Under the boundless sun of the Andalusia, a longstanding tradition of wine making remains strong. In Andalusia, it´s the sherry that steals the show. Often sweeter and more intense than table wines, the sherries and dessert wines of Andalusia are complex and diverse, and gaining ever more recognition. A tour of the region reveals surprises for the palate and the eye— wine lover´s paradise.

On the chalky albariza hills of Jerez, in southern Spain, vines of plump and green grapes line the Spanish landscape under almost ceaseless Iberian sunshine and a somewhat limited yearly dose of rainfall. Perfect conditions for producing some of the many delectable wines of Andalusia. Throughout the Montegilillo vineyard of Lustau Winery, exquisite finos, amontillados and olorosos are cultivated from these nurtured grapes, and later tested and blended in carefully placed soleras that sit neatly in rows. The wine maker paces the cool bodega with his master´s tools—a piece of chalk and a venencia—checking, delineating and marking.  Inside some of the barrels, a layer of yeasty flor covers the fermenting must, trapping the complex flavors that produce sherry that has become sought-after and coveted the world over. 

If you find this swirl of wine terms somewhat intimidating, leaving you a bit confounded, you are not alone. It is easy to get lost in the jargon and complexities of wine talk, especially when it comes to sherry making. But don´t be daunted by the vernacular; to the proud Andalusian, this vocabulary comes almost second nature, and serves as a wonderful window into the culture of southern Spain.  Throughout the glorious south, from Cadis to Malaga to Huelva, the magnificent world of Spanish sherry waits to be discovered, locals and bar keepers eager to share their insider´s knowledge with both the demanding wine-lover and the novice imbiber.

FROM SWEET TO DRY TO EXQUISITE

But which sherry to choose? With a tradition so enduring as that in Andalusia, the choices abound, and the choice depends on the drinker´s palate. At another corner of the Sherry Triangle, at Sanlucar de Barrameda, the special Atlantic microclimate allows the cultivation of Manzanilla, a light and zesty sherry that carries slight aromas of the coast, like salt, sea spray and herbal tea (manzanilla means “chamomile” in Spanish).

The key to this sherry is its method of aging.  For 3 – 8 years (at least 2, by law), the Manzanilla sits in oak barrels under a layer of active yeast, called flor, which grows more plentifully in the humidity of the nearby ocean. The flor prevents the flow of oxygen from tainting the fermenting wine, a key factor in the biological aging of fine Manzanilla. 

Strictly produced in Sanlucar de Barrameda, Manzanillas are extremely popular, and can be found in any bar in Andalusia, often separated into younger Manzanilla Fina and older, richer Manzanilla Pasada. The Manzanilla Solear is an excellent primer for the novice drinker, having been included in Wine Spectator Magazine’s list of Top 100 best wines. Since these sherries are light and best served slightly chilled, they pair perfectly with tapas like olives, fried fish and cured Spanish ham.

Fino is much like Manzanilla, but produced in D.O. Jerez/Xéres/Sherry, one of Spain´s most significant winemaking regions.  (Historically, sherry has been most popular in three countries—Spain, France and England—hence the three names of the same product in their respective languages). Aromas of Mediterranean herbs and almonds come through in the light and clear fino. The Palomino grapes, grown in those chalky albariza soils, transfer a drier taste that is best paired with salty Spanish tapas like potato chips, peanuts or fried calamari.

At the third corner of the Sherry Triangle lies the town of Puerto de Santa María, near Cadis, where the famous Osborne Bodegas produce some of the best sherries in the world, one of which is their Oloroso. In some of their American and Canadian oak casks, the cellar master will take out that blanket of flor, allowing the fermenting wine to mature, sometimes for several decades, into dark, somewhat balsamic oloroso. Also served slightly chilled, the toasted nut and dried fruit notes make it best served as an aperitif with figs, game or foie. At Osborne, visitors can tour the cathedral style cellars, surrounded stacked casks, and learn about the process of sherry making while sipping some of their oldest vintages (some from 1790!), right from the cask.  After a long lifetime of service, old retired oloroso casks are often sent to Scotland for use in aging single malt whisky.