Types of Sherry

After bourbon casks, Sherry butts are the most used type of cask used for whisky maturation, though once these casks were far more common. Today Sherry casks are a benchmark in terms of flavor input but what is sherry and how did it enter whisky history?

Sherry a definition

Sherries are Spanish white wines from Andalusia. Most of the production takes place in Jerez de la Frontera in the Cadiz region. These wines are fortified with grape brandy, at 13% or 15.5% for Finos and 18% for Olorosos. There is a variant of sherry, Montilla-Moriles, produced south of Cordoba. These wines are chemically identical but the “Denominación de Origen Protegida” (DOP) recognises Jerez-Xérès-Sherry as one of Spain’s protected wine regions and thus within Europe “Sherry” has a protected designation of origin.

Types of sherry

Fino
Fino sherry is the driest of the sherries, made in the province of Jerez. It undergoes only biological aging under its bacterial flora. It is characterized by a fresh taste and hints of hazelnuts.
Manzanilla
Manzanilla sherry is a fino made in the province of Sanlùcar de Barrameda. The cooler and humid coastal climate allows the bacterial flora to develop better. It is therefore even fresher than fino and much more saline.
Amontillado
Amontillados are sherries whose bacterial flora has disappeared or has been deliberately destroyed during maturation by adding alcohol to give it a second part of aging by air oxidation. It is a heavier and slightly softer sherry than the finos.
Oloroso
The oloroso is the opposite of the finos, while remaining in the category of dry sherries. Indeed, shortly after its setting in barrels, while the bacterial flora is only beginning to develop, it is added a quantity of alcohol allowing it to rise to 18% in order to age only by oxidation. It is much darker than its counterparts and has a lot more character.
Palo Cortado
The Palo Cortado is a special kind in the sherries. Only 1 to 2% of the total production becomes a palo cortado. It is put to age like a fino, but loses its bacterial flora without having to add alcohol beforehand. The wine is fortified up to 18% thereafter and left to age. The result is a sherry with the body and character of Oloroso but also the dry freshness of a fino.
Pedro Ximenez
Pedro Ximenez is the sweetest and smoothest of the sherries. Produced from Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes, it is sweet, often served as a dessert. It is fortified in alcohol before it is put into barrels, in which no air is allowed to enter, in order to age only by oxidation. They usually reach 22% alcohol.

Sherry grape varieties

The sherry is vinified from three different grape varieties, the Palomino fino which is 90% used and gives the wine that nutty taste, the Pedro-Ximenez, sweeter, and the Moscatel which us similar to the PX. The ripe grapes are harvested in September and then left to dry for one or two days in a place called almiar. Then comes the vinification, we will focus on the two categories that concern us for whisky:

Types of sherry maturation

Beyond the grape varietals one of the reasons we have so many different characteristics in sherry casks is because there are two types of sherry maturation both very different from each other.

Biological maturation

The first type of maturation is the biological variety, in the Fino or Manzanilla style. This type of maturation naturally develops a layer of “flor” on the wine while it is in the barrel. Flor is a combination of different yeast strains that develop as a kind of film layer on top of the liquid. Biologically aged sherries tend to be drier, which influences the whisky that is then matured in these casks.

Oxidation maturation

The other type of maturation is oxidation led. This occurs when a controlled amount of air is allowed to oxidize the liquid, this type of aging is famous for developing the fruitcake, toffee, jam and walnut characteristics typically found in sherry cask whiskies.

The dry sherries Palomino Fino

They sherries age with air in the barrel so that the layer of bacteria called flor, which allows the wine to oxidize slowly, develops. The most common types of dry sherries are finos, manzanillas, olorosos and palo cortados.

In December, a first tasting takes place to define the quality of the sherry and to mark it on the barrel. Those most abundant in flor will become finos while those containing less will become olorosos. Grape liquor is then added in order to bring them to the corresponding alcohol concentraion for the style. If the 13.5% of finos and manzanillas allow them to keep their flor and therefore a so-called “organic” aging, the 15% of ascontillados make them lose their flor little by little. The olorosos, on the other hand, undergo an addition of alcohol at an earlier stage of their maturation under flor than the finos in order to leave a minimal impact of the bacteria by removing them, for about 18% alcohol in total. They are then left to age in the solera system.

The sweet sherries Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel.

The sweet sherries, whose most famous denomination is Pedro Ximenez, have a very different winemaking process Their high sugar concentration ensures spontaneous and very slow fermentation. In order to stabilize the microbiological activity in the fermentation of grape must, alcohol is added before placing in barrels. Thus, the wine is stabilized to pass the fall and winter, after which the new wine is racked and further enriched at 18-22 degrees alcohol. The wine is then left to age in American oak barrels, using either the same aging as dry sherry or conventional aging. Almost all of this production is used to produce Pedro Ximenez-type sherry.

Solera aging

After maturation, sherry can be further refined with an by fractional blending process called Solera vatting. The Solera barrels are stacked on several floors, from 3 to 14 depending on the size of the merchant, all containing sherry of identical origin. The lowest casks are the oldest and contain an older sherry. When bottling, about a third of the sherry in the bottom row is taken from the cask. It will be refilled immediately afterwards with part of the contents of the cask above it and so on. The barrel at the top is refilled with the wine of the year. Because the casks are never entirely emptied, there is always going to be a small qunatity of the original liquid retained, meaning that the Sherry taken from the final casks is effectively a blend of wines from many vintages.

History

The history of sherry and its manufacture dates back to antiquity. The Phoenicians were the first to fortify drinks by adding wine to fruit juice in order to limit its aging while creating a drink of great consumption. The Greek merchants were the first to bring out fortified drinks from their native country, and to resell them through their links forged with the various Mediterranean and European nations.

Subsequently in the Roman Empire this drink, which is not yet quite sherry, was further refined. In order to bring out the taste, the Romans boiled the fruit juice in order to maximize its sugar level before adding the wine. This made it sweeter and easier to drink. It was under the Moors, who introduced distillation into the manufacturing process, that sherry was born. Albiet in a slightly different form to today as aging under bacterial flora was excluded at the time. They were therefore the first to add grape alcohol to wine.

Production in Jerez

It was following the invasion of Spain that the process would cross the Mediterranean to become what it is today. It was the Spaniards, and more particularly the region of Jerez and Montilla-Moriles, who improved production and discovered maturation under bacterial flora thanks to their climate more favorable to the development of bacteria.

Sherry & whisky

Which brings us to the beginning of the 16th century in the UK. At that time the bourgeoisie had discovered sherry during their escapades on the continent and had brought back sizeable quantities. It quickly became so popular throughout the country that empty the shipping containers (casks), not worth the cost of shipping home empty, became cheap and plentiful. Scotch whisky makers discovered that their distillate was greatly improved by storage, and maturation within these cheap casks. So much so that this became the nrorm for whisky makers.

The end of sherry casks

In 1981 Spain changed its export regulations, which meant that the use of transport barrels would be illegal, all sherry had to be bottled in Spain. This had a negative impact on the supply of barrels to distilleries, leading to a price increase, which is now 10 times the value of a barrel of bourbon. Bourbon casks are fortunately far more plentiful due to the requirement that bourbon be matured in virgin (unused) american oak casks. The casks once used are sold on far more cheaply.

Sherry cask today

Although distilleries love to talk of sherry casks the image of the solera maturation cask as a house for slowly maturing whisky is mere marketing myth. The sherry casks traditionally sued by the whisky industry were all but exclusively transport casks. As these ceased to exist following the move to bottling in bond two new solutions were devised, three if we consider the industries brief flirtation with paxarette:

  • An industry wide transformation and the adoption of bourbon casks as the new default for maturation
  • The creation of specially seasoned casks for the industry.

Most of the sherry casks used today for whisky today are exclusively created for this purpose. When a new oak barrel is made, it is sent to a sherry cellar to be filled with a sherry like wine. This wine will remain in the barrel for between 6 and 30 months. After the desired time has elapsed, the wine is usually removed and reused in another barrel. The cask has never been used to mature Sherry wines but rather seasoned with a sherry like wine which will then be reused until it is no longer fit to drink, and then discared.

Bottling and conservation

Sherries are generally bottled between 12 and 15 years old, although some are up to 30 years old! This does not mean, however, that they experienced a 30-row transfer. Aging over 15 years is done in the classic way. Like French wine, sherry can be stored to age in the cellar, but only through the oxidation brought about by the porosity of the cork.

Regulation and consumption

In order to prevent stocks from running out or lower quality sherry being offered for sale, the consejo regulador, the authority that regulates the manufacture and sale of sherry, allows only 40% of the total volume of stocks to be sold on the market every year. In accordance with the regulations of the Regulatory Council, and in order not to put wines on the market with less than two years of aging, this quotient must be greater than two. Consequently the average aging time in the solera system that is assigned to a wine is determined by the quotient that results from dividing the total volume of the wine contained in said system by the one represented by the annual extraction of the solera.

100 million liters are sold each year. The biggest consumers are the United Kingdom (29%), Spain (25%) and the Netherlands (16%).

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