On our recent trip to Spain, we did a sherry tasting in Jerez de la Frontera. This Andalusian town is the home of sherry. And indeed, the very name “sherry” stems from this town name of Jerez. Its original Moorish name was Sherish, which only underwent a sound shift much later in Spanish. The spelling became Xerez and then Jerez, and it is meanwhile pronounced “Kherez”. Today, to be classified as sherry, a wine must come from the so-called Sherry Triangle. This is a region between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
Three millennia of wine drinking in Andalusia?
Wine production in the area started as early as 1000 BC with the Phoenicians. However, that doesn’t make for an unbroken history of drinking. During the Moorish rule over Andalucia, wine production experienced a brief interruption. The new sovereigns were Arabic and North African Muslims. So, as Islamic law bans alcohol, the Caliph of Cordoba in the 10th century ordered the destruction of the vineyards. But as Jerez also produced the sweetest raisins, he finally spared more than half of the vineyards. Whether some clandestine wine production continued – who knows? In any case, the Catholic Reconquista in the 13th century made wine legal again.
We had travelled to the Jerez de la Frontera area especially for a sherry tasting, but the bodega tours in English are on offer only once a day. At 2 pm, the Sandeman bodega was the most convenient for us timewise because we did not want to drive after drinking. Moreover, we were already familiar with the Sandeman Label, a black silhouette of a man with a cape and a wide-brimmed hat.
The sherry history of Sandeman
Our guide Lidia starts the tour with a short introduction to the Sandeman Company. The founders of Sandeman were the brothers George and David Sandeman. They started around 1790 in London with an import business for wines. First, they operated from one of the many coffee houses and specialized in wines from Porto (today in Portugal) and Jerez. Only after David left the company, George started to invest his profits directly in the wineries. So, he travelled to Portugal and Spain and got involved in the port wine and sherry production.
George Sandeman, we learn, was a marketing specialist. As one of the first businessmen in Europe he marked his barrels with a company logo to ensure quality. Secondly, he also introduced travelling salesmen who visited potential customers with alcohol samples to persuade them to buy the Sandeman products. In the early years, George Sandeman used a simple logo with his initials, but in 1928 George Massiot Brown designed the famous Sandeman logo. This caped figure, which our guide Lidia calls the black “Don”, shows the company’s roots in Portugal (port wine) and Spain (sherry). The cape, she explains, was a garment that students of the Portuguese university Coimbra used to wear. The Don combines it with a typical Andalusian hat. Sandeman is still, at least partly, a family business, running in the 7th generation.
The bodega – a storehouse for the sherry barrels
Compared to normal wines, sherry production is more complicated involving numerous stages. Thus, the sherry bodega is only the very last stage on a wine’s journey from grape juice to sherry. It is the place where fortified wine is refined and finished – like a graduate school for wines. We enter a large hall with rows of dark sherry barrels. Inside these barrels are the fortified wines, which will only become sherry upon graduation from this hall. “Fortification“ describes the process of adding extra alcohol to white wine. But why would you do that? To get drunk more quickly? Of course, there is a historical reason. Normal wines would often go off during long rough sea journeys, but an alcohol content of around 17% ensured their quality. Accordingly, wine exporters started to fortify their wines, and sherry wines became quite popular in the colonies across the ocean.
However, both the vinification and fortification processes take place at a different Sandeman facility. The fortified wine is then filled into the barrels at the Sandeman sherry bodega. They are arranged on three levels in the so-called solera system. The new wine always starts in the top barrel, and at regular intervals only a part of the wine goes into a barrel on a lower level to make a blend. Eventually, this process ends at the lowest tier. From the bottom barrel, the sherry goes into bottles.
The barrels are made from American oak and can be used for up to 100 years. Even after 100 years of use the sherry makers can still sell them to Whisky distilleries in Scotland or rum distilleries in the Caribbean.
Different varieties of sherry
We have associated sherry with a brown, sweet, sticky drink mostly consumed by elderly women at coffee parties. But now we learn that the sweet variety is actually not the only one, or even typical. Most local sherry drinkers in Spain prefer the white and dry Fino sherry.
For the Fino sherry, the wine makers produce a white wine from Palomino grapes and add alcohol to a total alcohol content not higher than 15%. This fortified wine is then transferred into the oak barrel for natural fermentation. The barrels are not filled to the top so that there is always some air in them. However, a thin layer of natural yeast on the surface, the so-called flor, prevents the Fino from oxidation. It will therefore stay light and fresh.
Oloroso sherry and Amontillado sherry
The slightly sweeter Oloroso sherry is also made largely from the Palomino grape with a bit of Pedro Ximenez. But due to its higher alcohol content (17–18%), no flor layer can form on the surface, thus allowing the oxygen to influence the wine’s aging process. The outcome is a darker, more complex sherry. For the amber-coloured Amontillado sherry, the aging process is a mixture of the two above fermentations. In other words, a period of aging under a flor is followed by fermentation with air.
The sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry
And then there is the very sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry, typically made from the grapes of the same name. The grapes must dry in the sun to get a very high sugar concentration. The Pedro Ximenez sherry is probably the sweetest wine in the world and typically used as a dessert wine or an ingredient for desserts. Nevertheless, it also contains a lot of alcohol – often around 20%. To us it tasted like a stiff grape syrup.
The Sandeman sherry tasting in Jerez
After the visit to the sherry bodega, the sherry museum and a promotional film we finally get to the sherry tasting. We have opted for the standard sherry tasting with three ordinary sherries as well as the premium tasting with four aged sherries. The basic package included a Fino, a Medium Dry and a Medium Sweet Sherry, while the Premium version consisted of Don Fino, Character, Armada and Pedro Ximenez. While we still have to get used to the taste of sherry, we agreed that it really pays to fork out on the aged ones, as they are more complex in taste.
A welcome bonus in the sherry tasting room was the photo opportunity posing as the Sandeman “Don”.
Should you do a sherry tasting in Jerez?
If you like learning about the production processes of food and drink, a visit to a bodega in the Jerez area is a must. However, if you just want to try different sherries you can do this without the tour at some bodegas or in one of the bars in the Jerez Sherry Triangle. We also went to the Osborne bodega in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we just missed the English tour. Osborne offers a tasting set in their shop, as well as a la carte tasting in the attached restaurant. We tried their standard Fino and Oloroso.
How to do a sherry tasting in Jerez
The standard bodega tour in Jerez is in the price range of 12–25 € per person. You get a tour with explanation that lasts between one and two hours and ends with a tasting of at least 3 to 4 sherries. Most bodegas have English tours only once a day, mostly in the morning. Sandeman offered their Spanish/English tour at 2 pm, which was convenient for us. Most bodegas require a reservation, but at Sandeman you can book on spot.
NB: Our visit at Sandeman was not sponsored. We paid the full price for the sherry tasting tour.
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