When I was young, a glass of sherry was something my great aunts and other old ladies sipped from etched crystal glasses, accompanied by sweet biscuits and muted gossip.

The names on the bottles were Bristol Cream and Dry Sac, which sounded much more English than Andalusian. Most of the old ladies have long since passed away and I have not had much exposure to sherry since. But that was before we moved to Spain and went on a tour of one of the country’s oldest and most venerable sherry bodegas.

The Golden Triangle

A sherry is a fortified wine usually made from the green grapes of the Palomino, Muscatel or Pedro Ximénez variety. To be legally classified as such, the sherry needs to originate from Andalucía’s so called sherry triangle formed by the three towns with the long and intricate names of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Only this area with its chalky white soil presents the right growing conditions for this special wine, which achieved Spain’s first Protected Designation of Origin status in 1933.

The name sherry is an anglicised version of Xeres or Jerez. There are a rich variety of sherry wines to satisfy any taste and accompany almost any dish. On the lighter side, there is the dry, straw-coloured Manzanilla and Fino that locals enjoy as an aperitivo. Moving on, there are the darker and slightly heavier versions with musical names like Amontillado and Oloroso, and finally we end up with the sweet dessert wines called Pedro Ximénez, from a grape of the same name.

A Historic Cheer

My husband’s wood carving group usually makes an annual excursion, and this time the trip was to the hometown of one of the amateur carvers, Jerez de la Frontera. He had organised a special visit to Bodega Fundador, which we were told was Jerez’ oldest winery. The Spanish word Bodega can refer to several different things – a wine cellar, wine bar, wine warehouse, or a wine dealer, in addition to a vineyard. The company founder was Irish Patrick Murphy, who began producing what we now know as sherry in a converted olive mill in the historic centre of Jerez in 1730. The same building is still in use today.

In the 1840’s, the company began distilling their famous brandy. Today it is not only universally known, but one of the word’s biggest brandy producers with over 30 million cases sold in 2017. Initially owned and run by the famous Anglo-Spanish semi-aristocratic family of Domecq, the present owner is the Tan family from the Philippines. This adds to the global nature of the brand, since former owners have also been English, Americans and Chinese.

The international connection is nothing new. Wine has been produced in Jerez since the times the Romans ruled these lands some 2,000 years ago. Later, during the seven centuries that the Arabs controlled the Iberian continent, the Moors who were not able to drink alcohol for religious reasons, produced the wine for medicinal and antiseptic use. After the Spanish expulsion of the Moors in the late 13th Century, the wine spirit was again made for human consumption. The production was actually so considerable that it was subject to a Wine Spirit Tax by the 16th Century.

While the Netherlands imported most of the early Spanish brandy, the English favoured the softer cousin, the sherry. When Sir Francis Drake plundered the port of Cádiz in 1587, part of his loot was three thousand casks of sherry, or so the saying goes… While the English might not initially have come by their favourite dessert wine through legal means, it began a gustatory love affair that has lasted to this day.

An Olfactory Tour

Our sherries are very spoilt, said Lourdes, our friendly guide before taking us into El Molino, Fundador’s first and oldest bodega. It may seem odd to describe a wine as ‘mimado’ or spoilt, but after learning about the long and labour intensive journey from grape to bottle, I would tend to agree.

What immediately hits you when entering the centuries-old bodega is the smell, or should I say the attack on the olfactory senses. The scent is a mixture of rich wood, some type of sweet nectar, spilled wine turned into vinegar, old cellar mould and wet stone. The temperature of the cavernous bodega is kept constant in the cool mid teens, 18 degrees Celsius and 70% humidity being the ideal.

This is achieved naturally through the building’s construction and orientation. Windows at the far end of the halls facing towards the coast offer ventilation, admitting the cool sea breeze in the evenings and early mornings, while traditional woven straw blinds keep the hot midday sun out. Bodegas were normally built large and lofty with meter-thick white walls for thermal properties. The tiled roofs would breathe and the floors that were covered with sand could be watered down to keep up the humidity.

Sherry Nursery

The El Molino bodega itself is an endless warehouse of hall after hall of old wooden barrels, stacked on top of each other, three layers high. The bottom layer from which the final product is extracted is called solera (or on the ground). The layers of barrels cradled above these are called criadera (or nursery) number 1 and number 2. New wine is introduced into nursery 1, and gradually, usually annually, moved down to the older nursery and finally to the solera where the oldest, most mature wine is stored.

Only after the fermentation is completed is the base wine fortified with grape spirit to reach the sherry’s desired alcohol content. No cask is ever drained and no more than one third of the barrel’s content is removed, allowing for the different generations of grapes to blend. This type of ageing (also used for port and balsamic vinegar) is called fractional blending, a system that Fundador was the first sherry bodega to implement. The blending assures that every bottle produced will have a mixture of ages of wine, which increases gradually as the process continues over the years.

Some soleras therefore can date back hundreds of years. The barrels that Fundador uses are made of American oak. All casks are impregnated with wine before use, since new barrels would give too strong a wooden taste for this type of product. The old sherry barrels are widely sought after by whisky makers, so some sherry producers sell off the used barrels to Scotland. Fundador however, hangs on to every old barrel, rather mending them and using them year after year. Nothing is wasted here, says Lourdes, explaining that if a barrel of sherry goes acerbic, it will be made into Pedro Ximénez vinegar.

Prior to tasting the product, we were lead through Fundador’s collection of old bottles, bottling machines, distillery contraptions and an impressive collection of vintage sherries and brandies. Here, we got to smell the process through which their spirited wine passes to produce the different types of sherry.

For Every Palate: Dry, Fruity, Creamy or Sinfully Sweet

Because the fortification takes place after the fermentation, a sherry is initially dry with any sweetness added later. Fino and Manzanilla are fortified until they reach an alcohol content of 15.5 per cent by volume. As they age, they develop a layer of yeast-like growth that helps protect the wine from excessive oxidation and in keeping its light colour. This dry aperitif wine, with a slight aroma of almonds, is perfect served on ice with or without a nibble of Payoyo goat cheese.

The Oloroso sherry is allowed to oxidise in the barrel until it reaches an alcohol content of at least 17 per cent. It is rich amber in colour, has a slight hazelnut aroma and goes splendidly with Iberian ham.

The Amontillado sherry is somewhere between a Fino and an Oloroso. The exportation favourite Cream Sherry is an Oloroso into which the naturally sweet Pedro Ximénez wine is added.

Finally, the Fundador brandy is made by ageing wine spirits in former sherry casks. Like we were told, nothing is wasted.

Of course, no sherry tour is complete without a tasting, of which we did amply. Though our merry bunch seemed to try all versions of sherries and brandies, most had trouble deciding which was their favourite and ended up bringing a couple of bottles home for further investigation.

Needless to say, I am starting to realise that my great grand aunts were onto something. A glass of sherry, like a bit of history, is a most worthy cheer.