The supply of sherry between the 1930s and 1970s was upset by the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. As a friendly British outpost Cyprus already enjoyed a tax advantage over wine produced in unstable foreign Spain and this led to Cyprus re-organising its industry to produce “sherry” for export to the UK. It was almost entirely marketed in the form of “Emva cream Cyprus sherry”.
When Spain and the UK became EU partners it was a disaster for Cyprus sherry producers. For a while the word “sherry” was quietly dropped from the label but it continued to be marketed as sherry, but it wasn’t enough and the industry was finally banned in 1996.
Though in the short term this was a disaster for the Cyprus wine growing industry, in the long run, hopefully, it means Cyprus will return to doing what they do best – and produce more of the wonderful commandaria and the startling zivania.
Sherry is a name that can now only be applied to fortified wines produced in the Jerez region of Spain – from where it has taken its best known modern name “sherry” (because it was originally known as “sack”). The region centres on the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia and sherry is made from white grapes there, ideally the Palomino variety.
I have nothing bad to say about genuine Jerez sherry – it knocks spots off the kind of cheap sherry previously sold to the British market under brand names that included Harvey’s as well as Emva.
Basically, small local vineyards made the good stuff and kept it in Spain whilst cheap and relatively nasty surpluses were sold to the big companies to flog to the British. Even truly nasty “British wine” and chemicals went into some of those so called sherry bottles back in the 60s and 70s – helping to destroy the popular credibility of fortified wines among the British public.
Tighter EU regulation has reduced some of the worst of those atrocities against our stomach linings, but to truly appreciate sherry it’s essential to try some of the fare that is labelled in Spanish with its vineyard of origin – or at least comes by a supply-chain that by-passes the dreaded blending vats of the mass wholesalers.
Types of Sherry
Sherries range from light coloured wines – called Manzanilla and Fino (which don’t keep well after opening) – to darker heavier ones like Amontillado and Oloroso (which do). To create the latter ones, oxidation in the barrel is encouraged by preventing a yeast growth called “flor” that otherwise forms a protective layer. Amontillado has a flor to begin with but at some point it is removed – so that it is intermediate in colour. Oloroso is aged longer than Amontillado so is the darkest and also the strongest of them all.
If it says Manzanilla Pasada it is a well aged Manzanilla, or deliberately partially oxidized, and so is slightly darker, richer and nuttier – more like an Amontillado or between an Amontillado and an Oloroso. It is one of the few types that benefit from aging after bottling.
You may also see Jerez Dulce which is a sweeter sherry usually made from a different grape – Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez – often very dark.
Unlike Port, Sherry is allowed to more or less finish fermenting before the grape spirit is added and therefore they are all naturally dry and have to have sugar added to create a sweet variety, when they are called “Cream” sherry. Under current regulations any sherry that has been “artificially” sweetened with sugar or grape juice has to be called Cream – so you can’t readily tell which kind of sherry it was before it was sweetened.
A degree of blending was always traditional with sherry – with proportions of much older sherries mixed with younger brews. Because of this you will rarely find a sherry that declares a year on the bottle, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t old or high quality. In fact, the whole method is regimented in a kind of cascade called a solera system: a new barrel becomes part of a row of 3-9 older barrels and periodically small portions from each barrel are decanted into the next barrel in the row.
The only way to speak about age is therefore to use an average – thus if the average age is 20 years it can be labelled VOS, and if 30 years VORS. However, not all sherry improves with age, so often the “best” barrel may be one somewhere in the middle – there is a small connoisseur market for bottles filled from particular prized casks.
There is one more type of sherry you may have heard of – cooking sherry. I’m pretty sure you can’t get this under that name any more but in more civilized times you could get up at 6 in the morning, steal a pint of milk from someone’s doorstep, tip out the milk and take the bottle to the greengrocer to fill with a pint of “cooking sherry” from a keg. Half hour later you could be back in your squat rolled up in a nice cosy carpet. Ah those were the days.
Strange facts about sherry
It’s believed the reason fortified wines took off in Iberia is ultimately because of the invasion of the Moors. Moorish alchemists brought over the art of distillation sometime after, but it was only able to spread to Christian monks after the liberation of Spain in 1264, when Alfonso X of Castile seized Cadiz. Monasteries then spread it – for purely medicinal reasons of course – to other parts of Europe. The opportunity to invent brandy therefore existed in Spain well before it was available to enable the invention of gin, vodka and whisky. And of course any self-respecting alchemist knew how to mix his drinks – they called it “The Renaissance”.
“The Renaissance” became enormously popular in England after Sir Francis Drake sailed over and sacked Cadiz in 1587. Ostensibly he went there to thwart the Spanish Armada but in fact he spent most of his time there loading 2,900 barrels of “sack” onto his ship. The drink was so popular after he got back home with it that Britain subsequently became the world’s leading consumer of Spanish sherry – a craze that lasted for centuries.
Many Spanish vineyards became heavily dependent on the British craze for their produce. Over time many Spanish vineyards and cellars were taken over or set up by ex-pat British families to feed the home market – so in a strange way sherry is as much a phenomenon of British culture as it is a Spanish one.