Understanding Sherry Wine

Karen Frazier
Glasses of different sherry wines

Sherry (Jerez in Spanish) is a fortified white wine made from the Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximénez grapes in Spain. Sherry wines are made from grapes grown in the region near Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía, which is in Southern Spain. While sweet Sherry has gained a foothold in the United States as a popular quaff, it's not the only type of Sherry available; the wines can very from very dry to very sweet, and from simple to complex.

Sherry From Spain Versus the Rest of the World

True Sherry is produced in Andalucía, Spain, and any Spanish wine labeled as "Sherry" must come from this region. However, Sherry wine is often imitated by wine producers from the rest of the world, so many wine producers throughout the world have created pale imitations of Spanish Sherry. These wines are often fortified and sweet cheap wines with little resemblance to the true Sherry masterpieces that come from Spain. When purchasing Sherry, check the label carefully to see where the wine is produced and bottled; if it's not from Spain, it's not true Sherry.

How Sherry Is Made

Production of Sherry depends on the type/classification of the wine. However, a general process follows. All Sherry wine begins its life as white wine grapes. The three varieties used in Sherry include:

  • Palomino Fino
  • Pedro Ximénez
  • Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria)

After harvest, the grapes are pressed, and the juice is expelled. For sweeter Sherry wines, the grapes may be left outside in the sun to naturally dehydrate and concentrate sugars and flavors slightly before pressing.

Sherry Fermentation

Next, the grape juice is transferred to stainless steel vats heated to 73°F to 77°F (23° to 25°C) where fermentation begins. Some winemakers add a small amount of a fermenting must called pie de cuba to assist with fermentation. Depending on how dry the winemaker wishes the final product to be, fermentation may occur until nearly all residual sugars are turned into alcohol, or they may stop fermentation early for sweeter Sherries.

Fortification

After the wine has finished fermentation, the Sherry is fortified by adding neutral grape spirits to create the final level of alcohol content (anywhere from 15 to 22 percent depending on how the Sherry will be classified).

Solera Aging

Now, the Sherry is transferred to a solera system. A solera system is a series of oak barrels lined in groups called criaderas containing Sherry blends of different ages. During blending, as some older Sherry is taken from one barrel, newer Sherry is added to what remains in the barrel in a hierarchical manner, creating a blend of Sherries of different ages. This rounds out flavors and provides balance to the finished product.

Solera system graphic

Bottling

Finally, the Sherry is ready to be bottled. It is usually filtered, blended, and, in some cases, an additional fortification may occur here to create the appropriate alcohol by volume (15.5 to 22 percent ABV). Then it is bottled and distributed.

Crystal sherry decanter

Types of Sherry

Sherry has several classifications based on differences in the winemaking process.

Fino

Fino Sherry comes from the Palomino Fino grape grown in Jerez and Xéres. It is biologically aged; that is, the must (fermenting grape juice) is aged in unsealed wood barrels under a cap of yeasts called flor. These yeasts keep oxygen from reaching the must as it ages. This imparts salty and yeasty (think bready) flavor profiles. Aging in these barrels must be at least two years, but five to seven years is more typical.

  • Once in the solera system, a fino may be moved into new barrels a few times per year.
  • Fino Sherry is very dry, usually residual sugar is less than 5 grams per liter.
  • ABV is 15 to 16 percent.
  • Flavors include almonds and toast with small amounts of fruits in the younger Fino Sherries.
  • Serve chilled at a temperature of around 40°F (4°C) to 48°F (9°C).
  • This Sherry pairs well with light flavored cheeses, olives, and tapas.

Manzanilla

Manzanilla uses the same type of grapes and process as Fino, but it comes from grapes grown near Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Cooler seaside temperatures here produce thicker layers of flor, which affect the flavors of the finished Sherry.

  • Once in the solera system, a Manzanilla may be moved every few months.
  • The resulting Sherry is very dry but lighter than a Fino.
  • Color is pale straw.
  • ABV is 15 to 16 percent.
  • Flavors are fresh, acidic, light, and salty, with roasted nut flavors and often chamomile flavors or aromas.
  • Serve chilled at a temperature of around 40°F (4°C) to 48°F (9°C).
  • Manzanilla Sherry pairs well with seafood, sushi, and smoked fish.

Amontillado

Like Fino and Manzanilla, Amontillado (made from Palomino Fino) begins aging under flor, but continues aging as the flor begins to die off and fade (or is intentionally made to do so). This leaves the Sherry partially exposed to oxygen, which further enhances the flavors of the wine.

  • Amontillado is naturally dry. If it is sweetened, it needs to be labeled as Cream Sherry or Medium Sherry.
  • Amontillado is darker in color than Fino or Manzanilla.
  • ABV is 16 to 22 percent.
  • Flavors tend to be richer and more savory and lacking the fresher flavors of Fino or Manzanilla. Expect roasted nuts, tobacco, and toasty notes from oak with light bready notes from the yeast.
  • Serve at around 54°F (12°C).
  • Pair Amontillado with mushrooms, organ meats, paté, game meats, duck, and smoked game.

Oloroso

Oloroso, made from Palomino Fino grapes may be aged in sealed casks or steel vats, and no flor is present in the aging process.

  • Oloroso is naturally dry, but the body of the wine gives the impression of being sweeter than its counterparts. However, it is then sweetened slightly before it is matured again, so the wine may be dry or slightly sweet.
  • ABV is 17 to 22 percent.
  • This rich wine is deeper in color due to oxidation, and it has a fuller body than Fino or Amontillado. It may range from amber to mahogany in color.
  • It is a complex wine with a nutty flavor; think walnuts. It may also have deeper flavors of leather and balsamic vinegar.
  • Serve at a temperature range of 54°F to 58°F (12°C to 14°C).
  • Pair Oloroso with charcuterie, aged cheeses, roasted mushrooms, or steak.
Woman holding a glass of sherry

Palo Cortado

Palo Cortado has characteristics of both Amontillado and Oloroso, and it's made from Palomino Fino grapes. While it is sometimes aged under flor for up to three years, it may also be aged in sealed wood casks.

  • Palo Cortado is rarer than other Sherries because producers don't set out to make it; it occurs during the Sherry making process.
  • It has the aromas of Amontillado but is more full-bodied in mouthfeel like an Oloroso.
  • ABV is 17 to 22 percent.
  • The flavors are complex in this dry Sherry. You may notice notes of orange, spice, and toasted walnuts.
  • Serve at about 58°F (14°C).
  • Food pairings are similar to Amontillado. Try it with roasted vegetables, game stews, or cheddar cheese.

Pedro Ximénez (PX)

Pedro Ximénez Sherries are made from the Pedro Ximénez grape, which is naturally sweet and produces a sweet Sherry.

  • Pedro Ximénez Sherry is sweet with residual sugar ranging anywhere from 212 grams per liter to 400 grams per liter.

  • Because of the acidity of the grape, the sweetness is well-balanced.

  • The wines are deep brown and syrupy.

  • Flavors include raisins and figs along with aromas of spices like nutmeg as well as hints of smoke.

  • Serve at a temperature range of 54°F to 58°F (12°C to 14°C).

  • Drink as a dessert by itself, or serve with foie gras, sticky toffee pudding, chocolate mousse, or tiramisu.

Medium and Cream Sherry

Medium and cream Sherry can be produced from any of the other types of Sherry listed above, but they are either half-sweet (medium) or very sweet (cream).

  • ABV is 15 to 22 percent.
  • Medium Sherry is 5 to 115 grams of residual sugar per liter and is often made from Amontillado.
  • Pale cream Sherry contains between 45 and 115 grams of residual sugar per liter and is made from Fino or Manzanilla.
  • Cream Sherry contains between 115 and 140 grams of residual sugar per liter, usually containing Oloroso, often with Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez blended in for more sweetness.
  • Color varies.
  • Flavor varies depending on which Sherry is used to produce it; the sherries tend to be quite sweet and syrupy with flavors of dried fruits.
  • Serve at around 50°F to 54°F (10°C to 12°C).
  • Serve as a dessert by itself or pair with ice cream (use it as a topping).

Sherry Wine Brands

Consider the following brands of Sherry so you know you are getting an authentic Spanish Sherry instead of an international imitator.

Tio Pepe (González Byass)

Tio Pepe is probably the best-known brand of Fino Sherry on the market. You'll find Tio Pepe for around $25 per 750 mL bottle, and it's often available in grocery stores as well.

Barbadillo Solear

Barbadillo Solear is a well-known brand of Manzanilla Sherry. Wine Spectator rated it 90 points, and you'll find it for a price of around $15 for a 375 mL bottle.

Napolean Hidalgo

Napolean Hidalgo Amontillado Sherry that is well known and well received (it gets an aggregate critics' ratings of 90 points), and you can find it for $15 to $20 per 750 mL bottle.

Lustau

Lustau makes a range of Sherries, including a well-received Palo Cortado that receives an aggregate critics' rating of 90 points and costs around $22 per bottle and a Pedro Ximinez Sherry that has an aggregate rating of 91 points and the price is around $24 per bottle.

wine and snack

Cooking With Sherry

For best results, use a dry Sherry (Fino is your best bet) unless a recipe specifies otherwise. Avoid cooking Sherry, which is usually not very tasty, and it contains salt, which can leave recipes over salted. In cooking with Sherry, as with cooking with any other wine, if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it.

Substitutes for Sherry

For dry sherry, you can substitute any dry white wine or apple cider vinegar. If the recipe calls for sweeter Sherry, you can substitute Madeira. Tawny Port is another acceptable substitute because it is made in a manner similar to Sherry (it uses a solera system) in Portugal and has flavors similar to sweeter Sherries.

Other Things to Know About Sherry

Whether you drink with Sherry or cook with it, it's a great wine to try. If you're new to Sherry, keep the following in mind:

  • Store Sherry as you would other wines; keep the wine away from vibration, bright light, and large temperature fluctuations.
  • Check on the individual Sherry to see if you can hold it for a long time. Typically, Sherry doesn't benefit from aging in the bottle, so unless otherwise indicated, it should be used within a year or so of the purchase date.
  • Store Sherry in an upright position (not on its side).
  • After opening, re-seal and refrigerate the Sherry. Dry Sherry will only two to three days in the fridge, while sweeter Sherry may last a few weeks to a few months.

Give Sherry a Try

If you like wine, you'll find a variety of styles and flavors in Sherry just as you would with any other wine. This Spanish wine is great for cooking, sipping, or even for dessert. There's a style that will suit every palate.

Understanding Sherry Wine