Jerez-Xérès-Sherry is a DO (Denominación de Origen) in the southernmost autonomía of Andalucía. The DO, which can be abbreviated as “Jerez,” is the home of the fortified wine Sherry.
Jerez sits on the Strait of Gibraltar, which bridges Africa and Europe and acted historically as a critical trading route. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, and Byzantines controlled the region at various points until the Moors came into power in 711. In the ensuing centuries of Moorish rule, Andalucía became a hub of Mediterranean trade, learning, and culture. The city of Jerez de la Frontera became known as “Sherish” in Arabic and is the source of the term “Sherry.”
Moorish culture persisted in Andalucía until the fall of Granada in 1492 when the last remnants of Moorish rule were expelled from Iberia. Eight months later, Columbus set sail from Andalucía to find his ocean route to the East Indies. This event launched a growing market for Spanish wine, especially its fortified wines, which were able to survive long ocean voyages. High demand caused the Jerez bodegas to begin purchasing wine stocks from more distant areas of Andalucía. British firms—Osbourne, Garvey, John Harvey (now Domecq)—arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries to found bodegas, cementing the great Sherry trade between Spain and England that persists to this day.
Sherry was in worldwide demand by the late 1800s, but the arrival of phylloxera in 1894, coupled with a rise in production of imitation Sherry-style wines throughout Europe, curtailed the industry. In 1933, Jerez became one of the first protected Spanish appellations, and Sherry rebounded. By 1979, Jerez was exporting 200 million bottles a year, although the quality wasn’t always consistent. Demand has leveled off in recent years, and successful efforts to reduce vineyard acreage and improve quality have resulted in Sherry being one of the most labor-intensive, artisanal wines in the world.
Note that DO Jerez sits next to DO Manzanilla-Sanlúcar de Barrameda; Sherry produced in this DO is referred to as Manzanilla. Three towns form a “golden triangle” of production, and all Sherry wines must be shipped from one of the three: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
Sherry cannot be discussed without a reference to the rich culture of Andalucía. Because of its location on the Strait of Gibraltar, Andalucía served as a gateway to Africa and became an international meeting ground. Today the region is a cultural mix of Europe, Spain, Africa, and Latin America. Many of the images that are conjured when we think of Spain originated here: bullfighting, flamenco dancing, gypsies, and even tapas.
Classic Jerez cuisine includes lots of fresh seafood, including shellfish and langoustines. Other traditional dishes include oxtail soup, gazpacho, and braised quail, all of which locals drink with a range of Sherries. In fact, dry Sherry is incredibly food-friendly. It pairs brilliantly with some impossible-to-match foods such as olives, pickles, eggs, and asparagus.
Location was instrumental in shaping Andalucía’s wine as well as its culture. Jerez is located within the coastal province of Cádiz, flanked by the Guadalquivir River to the northwest. It is the hottest DO in Spain, and the arid levante wind intensifies the region’s heat, essentially cooking the grapes on the vine during ripening. The humid Atlantic poniente wind alternates with the levante and promotes the growth of flor, a film-forming yeast necessary in the maturation of Sherry.
Three principal soil types characterize the Jerez region: albariza, barros, and arenas. Albariza, a chalky, porous, limestone-rich soil of brilliant white color, produces the best Sherry. The more fertile barros soils have a higher proportion of clay and are prominent in low-lying valleys. The sandy arenas soils are most common in coastal areas and are principally suited for Moscatel grapes.
Sherry is made from the following three grapes, in descending order of importance: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel. Palomino, or Listán, produces characterless table wines but makes excellent Sherry.
Sherry is made by aging wine in a fractional blending method called the solera system. The wines are stored in barrels that are stacked in rows called criaderas, of which each solera has at least three. The new wine of each vintage is entered into the youngest criadera (the top level), whereas the oldest reserve is found on the lowest criadera, which itself is also called a solera. As the most aged wine is pulled off and bottled, new wine is trickled down into older criaderas, so there is an almost poetic continuation in each bodega that dates back to its founding.
Sherry wine is fermented to dryness (the “generoso” style) before it is fortified, unlike Port in which the fermentation is arrested early before all sugar has been converted to alcohol. From this point, the wine may follow several paths of production. Ranging from light and dry to dark and sweet, there is Fino, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, Oloroso, cream, and Pedro Ximénez.
Fino: Fino-style Sherries are fortified to no more than 16% alcohol so that a layer of flor (ambient yeasts) develops, which feeds on remnant alcohol, glycerine, and oxygen and protects the aging wine from becoming oxidized. Fino Sherry is a light, delicate, almond-toned style characterized by a salty tang and a final alcohol content of 15-18%.
Amontillado: As Fino Sherry matures, the flor may gradually disappear. In this case, the Fino begins to age oxidatively, taking on a more robust, hazelnut character and slowly increasing in alcohol. These Sherries are called Amontillados, and the final color and flavor profile lies between that of a Fino and an Oloroso. An Amontillado’s ABV (alcohol by volume) is between 16% and 22%.
Palo Cortado: The rare Palo Cortado develops when a Fino suddenly loses its flor, exposing it to abrupt oxidation (as opposed to an Amontillado, which loses its flor gradually). When a cellarmaster notices this, he draws a hatch through the line originally marking the barrel as a Fino, hence the name “Palo Cortado,” or “Cut Stick.” The resulting wine combines the rich body and color of an Oloroso with the delicate bouquet of a Fino. These Sherries are greatly prized, and only between one and two percent of Sherry naturally become a Palo Cortado.
Oloroso: Oloroso style Sherry is fortified to around 18% ABV so that no flor can develop. The wine is therefore oxidatively aged, picking up notes of caramel, coffee, toffee, and almond. The darker Oloroso, meaning “fragrant,” demonstrates spicy, walnut tones and a smooth mouthfeel. ABV ranges from 17% to 22%.
Cream: A cream Sherry is an Oloroso that has been sweetened by the addition of Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel at the time of bottling. This style of wine is a popular pairing for many desserts, such as biscotti, baklava, and cheese platters.