádiz)
*”A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes”. Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II.
** Atypically expensive: from only one surviving 600-litre butt of 40-year-old Oloroso.