Sherry 101: A Huge Range of Styles Worth Exploring

Claire Henderson, head of education for Gonzalez Byass, conducted a terrific Sherry 101 session via Zoom this week. Considering the incredible diversity of the sherry universes, she did a fantastic job condensing a ton of information into a digestible hour. In addition to the fundamentals Claire covered, samples of five distinct styles were provided, the reviews for which are included below.

For the unindoctrinated one should not expect sherry to resemble, or be a benchmark for, wine. And given how underappreciated sherry is in the US, following are 5 factoids about this drink:

  • Sherry is a fortified wine from southernmost Spain's region of Jerez way, WAY down there close to Gibraltar.)
  • Serve it chilled and in a wine glass.
  • Only three grape varieties are used in its production: palomino (which accounts for 95% of what's planted,) Pedro Ximenez (aka PX), and moscatel.
  • A bottle of sherry (less so the Fino style) will keep for months in the fridge after opening, as they've already been exposed to oxygen.
  • Any age references for sherry is an average of all the wine in the Solera system (see below.)

Perhaps the most interesting element of sherry production Claire explained how it's aged. First, there are two types of ageing: biological and oxidative. In biological ageing, a layer of yeast is left in contact with the wine as it ages, protecting the wine from oxygen. The opposite happens in oxidative ageing, wherein the wine is deliberately exposed to air. Each process imparts different qualities, and so used in varying proportions in the different styles.

Biological Ageing - Yeast On Top

Perhaps even cooler is that the vast majority of sherry is aged according to the solera system of ageing. Solera is a dynamic system that helps maintain consistency of character from year to year and decade to decade, and which has been in use since the mid-nineteenth century. As illustrated in the diagram below, blending older wines with younger brings freshness from youth, and complexity and structure from the older wines. No more than on third of the wine is permitted to go from criadera to criadera. 

The Solera System

Bottom line: There's a sherry for every palate and this is a portfolio worth exploring. (Prices of the samples below are for 750ml bottles, though all are available in 375ml sizes. In order of driest-to-sweetest.)

NV Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry $19.99/750ml - 91 Points
The nose is decidedly yeasty and nutty, yet clean with elements of almost metallic hard minerals. The palate is light, clean, and bone, bone dry conveying essentially zero fruit. Instead, it’s charms come from its palate-cleansing qualities that border on savory and whet the appetite. Once you abandon the idea that this is a white wine gone horribly wrong, lingering with it becomes a companionable pleasure. Is it any coincidence that I’m hankering for a few slivers of Serrano and a block of Manchego? This could be the new house pre-dinner porch refresher. Aged biologically for an average of 5 years, 15.5% alcohol.

Gonzalez Byass Vina AB Amontillado $24.99/750ml - 91 Points
The color of ambered maple, and with a nose similar to that of the Fino, this Amontillado focuses on all the desirable characteristics of Fino and expands on them. Pronounced roasted nuts and interesting complexity linger on the palate. Aged an average of 12 years partially biologically and part oxidatively, resulting in a 16.5% ABV. Very, very good.

Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso $24.99/750ml 89 Points
Deep honey in color, with long, slow legs moving around the glass with agility. The nose is boozy at first with a strong roasted nuts core and poached pear framing aromas that suggest sweetness. But there's no heavy sugar to weigh this "seco" down. Instead, the palate echoes the aromatics with brilliance, complexity, and efficiency. The resulting impression is akin to an aged tawny port without the residual sugar. Unexpectedly intriguing and very grown-up. Aged for 8 years in an oxidative fashion delivering 18% alcohol. 89 points. 

Harvey’s, The Bristol Cream Solera Sherry $19.99/750ml 91 Points
What a pleasant surprise. Anyone who's had the pleasure of enjoying a sharp tawny port will find much to love in this easy to find, affordable sherry. Sweet and nutty, the caramel, raisin and baking spice flavors offer a comforting hug and a warming blanket of goodness. So sorry not to have discovered this years ago, as this will be one to return to again in the future. A blend of Palomino and PX at 80/20 and aged for 7 years. Bravo. 

Gonzalez Byass PX Pedro Ximénez 'Nectar' Dulce Jerez $24.99/750ml 90 Points
Harvested a week after the other wines for longer hang time in the heat, then laid on straw mats for 10-14 days to dry and dehydrate wherein it loses 40% of its water content causing a concentration of sugars. And it shows. The color of strong coffee and the consistency of olive oil, this is a beast of a dessert sherry. The aromatics are a shadow of what awaits in the glass and do little to brace you for what's to come. Unapologetically rich and sweet, this aptly-named sherry has intense fig and date flavors with faint celery and oak-spice notes on the long, inescapable finish. Hedonistic and very generous. Pair with the darkest chocolate you can find. Made of 100% PX aged for 8 years and bottled thick at 15% ABV.