The Many Colors of Sherry

As promised, I’m sharing some information about the various categories of fortified wines that I learned from my last WSET Diploma course. This is meant to help you navigate the labels and terms associated with these wines in hopes you’ll find the one that most appeals to your senses.

I’m starting with Sherry because we were just in Spain near the Sherry region of Jerez. Plus, we also recently traveled throughout South Africa where our hotel rooms were often stocked with a decanter of Sherry accompanied by copita glasses (the traditional glassware for serving Sherry). South Africa was a British colony, and the Brits loved their Sherry so I guess it makes sense it’s a staple here.

It is a somewhat complicated wine because it can be aged biologically, oxidatively or both for many years, and they can range from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Thus, the many colors of Sherry.

The production of all Sherry is unique from other wines as they are aged in a solera system, which is a fractional way of blending wines that allows the producer to maintain consistency and style year after year. Depending on quality they can stay in these solera systems for decades. Some solera systems have been in existence for over 40 years and thus, there is wine from every vintage within the oldest barrels of the solera system.

Most sherry is made from the Palomino grape, which is a relatively neutral grape and provides the ideal base for wines that gain their unique characteristics solely from the aging process. Whether this is done biologically, oxidatively or a combo plays a much greater role in the style of wine than the grape variety.

Biologically aged wines are aged under a layer of flor, which is yeast. This layer covers the wine and protects it from oxidation, which obviously gives the wine aromas and flavors of yeast, like bread dough, but also acetaldehyde. Wines that are aged this way are called Fino Sherry or Manzanilla if produced specifically in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Both these styles are dry, light to medium body and about 15-15.5% abv.

There are some Sherries that start with biologically aging, and are later moved to oxidative aging meaning the flor is removed and the wine is exposed to a controlled amount of oxygen. These wines will therefore possess both notes of yeast and bread dough, as well as some oxidative notes like almonds, walnuts and caramel. These are labeled Amontillado. They are dry with more body than Fino and Manzanilla styles and are approximately 17% abv.

The next dry style of sherry is Oloroso, which is only aged oxidatively, contributing notes of dried fruit, nuts and caramel to the wine. They are fuller body and also about 17% abv.

Lastly, are two categories of Sherry that are always sweet because they are made from grapes left outside to dry once harvested, which concentrates the sugar in the grapes. These are mostly produced from the Pedro Ximénez (PX) grape, but also Moscatel. PX Sherries can be almost syrupy with up to 550g/L of residual sugar and 15-16% abv. They taste like molasses, raisins and licorice. Sherry made with Moscatel grapes will have less sugar and be full body, but less viscous than PX.

Just to make Sherry more confusing,  some are made sweet by adding a sweetening component at the end of aging before it is bottled. Here’s that labeling breakdown:

  • Pale cream: biologically aged Sherries that have been sweetened
  • Medium: Sherries that have been aged both biologically and oxidatively and then sweetened
  • Cream: Sherries only aged oxidatively and then sweetened

The last thing to note is a label that includes VOS (Very Old Sherry) means the wine must be an average of 20 years or more, and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) means the wine has an average of 30 years or more. These are small production and will garner top dollar.

All of these conditions make it a confusing wine to understand, and so it’s no wonder Sherry consumption has been declining over the past several decades. It is said Fino Sherry is delightful with the tapas of Spain and I plan to assess this claim soon since as of yet, I have not found a pairing moment for these wines. Yet, I keep searching, as I do appreciate all wines and believe they all have a time and place to be enjoyed!