What is Sherry Wine? Everything You Need to Know

What is Sherry? Sherry wine in glasses
Getty

Formerly one of the most tradition-bound, staid and ignored wines in the world, Sherry is now surging in popularity. Over the last decade, a new generation of drinkers has embraced this fortified wine from Spain’s deep south.

This isn’t the first time Sherry has expanded its reach. The word on Sherry, at least out of Jerez, the capital of Sherry production, has long been that it’s making headway or on the cusp of being the next big thing for global bartenders and wine lovers. But, according to the sommeliers who sell Sherry daily, there’s something different about the enthusiasm for Sherry this time around. 

“We’re seeing an openness to trying different Sherries, especially among customers in their 20s and 30s, and that’s refreshing,” says Gil Avital, formerly the wine director at Tertulia and El Colmado, a pair of Spanish restaurants in New York City. “Still, the majority of our guests need guidance when selecting a Sherry to go with what they’re eating. To really know Sherry, one needs to spend a lot of time tasting the many different styles from the different subregions and producers.”

Your Definitive Guide to Sweet Wines

What is Sherry Wine?

Sherry is made from white wine grapes. Palomino features prominently in dry versions, while sweet versions like cream sherry might include Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel.

Sherries are aged in a unique system called the solera, where barrels of fortified wines sit for years at ambient temperatures. Portions of the wine are periodically removed from the oldest barrels for bottling, with new stocks added to keep the solera going.

Types of Sherry

Types of Sherry barrels
Sherry barres / Courtesy of Bodegas Tio Pepe in Jerez

Made with an array of grapes and different production methods, the Sherry category ranges from bone-dry fino to rich, unctuous cream Sherry. To find top-reviewed bottles of all types of Sherry, visit our Sherry reviews page.

Dry Sherry

Fino

The driest, most saline style of ­Sherry, finos are generally made from high-­acid Palomino grapes grown in chalky white soils called albariza. These tank-­fermented white wines spend their ­entire fortified existence under a blanket of yeast called flor, which protects the wine from oxidation. Finos usually contain 15–16% alcohol, are best served well chilled and are dynamite when paired with salty snacks like peanuts, potato chips, cured olives and fried seafood.

Manzanilla

This flinty style is, in essence, fino made in the coastal town of SanlĂşcar de Barrameda. Like finos, manzanillas incorporate the same winemaking and aging-under-flor techniques, which preserve freshness and promote salinity. Because manzanillas are the lightest of Sherries, they pair exceptionally well with raw seafood.

Amontillado

There’s no guarantee that a flor blanket will hold, and in cases where it doesn’t, amontillado is the result. Amontillados take on a brown hue, due to extended contact with air inside the solera barrels. And rather than the crisp, saline flavors of finos and manzanillas, amontillados deliver oxidized notes of nuttiness, sautéed mushrooms and a richness best described as umami. Usually about 18% abv, they pair perfectly with medium-bodied soups or flavorfully sauced pork, pheasant or rabbit.

Oloroso

Whereas amontillado is a Sherry in which the flor breaks up naturally, an oloroso sees the cellar master intentionally destroy the flor to promote oxidation. Olorosos can be sweet or dry in style, depending on whether the wine includes Moscatel (sweet), or is made strictly from Palomino grapes (dry). Like with amontillado, where the abv is usually around 18–19%, olorosos can withstand decades in barrel, which creates extra richness and complexity.

From Port to Madeira, 11 Ageworthy Fortified Wines to Try

Sweet Sherry

Palo Cortado

The wildcard of Sherry, palo cortado begins its existence under flor, and then loses that cover while tracking toward amontillado. Along the way, however, something mysterious happens, and the wine grows richer and more regal, like oloroso. The name, palo cortado, is derived from a cross traditionally drawn in white chalk on the barrel’s exterior to note that it’s doing its own thing and isn’t amontillado or oloroso. Palo cortado is an elegant, lightly sweet style of Sherry best enjoyed on its own.

Cream Sherry and Pedro Ximénez

Sweet Sherries come in a multitude of forms and quality levels. A basic cream Sherry is more or less an oloroso with sweet grapes like Pedro Ximénez (PX) or Moscatel blended in. In complex varietal PX and Moscatel-based Sherries, freshly picked grapes are sun-dried to concentrate sugars and flavors. These can be dark, ­unctuous wines with viscosity akin to ­motor oil.

A Master Class in Sherry Blending

Antonio Flores Sherry producer

Within the walls of the González Byass winery, founded in 1835, orange trees and vine-adorned cobblestone pathways connect one enormous barrel-filled solera to another, each containing thousands of black casks filled with all types of highly aromatic Sherry wines.

From the company’s early days through the latter half of the 20th century, the sprawling winery was a community unto itself. Workers lived in the bodega with their families, and employees ate meals in groups. Children of some González Byass winemakers and bodegueros (winery workers) were born and raised there.

One such Sherry producer is Antonio Flores, born in 1955 in a room above a barrel vault.

“The original Tio Pepe solera is called ­Rebollo,” says Flores, González Byass’s chief winemaker and master blender since 1980. “I was born directly upstairs.”

The son of a González Byass winemaker, Flores selected the barrels that would comprise the 2015 production of Tio Pepe’s Las Palmas series. 

“To make great Sherry, you must have two things,” Flores said at the beginning of our day. “One is a lot of chalk. Every barrel we will try has markings indicating quality and to what wine it will go into, be it Tio Pepe or Las Palmas. Two, you need shoes with soft soles, because we will be on our feet for hours.”

Flores described the Palmas wines as longer-aged, higher-quality versions of Tio Pepe, the winery’s signature fino. He noted that only 6,000 bottles of Una, Dos, Tres or Cuatro Palmas are made each year.

Sherry Drinks to Try

For cocktail fans, Sherry drinks present a world of opportunity. Here, six of our favorite ways to use different types of Sherry in cocktails.

Julia Child Sherry Cocktail

Julia Child Sherry Drink
Photo courtesy ACME

Dry fino Sherry stars alongside crisp gin in this martini-adjacent cocktail. Serve it in chilled glassware for ultimate refreshment.

Get the recipe here.

Butchertown Cocktail

Butchertown is a sherry drink
Photo by Michael Persico / Styling by Kelsi Winmiller

This muscular Sherry drink relies on a hit of rich, nutty amontillado to add complexity to rye whiskey. The end result resembles an elegant twist on a classic Old Fashioned.

Click here for the recipe.

Fino Swizzle Cocktail

Fino Swizzle is a Sherry drink
Photo by Michael Persico / Styling by Kelsi Winmiller

Give crisp, dry fino Sherry a bit of fruity flavor and tiki flair in this easy-drinking cocktail. Serve it over pebble or crushed ice, garnished with fresh mint spring.

Learn how to make it here.

The Sherry Colada Cocktail

Sherry Colada is a sherry drink
Photo by Tyler Zielinski

A low-proof, nutty take on a classic Piña Colada, this Sherry drink features amontillado as its base, supported with a bit of aged rum to keep the alcohol level balanced.

Read the recipe here.

Sherry Chamber #1 Cocktail

A sherry drink called Sherry Chamber 1
Photo by Tom Arena

This low-alcohol Sherry drink was developed for the winter 2021 drink menu at Jaleo, José Andrés’s line of tapas restaurants. It combines fino and amontillado Sherry with pear-infused wheat beer.

Here is the cocktail recipe.

Up-to-Date Sherry Cocktail

Sherry drink called Up-to-Date Cocktail
Photo by Maddie Teren

Another Old Fashioned iteration that combines amontillado and rye, this Sherry drink hails from Henrietta Red restaurant in Nashville.

Learn how to make it with this recipe.

Published on March 21, 2022
Topics: Sherry