Thu 15 Oct 2015

Sherry: A Damascene Conversion


David Mitchell, digital insights manager and a keen wine student, is seduced during a special staff tasting here at Society HQ in Stevenage with Beltran Domecq…

‘The most undervalued, dynamic and complex wine I have ever come across’

Our tasting with Beltran Domecq in full swing...

Our tasting with Beltran Domecq in full swing…

To be completely honest, I have always seen sherry either to be mouth-puckeringly dry and bitter or teeth-achingly sweet and only really to gather dust at the back of a sideboard ready for the visit of an aged aunt.

I can now say that after this tasting this cannot be further from the truth!

What have I been missing over all these years!
The tasting started with a general history of sherry and how it has been made for more than 3,000 years; indeed the Romans made mention of it. It was known as ‘Sherry Sack’ in the UK – ‘Sack’ is believed to be a corruption of the Spanish name for drawing the wine from the bottom of the complex solera ageing system.

The soil that the main grape – palomino – is grown in is known as ‘albariza’, which has a high chalk content to help retain the high rainfall in the vineyards for the very hot summers. The palomino grape is used for the dry styles of sherry, whereas Pedro Ximenez (PX) and moscatel grapes are mainly used for the sweeter styles and used in blending.

I found it amazing that so many styles can be made from the palamino grape alone; depending on how the base wine (known as mosto) was aged through the solera system, and how the flor (yeast covering the top of the wine) developed over time.

A layer of flor yeast over ageing sherry

A layer of flor yeast over ageing sherry

The first few sherries that were tried were fino, the driest style. These wines are aged under floating flor yeast, meaning that they develop ‘biological’ flavours rather than oxidative flavours as would usually happen in oak barrels. This gives finos a relatively light character with floral aromas and flavours of green apples, as well as a light nutty character of salted almond.

Manzanilla is a fino, but from around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda: the close proximity to the sea gives a much more pungent and intense flavour than a fino further inland. However, both gave very fresh flavours – great with tapas!

An aged fino was also tried, which had an average of between 6-8 years, and there was a slight increase in some of the oxidative flavours and slightly more woody and oaky notes due to a longer period of time in contact with the oak.

One thing to note is that the older the sherry is aged for, the more concentrated the flavours and alcohol. This is due to the fact that there is a 3-4% reduction in the overall volume of the wine where water evaporates from the oak barrels but retains the alcohol. This means that the alcoholic % increase over time but also brings added complexity.

The next few sherries tried were amontillados. These were selected fino barrels which had lost the flor layer part way through the aging process and were then fortified. Arguably these wines had the best of both worlds: they possess a fresh initial flavour but with the additional complexities of nutty flavours, mainly of hazelnuts. We tried a medium-dry blend which had the initial hit of sweetness much like a port, but then some of the vanilla characters from the oak barrels and a hazelnut finish.

A Palo Cortado was also tried. This is a sherry which was destined to become a fino or amontillado but then loses its protective layer of flor and starts to age as an oloroso (see below) and then fortified to stop the wine spoiling. This doesn’t happen that often, making this style relatively rare. The wine still had notes of fresh apples but with a light oxidative character and was both elegant and full-bodied.

We then tasted some olorosos: sherries which have no flor protection and so age oxidatively. These have a much darker colour and an intense, nutty aroma. You can definitely sense that these are fortified wines: they are much fuller with a much longer finish and have more of a hazelnut flavour rather than almond as found in the fino.

A sherry solera

A sherry solera

A medium-sweet oloroso blend had some additional notes of raisin on the nose; this would be due to part of the blend being made up from the Pedro Ximenez grape to give the additional sweetness. This sherry had an initially sweet hit, much like a port, but then evolves into the characteristic hazelnut flavours of an oloroso with a fantastic long finish. This went down especially well with those present.

A 30-year-old oloroso was fantastically complex with the nutty character, very concentrated flavours and an amazingly long finish. At £21 per bottle, the price worked out on average at 70p per year, considering the whole solera in which the wine was aged would be 40-50 years. This is fantastic value for this level of ageing!

The last sherry we tried was a 30-year-old Pedro Ximenez, one of the sweetest of all wines with intense raisin flavours, along with notes of figs, dates, caramel and fudge. Despite its sweetness and fullness, the wine was still in balance and very enjoyable.

I hope the above shows that that there will be a style of sherry to suit everyone!

In summary…

Types of sherry and their flavours:

Fino sherry is the lightest and freshest tasting with flavours of apples and almonds.
Manzanilla is a more intense version which is fuller in style.

Palo Cortado is the most elegant and intense version of fino-derived styles, with fantastic freshness.

Amontillado has the initial freshness of a fino but also has the added complexity and nutty character of an oloroso – a great ‘best of both’ sherry style.

Oloroso has a more intense nose with added aromatics and colour, and the flavours lean towards hazelnuts rather than almonds with a long finish – a joy to drink and savour.

Pedro Ximenez is very sweet and used in blends to increase the sweetness, on its own it gives flavours of raisins, figs and caramel.

A few other tips…

The longer a sherry is aged for, the more intense and complex it becomes. There is also a slight increase in alcohol due to water evaporation; however, this adds additional flavour concentration.

Treat lighter sherries much like you would a white wine: it should be served chilled and be used within a week or so. Other Sherries such as oloroso will last slightly longer once opened, but should be consumed fairly soon after opening – not stuck in the back of a cupboard!

Sherry is very good value for money considering its long ageing and complex nature, not to mention the joy of trying so many different styles.

• Most importantly, perhaps – treat sherry as a wine! Use a normal wine glass and enjoy the aromatic notes and flavours that develop in the glass.

No other wine give so much complexity and enjoyment for the price – find as many opportunities to enjoy sherry as you can!

Some suggestions to try:
• Light but intense – Alegria Manzanilla (£7.95)
• Still light but with added nutty complexity and a whisper of sweetness – Romate Maribel A Selection of Amontillado Medium Dry (£8.50)
• Slightly sweet but with complex nutty flavours and amazingly long finish – The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Sweet Oloroso Blend (£11.95)

David Mitchell
Digital Insights Manager

Categories : Fortified, Sherry, Spain


  1. Alastair Stoddart says:

    I have been a great fan of Sherry for more years than I would care to mention!
    After a visit to Jerez I fell in love with The Society’s Medium Dry Oloroso.
    My question is did you change your supplier when you moved to screw top bottles?

    I think that you did and I preferred the original!

    Alastair Stoddart

    • Martin Brown says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Mr Stoddart. I’m sorry to hear that you preferred the previous bottling/s – I’ve asked our sherry buyer, Pierre Mansour, about your query and can confirm that we did not change supplier for this wine, merely the closure!
      Martin Brown
      The WineSociety

  2. Tony says:

    Have been enjoying Manzanilla and Palo Cortado for 40 years. Hope this article does not push up prices for a few years.

  3. neil wilson says:

    Wow! – fascinating account – I’ve drunk Fino sherry for years – and sometimes the aged olorosos ……much to the family’s jesting that this marks me as an “oldie”, such is the image of sherry drinkers to the ignorant!

    Incidentally i assume you meant “definitely” rather than “defiantly” in section on tasting some olorosos !?

    • Martin Brown says:

      Thanks for pointing that out, Mr Wilson – duly amended. Very glad you enjoyed the post.
      Martin Brown
      The Wine Society

  4. David Gill says:

    Most interesting – takes me immediately back to the Andalucian sun! Especially the recommendation to take Fino or Manzanilla in a wine glass. Many are the times I have seen these wines consumed with shellfish and indeed other fish species with great gusto. In Andalucía, especially inland, the Wine Society’s oft quoted opinion that sherry is exceedingly good value would receive hearty agreement.
    Re Pedro Jimenez – don’t forget Malaga wines – apart from being a pleasant “bajativo”, they beat Rennies any day for easing the results of over indulgence!

  5. Cheryl McCarthy says:

    We’ve been serious sherry drinkers for many years and have always thought it was sadly under-appreciated in this country. We love a dry amontillado or oloroso in the autumn or winter, while finos and manzanillas are perfect summer drinks. Sadly prices have risen quite a bit in the past few years, although I think they still represent good value for money. And there are still good bargains to be had, especially in Spain (the food hall of the department store chain El Corte Ingles often has a good selection)

  6. steve bierley says:

    Currently in Barcelona and avidly sipping (gulping) La Guita manzanilla. But a word of warning. Many years ago in the same city, with three colleagues, I ordered 4 manzanillas, and went on to extol the virtues of this gorgeous sherry. Ten minutes later a waiter arrived with four pots of chamomile tea!

  7. Tim Middleton says:

    I always used to be a committed sherry drinker, then for some reason lost the habit for a few years. When I started drinking sherry again, two or three years ago, it was a revelation. I immediately understood why I had always liked it. The trouble was, I had taken it for granted. Coming back to it after a break made me realise what a wonderful drink it is, and I have derived great pleasure from trying different sherries from the Society’s list.

    • Tim Middleton says:

      I take slight issue, though, with your description of the Society’s Exhibition Medium Sweet Oloroso Blend as “slightly” sweet. I consider it intensely, indulgently sweet and totally amazing. I have been buying it regularly since I discovered it, and every time I drink it I am bowled over by the complexity of flavours. I have tried it at different temperatures and now always chill it to the same temperature as a dry white wine, which I am sure is not what experts would recommend for such a sweet wine, but for me the sweetness and complexity work perfectly at that temperature.

  8. Chris Garrard says:

    I was employed, enjoyably, by John Harvey & Sons (Harveys of Bristol) during the 1970s and eventually set us a Wine & Spirit merchant (now retired) in the north Lake District for 20 years in the 1980s/90s so I have long enjoyed good sherry and drink it often, particularly Oloroso & Fino.

  9. Bill George says:

    I am so pleased to read this article and the attached comments. I know Mr. Beltran Domecq and he kindly helped me and a group of sherry lovers to explore the sherry triangle earlier this year. Part of the attraction of sherry for me is when I drink it I always think of the skill and know-how that go into its production.

    There is plenty of information on the internet on matching sherry with food but my favourite combination is Pedro Ximenez with Xmas pudding. It equals Port with Colston Bassett blue stilton.

  10. Masud Hoghughi says:

    Perception of complexity is as much a function of the drinker as of the wine. Sherries, by virtue of the process of making them, are more complex than ‘usual’ wines, and more alcoholic. Were it not for this, I would have drunk even more than I have in the past decades. I take the implicit age of the ‘normal’ sherry drinker as a compliment – it does take years of drinking different wines to develop a discerning palate! It is a glorious drink, when even just one elegant glass, at the appropriate temperature, casts a warm light on life. For their variety and impact, they are incomparable value.

  11. Peter Toye says:

    An interesting article, but although the author mentions Oloroso as a dry wine, the only affordable Olorosos in the catalogue are at best “medium dry”. What’s happened to the dry Olorosos that used to be here, and were such a delight in the cold winters? Global warming hasn’t got that far yet!

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