Given that our new journey by rail visits the heart of Spain’s Sherry-producing region, it would be remiss of us not to learn more about these wonderful – and generally rather under-appreciated – wines.
Ever since Sir Francis Drake ransacked the port of Cádiz in 1587 and made off with 3,000 barrels of Sherry, the British have been addicted to the stuff, and continue to be the main international clients. They favour the so called "cream" Sherry, to which sugar or grape juice is added as a sweetener, while Spaniards prefer the bone-dry, crystal-clear fino, consumed with particular enthusiasm at feria (festival) time. Walk into a bar in western Andalucía and ask for a glass of ‘vino’ and more than likely it will be assumed that you are asking for ‘fino’!
Sherry comes from the area lying between Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – so exactly where our new holiday takes place. The secret of this distinctive wine is the combination of soil (the chalky, crumbly, moisture-retaining albariza); the damp climate, which encourages the growth of the flor (a coat of yeast that forms on the ageing wine and prevents it from oxidising); and the solera system used to blend the sherry of different years.
In all there are more than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of vineyards in the Jerez region, where the predominant grape is the Palomino, named after a 13th-century Spanish knight. Grown elsewhere, the Palomino is a singularly undistinguished grape and is prone to oxidation (darkening and spoiling), but due to the magic combination of soil and the prevailing humidity which allows the growth of the protective flor yeast, Sherry acquires its exceptional dryness and earthy aroma.
After the grapes are harvested in early September, they are crushed to make a still white wine. Like Port, Sherry is a "fortified" wine, meaning that extra alcohol is added to bring its alcohol content up to around 16 percent volume. The wine then ages for about two years before being put through the criadera and solera system, by which the sherries of different years are blended to ensure that the finished product is of a consistent quality.
Put in its simplest terms, rows of barrels are stacked in layers. A portion of wine, destined for bottling, is drawn off from the bottom row, called the "solera", which contains the oldest blend. These barrels are topped up with wine from the row immediately above, and so on to the top row of barrels, which are replenished with the most recent wine, that which has aged for a couple of years. For this reason, most Sherries are not vintage wines, being blends from different harvests. In exceptional years, some wine might be set aside for ageing separately as Vintage Sherry, which is rare and correspondingly expensive.
Choosing your sherry
Fino: Clear and perfectly dry, with an earthy aroma of almonds, fino is served chilled as an aperitif wine, often accompanied by nuts or tapas such as jamón serrano (cured ham). Fino sherry is best drunk shortly after bottling, so buy from a reliable source. The top selling brands are Tio Pepe (Gonzalez Byass) and La Ina (Domecq).
Manzanilla: This is the fino style Sherry made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is even drier and paler than other finos, having a softer, less-sharp taste than fino, and within Spain it outsells other dry sherries. The best known brands are La Guita (from Hijos de Rainer Pérez Marin) and La Gitana (Vinícola Hidalgo). Manzanilla Pasada, favoured by locals in Sanlúcar, is slightly darker, saltier and less refined.
Oloroso: The layer of flor yeast is thin, or absent, in this Sherry as it ages, and thus there is a partial oxidation which accounts for the wine's darker colour. Oloroso is a rich amber, with an aroma of hazelnuts, and it makes an exceptional aperitif, especially with cured ham. It is also one of the few wines which can stand up to such difficult-to-match foods as eggs, artichokes and asparagus. The best olorosos – that is, the oldest – include the legendary Matusalém (González Byass).
Amontillado: Named after the wine-making town of Montilla (Córdoba), this Sherry is often described as being midway between a fino and an oloroso, with some of the qualities of both. It starts out the same way as a fino, but the layer of flor yeast is allowed to die off. It is therefore darker in colour. The better ones can be extraordinary. Well-known labels include Amontillado 51-1 (Domecq) and Amontillado del Duque (González Byass).
Palo Cortado: In Jerez, they say this is a wine that you can't make – it just happens. It starts out as a fino, but the flor yeast fails to develop. A rare treat, it has an aroma reminiscent of an amontillado, while its colour is closer to oloroso. One of the best is the 60-year-old Sibarita (Domecq).
Cream Sherry: This is a big favourite among drinkers outside Spain, especially in Great Britain, Holland and Germany. It results when you take oloroso Sherry (or fino, in the case of pale cream) and sweeten it. This is traditionally done by mixing in a measure of Pedro Ximenez, a naturally sweet wine, but many creams are made with fructose or grape concentrate. It makes an interesting dessert wine, and is a good companion for pâtés. The best-selling brands are Harvey's Bristol Cream and Crofts.
Pedro Ximenez, or “PX”: This naturally sweet wine is named after the grape variety, which is widely grown in other Andalusian wine regions. At worst it can be overly sweet and cloying, but when made and aged with care (factors which are reflected in the price) it is elegant and velvety, great with dessert and even better on its own. Gran Orden PX from Garveys is considered one of the best wines in Spain.