Understanding Sherry

Understanding Sherry

The Bibendum Guide to all things Sherry

One of the world’s greatest wine styles, Sherry has an incredible array of flavours and fantastic complexity. Its savoury, umami characteristics make it an excellent match with food.

Sherry is one of those rare beasts, one of the world’s greatest wine styles that is easy to explore on a budget. Unlike Burgundy or Bordeaux, it is easy to taste some of the best the region has to offer without having to remortgage your house.

What is Sherry?

A fortified wine from southern Spain with a history that stretches back over 3000 years - the word sherry originates from the Arabic word, "Sherish" – although most of the styles we drink today originate from the mid-19th century.

The Grapes

The main grape is Palomino for the drier styles while Pedro Ximenez is used to produce intensely sweet wines.

The Region

Most Sherry is made by a few large houses in the town of Xeres (or Jerez) 20km from the coast in Andalucía. It can also be made down the coast at a small town called Sanlucar de Barrameda which produces wines that are labelled Manzanilla. The best grapes are grown on a very chalky, bright-white soil called Albariza.

Much further inland than Xeres near Cadiz is the region of Montilla-Moriles that makes wines that aren’t technically Sherry at all, but given they look like Sherry, taste like Sherry and are made pretty much the same way, we are going to ignore the letter of the law.


Most Sherry starts its life as a dry white wine at about 12 % alcohol. Once fermentation is over, the cellarmaster has a choice: will the wine become Fino or Oloroso? Wines that are showing particular finesse and elegance will be designated as Fino sherry, while the wines showing body and power will be set aside to make Oloroso. The difference comes in the level of fortification. Finos are fortified lightly to around 15%, Olorosos are given an extra bit of spirit to take them up to around 18%.

The Flor

Flor is the magic ingredient that makes dry Fino and Manzanilla Sherries among the very best wines in the world. It is a yeast that teems on the walls of the bodegas’ cellars and grows on the surface of the wines, protecting them from oxidation and changing the character of the wine, adding a unique nutty, salty, umami character.

The Solera System

The solera system is Sherry’s way of ageing and blending wines to ensure consistency. In its simplest form, it can be imagined as an inverted pyramid of barrels. Every time the bodega needs to bottle some wine, it draws some off from the bottom barrel, topping it up with some wine from the barrels above. This next level of barrels is then filled with wine from those above and so on. Many soleras in Jerez are many decades old and since no barrel is ever emptied, there is always some of the oldest wine in the final blend.

Sherry Styles


What is it? The most famous style of dry Sherry, made in Jerez and fortified to just 15% or 15.5% making it the lightest style.

What does it taste like? When just opened it will be fresh, light and savoury with a nutty, almond-like character. Keep it in the fridge and drink it quick, the all-important freshness will disappear within a week or so.

Drink it with: Something salty - smoked almonds, jamon or olives.


What is it? A Fino made in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda.

The seaside climate adds an extra saline tang and degree of freshness.

What does it taste like? Like a really good Fino with an extra spring in its step.

Drink it with: Seafood.


What is it? A Fino where the Flor has died away and the wine has begun to oxidise. Beware commercial versions of Amontillado that are sweetened with a dollop of Pedro Ximenez.

What does it taste like? A good dry Amontillado can taste of hazelnuts and spices, cinnamon, butterscotch, with a slightly-bitter bite.

Drink it with: A porcini mushroom risotto.

Palo Cortado

What is it? A freak of nature! Palo Cortados are elegant wines that are chosen to become fine Finos or Amontillados, however the fickle yeasts fail to develop meaning the wines age in an oxidative Olorosso.

What does it taste like? They blend the elegance of Fino with the power of Oloroso. Think toasted hazelnuts, citrus peel and tangy acidity.

Drink it with: Everything and anything – a cheeseboard is a great place to start.


What is it? An Oloroso Sherry is fortified to a higher strength than a Fino and ages without the protection of Flor giving it a rich flavour and more oomph. It can be dry or sweet, the latter style is blended with sweet Pedro Ximenez wine.

What does it taste like? Full-bodied, robust and rich. Dry versions often have tangy Seville orange notes while sweeter wines are like Christmas cake in a glass.

Drink it with: Dry styles with big robust meaty main courses. Sweeter versions are amazing with terrines and cheeses.

Pedro Ximenez

What is it? A grape! Usually used to make some of the most intense, complex sweet wines in the world.

It can also be used to make off-beat Finos in Montilla-Moriles.

What does it taste like? Treacle tart. Only better.

Drink it with: Rum and raisin ice cream. Even better pour it over for a boozy affogato.

En Rama

What is it? An unfiltered Fino or Manzanilla bottled straight from the cask for extra flavour and freshness. The trade-off is a reduced shelf life. These wines need to be drunk as soon as possible after bottling.

What does it taste like? Your favourite Fino or Manzanilla but with an extra level of flavour. An 'en rama' bottling from a great producer is very hard to beat.

Drink it with: The finest jamon you can afford.

10th April 2013

Company No. 2550982 | 109a Regents Park Road London NW1 8UR | Call: 0845 263 6924 | AWRS Number: XVAW00000101595

Drink Aware - know the facts