While traveling in Andalusia, we were excited to try Sherry from its source, Jerez de la Frontera. After all, the hazy memories we have of Porto were very enjoyable. We expected Jerez to provide the same educational excuse to drink and then stagger around on tours of centuries-old store rooms and production facilities before developing splitting headaches.
There is a wine culture in Spain that we loved. Local, small wineries sell varieties out of casks in bodegas with walls covered in bullfighting posters and paintings of flamenco dancers. We even liked the younger generation’s preference for wine cocktails like Tinto Verano (Sprite and red wine) and Sangria.
But Sherry is a form of wine we just didn’t like. It’s the process of making Sherry that kind of ruins it for us. Wine culture prides itself on particular varietals, subtle flavors imbued by the climate, soil, and the casks wines are aged in. Exceptionally fine wines are chosen out of the masses during notable harvest years, giving estates legacies of unique substance and style.
For fermentation and aging, Sherry is placed firstly in unmarked barrels. Giant storehouses hold rows of aging Sherry in a grid system called a Solera. This periodic system moves the Sherry from the youngest upper rows to the bottling row at the bottom. Over a period of 3 years, the upper rows of younger Sherry are filtered down to the bottom barrels creating a homogenized product, consisting of wines from several harvest years.
Consistency and reliable flavor are Sherry’s key attributes, but also it’s downfall. The magic of yearly conditions and harvests in the world of traditional wine making are absent.
Historically, Sherry was a popular wine because its fortification for preservation allowed it to be stored or transported easier. Many of the great sea-faring explorers loaded up on considerable stores of sherry over other wines for their exploration of the growing trade routes. This was a utilitarian wine, made for survivability over flavor.
Sherry comes in 4 basic forms; Fino or dry white, Amontillado, aged under a cap of yeast, Oloroso, a darker, richer sherry and Pedro Ximenez, the sweetest of the sherries.
There is also the popular Harvey’s Bristol Cream which is actually a blend of all the sherries, as if they weren’t blended enough already. Brandy, or “burnt wine” is a distillation of sherry with an alcohol content of 36% to 60%.
With a name like “burnt wine,” and our tendency towards clear liquors like gin or vodka, the brandy samples on our tours did not exactly win us over. Combined with our tour guide’s proud boasts that “consistency is the hallmark of sherry”, we kept comparing the wine to McDonald’s french fries. Sherry can be tasty, but hardly unique or exciting if it is homogeneous.
Maybe there is a little of the wine snob in us.
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