One of Crossing Vineyards’ most popular wines is a Port called Chocolate Cherry Truffle. Ever since we’ve been producing it, customers often ask:
“What’s the difference between Port and Sherry?”
“What a great question,” we always say. And we answer by making the simplest distinction between the two.
“Both Port and Sherry are fortified wines,” we point out. “Port is produced by adding high alcohol grape spirits to fermenting wine. Port will always be sweet. Sherry, on the other hand, is fermented to dryness. Then the spirits are added. Sherries can range from completely dry, as in a fino sherry, to very sweet, as in a cream sherry.”
That’s the basic answer, but there’s so much more to the sherry story. Though not as popular as it once was, sherry is one of the best-known fortified wines in the world.
There are two basic types of sherry: fino and oloroso. Both are fermented to dryness, but from that point on the process is very different.
Fino sherries are pale in color, light bodied and mature through a process called biological aging. This means a yeast called flor is introduced into the wine. It floats on the surface and multiplies until it forms a thick crust that protects the wines from oxidation and keeps the color light. As the wines matures, the flor creates a chemical called acetaldehyde, which gives sherry its nutty flavor. Fino sherries are also lower in acid and alcohol (about 15%).
Oloroso sherries are fuller-bodied, darker and higher in alcohol. They mature through a process called oxidative aging. This means oxygen is allowed to enter the partially filled barrels they are stored in. These wines are higher in alcohol (about 17-18%) and darker, with aromas of toffee and caramel.
Sherries are aged in a series of barrels known as a solera system. This consists of several groups of butts, which are large American oak barrels. The group which contains the oldest wines is also called a solera. The other groups of butts are called criaderas (means “nurseries” in Spanish).
The first criadera holds the next oldest wine; the second criadera contains the next oldest wine and so on. A complete solera system can contain hundreds or thousands of butts, and a large bodega (winery) may have several solera systems going at the same time.
At least once a year, wine is bottled from the solera with no more than a third of the volume removed. Then, through a process known as “running the scales,” wine is moved from the first criadera to the solera, then from the second criadera to the first criadera and so on. This fractional blending system ensures that the average age of the solera continues to grow.
Whew! Complicated! When you think of how difficult the process of making sherry is, you might expect it to be a lot more expensive. To be honest, sherry is one of the best wine bargains around.
The next time you’re shopping for wine, give sherry a try. If you like drier wines, go for a Palo Cortado, Manzanilla or Amontillado. If sweet is your thing, try the Pale Cream, Cream or Pedro Ximenez. Whichever wine you decide to sample, you’ll be tasting some history.
Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: email@example.com