Cross-posted at the Scotch Blog - an excellent resource for Whisky imbibers.
Sherry is one of the wine world's most undervalued creations. Sherry's history alone could fill up a War and Peace-sized volume. Additionally, the production of Sherry, and its numerous styles, is complex enough to add a second volume to Sherry's tome. When confronted by Sherry & its vocabulary, many modern wine drinkers become dazed & confused by terms like flor, fino, olorosa, criadera and solera. It's easier to walk on by. However, a little time investment in understanding Sherry, will open up an entirely new world of wine scents and flavors. Allow me to present Sherry in a user friendly, 3-part format. Who knows, you may experience the sudden urge to grab a bottle and whip up a few tapas. It could happen.
Part 1: Make Sherry, Not War
Sherry is produced within a 3-town triangle in the southern Spanish community of Andalusia. By far, the key town in the history of Sherry is Jerez de la Frontera (Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda being the other two towns). Jerez has been home to a who's who of civilizations. Evidence suggests Jerez may have been founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. These ancient folk were succeeded by the Carthignians, who were in turn kicked out by the Romans. The Romans called Jerez, "Certium." Alas, the Romans were squeezed out in the first century AD by Vandals, who, in turn, were forced to vacate by the Visigoths. Then came the epic battles between Islamic Moors and Christian re-conquestors. Amazingly, during these centuries of successive occupation and frequent war, wine production continued in Jerez. By the 15th Century, Jerez and its satellite towns began exporting wine to both England and France. In fact, many British merchants moved into the Sherry region to take advantage of this rapidly growing wine trade.
After one Chris Columbus sailed the ocean blue, transatlantic trade of wine from Sherry began in earnest. It is quite possible that the first European wine to be drunk in North America was from Jerez. However, the Sherry trade wasn't immune to the vagaries of culture and politics. A number of wars between France, England and Spain caused Sherry production and trade to be fairly uneven (depending on whom was fighting whom). Then, in the 1800's, the Sherry industry experienced an invasion of the Sherry snatchers. Bogus "Sherry" produced in Australia, Germany, France and South Africa hit the marketplace. Even though many of these impostor beverages weren't even wine - German "Sherry," for example, was potato-based - Sherry prices dropped through the cellar. To add insult to injury, Victorian society in England shied away from Sherry, as rumors abounded that this wine was hazardous to one's health.
Ironically, Sherry was saved from certain extinction at the end of the 19th century by the phylloxera-fueled plague, which swept across Europe's vineyards. Phylloxera effectively destroyed the vineyards of the Jerez region. Thus, only a few Sherry producers survived long enough to stay in business while vineyards were replanted with resistant vines. This Sherry-scarce time period fueled demand for wine from Jerez. Had it not been for a couple of World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and problems with monopolies, Sherry producers would have been in the clear...(/sarcasm).
The state of the Sherry triangle today is one of reduced vineyard acreage (less than half of 1970's vineyard area), alternate crops (vines now share space with cereal grains) and depressed demand. The remaining Sherry houses are currently battling consumer indifference along with global wine competition. One bright spot in all of this is that Sherry has become incredibly affordable, and quality has never been better. As a wine experimenter, once you learn about Sherry, you'll be able to dive right in and sample all that Jerez has to offer, without busting the bank.
Stay tuned for Part 2: "Waiter! There's a Hundred Year-Old Wine in My Sherry." I'll discuss how Sherry is produced and the varieties of grapes used in this wine. I will also describe the major styles of Sherry. If you wish to get a head start on familiarizing yourself with Sherry, try one of these wines: Lustau "Jarana" Fino Sherry ($8, 375ml), Lustau "Los Arcos" Dry Amontillado ($9, 375ml).
(sources: Oxford Wine Companion, emilio-lustau.com, winesfromspain.com)