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Sherry is a Very English Drink

Sherry is a very English drink, despite its Spanish provenance. After a dip in popularity, sales are on the up again.

While reading the tavern bill of the loquacious and bawdy drunkard Sir John Falstaff in ‘Henry IV part 1′, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal lamented, “O monstrous, but one halfpennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack.” In those days, the cost of two gallons of sack, or sherri (sic), was a mere 5s/8d.

Sherry, together with Port and Claret, are still seen as archetypical English wines. Claret sales are relatively stable at the present, and Port is making a steady recovery, although it is still mostly drunk at Christmas. But what of ancient sack?

Sherry comes from the region in southern Spain around the town of Jerez de la Frontera, originally named Xera by the earliest Phoenician settlers who brought vines with them in 1100BC.

Viciously fought over by successive invading Roman, Visigoth and Moorish armies, Jerez’s diverse cultural identity is amply showed in its two millennia of documented winemaking. This tradition, including distillation into spirits for medical use, started to flourish in the 14th and 15th centuries with the first accurately recorded exports, or ‘saca’s’ – the arabic derivation of Sack. But, it was not until the 1800s that both British and Dutch traders set their minds to exploiting the pale dry wines of Jerez, some even basing themselves in the town to make the household brands like Harvey, Croft Osborne and Williams and Humbert.
The superior zone

Most Sherry – 97 per cent, in fact – is made using a somewhat ordinary white grape variety, the Palomino, a relative of the Riesling. The most favoured vine yards are located on soil to the north and west of Jerez, named the Superior Zone, being very rich in chalky calcium carbonate known as Albariza. The distinctive, nearly white soil holds the early season rainfall, enabling the vines to flourish during the searing 40C heat of the summer growing season.

Once harvested, the delicately thin-skinned Palomino is gently squeezed using a pneumatic cushion press, so as not to include the skins, seeds or stems. From this initial pressing, the ‘yema’, comes around 80 per cent of the juice, which is used to make the lightest and most delicate Fino Sherry.
The wine making process

To start the winemaking process, a natural yeast, the ‘pie de cuba’, which occurs locally, is added to the juice. After 45 to 50 days, the juice has fermented into wine, but is not yet Sherry. An initial classification, taken after both rigorous scientific analysis and subjective tasting and perusal by expert winemakers, grades the wine as either a potential Fino, the finest, or as an Oloroso, the most fragrant. Finos are then fortified with grape spirit to 15 degrees of alcohol, whilst the Olorosos are strengthened to 18 degrees alcohol. Both are then place into casks. A year later, another analysis establishes which Finos are thought to have evolved more like an Oloroso, and these are then re-fortified to the higher alcohol level.

It is in the maturing system of ‘solera y criadera’, that the right magic of Sherry really starts. After fortification, each year’s wine is placed on the top level, or ‘criadera’, of barrels in the maturing cellar (‘bodega’). To facilitate this, around 30 per cent of the wine in the bottom layer of barrels, known as the ‘solera’, is removed for bottling. The resulting space is then filled with wine from the next level up, and so on until the new year’s wine can be added to the top level, thereby refilling all the barrels. In this way, a perfect blending system is maintained, and constant quality and supply is balanced.

During this ageing and blending system, a thin layer of ‘flor’, a yeasty veil, covers the surface of the wine in each barrel. ‘Flor’ is peculiar to this region, and helps to impart the complex nutty aromas and clean, crisp bite that is synonymous with Fino Sherry.

Though Sherry fell in popularity after its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, much is now being done to re-establish the clean, fruity, nutty Fino style as a serious competitor in the dry white wine market. With alcohol levels of some oak-aged Chardonnay and Semillon wines now reaching 14.5 per cent, the strength of Fino at 15 per cent is seen to be comparable. Freshly marketed in fashionably sleek, green glass bottles, with sharp informative marking, Tio Pepe looks very similar to other crisp dry white wines on the off licence or supermarket shelf.

It is, but, in the compatibility with food that Fino Sherry comes into its own. It is time for UK wine drinkers to reclaim Sherry for our own. Whether it be a cool, clean glass of Fino with tapas, mixed with tonic water as a long refreshing lunchtime tipple, or even a glass of pure Pedro Ximinez to accompany a chocolate dessert, Sherry deserves to regain its prestigious mantle once again.

This article is currently published on Funkyfogey.com Funkyfogey.com and provides the answers to October 2005 funkyfogey.com/wine/feature.asp Wine Quiz Prize Draw.

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