Sherry production in Jerez de la Frontera – how the DO (Denomination of origin) was established

I know that sherry has been out of favour for many years but has recently started to make a comeback and is no longer associated with older ladies who only have a small sherry once a year at Christmas! I thought readers might be interested in how sherry came to be and a little about it’s qualities. I hope you find this as interesting as I did when I started to research it.

The Andalucian Jerez (sherry) is produced mainly in areas of Cadiz and Seville, in what is called “El Marco de Jerez” (the Sherry Mark). The DO (denomination of origin) Jerez was established in 1933 . The production of Jerez in these parts is so deeply rooted that it has become an indelible part of Spain’s culture and many an evening can be whiled away with a cool glass of fino sherry and a heated discussion of football. In Seville, there’s nothing more typical than having a mid-morning appetizer with a cold serving of Fino.

The story behind the creation of Jerez is intertwined with the history of Spanish wine making. Jerez is one of the oldest wines in the world and today’s product is as a consequence of the influence of many civilizations: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Spanish and British, who all contributed to create the well known and loved drink.

Cadiz, the home of Jerez wine, was founded somewhere around the 9th century by the Phoenecians, and its main function was as a trading post. The great climate and the love of the Phoenicians for wine pushed them to plant vines in their new settlement, as did the Greeks when they arrived. Little did they know that Spanish wine would become an intrinsic part of Spanish culture even in cities as far away as Barcelona and the Canary Islands. In 206 b.C., when the Romans got there after three centuries of Carthage ruling, Cadiz was positively overflowing with vines. Romans liked their wine very much, and thus they began to exploit the vineyards and to export them to the whole of the Roman Empire, where it became known as “Wine from Ceret”.

Roman rule was superseded by the Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula (which around this time was known as Hispania) where they stayed until the Reconquest. The rules of the Koran prohibit Muslims to drink any kind of alcoholic beverage, but production continued for medicinal and trading purposes with non-Muslim neighbours. The Muslims also changed the name of the city from Ceret to Sherish, which later, when Alfonso X reconquered Cadiz in 1264, becameJerez de la Frontera (Jerez of the Border) as it was on the frontier between the Christian and the Muslim domains.

Jerez and Cadiz became the starting point for many of the exploration voyages to the New World and the East Indies, and wine was the star export aboard the ships It was used for trading and for personal consumption during the long voyages. During the 16th and 17th centuries, English piracy was pretty common and the Jerez cellars in Cadiz were sacked multiple times. Although not very god for the merchants, this proved to be the key to the spreading of Jerez wines in England, where it was a very coveted product.

During the 19th century fakes started appearing. The wine makers of the Jerez region wanted regulations imposed so only they could produce it. Thus in 1891 the “Convenio de Madrid” (Agreement of Madrid) issued a series of protection decrees that specified the geographic origin of Jerez. This was the first step towards the creation of the DO which was officially established in 1933.

Modern day Jerez

“El Marco de Jerez” is divided in two different areas: the production area (Jerez, Sanlúcar, El Puerto de Santa María, Trebujena, Chiclana, Puerto Real, Rota, Chipiona and Lebrija) and the ageing area (Jerez, Sanlúcar and El Puerto de Santa María). The only grapes allowed for the production of the wines of the DO Jerez are those that come from the production area. The most popular varieties of grape in the DO Jerez wines are: Palomino Fino (95% of production), Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel. Spanish classes of grape have a very distinctive flavour, which is why Jerez wines are still produced with them instead of integrating new ones.

The ageing of sherry is a very unique process. The wines under this designation of origin have very strict guidelines: The juice extracted from the carefully selected grapes (which are harvested in September) is poured into stainless steel deposits, where it goes through the fermentation process. When this is done (around December), the grape juice has turned into white wine with an alcohol content of around 12 degrees. On top of this wine, a layer of yeast has formed, called flor, while the sediments of the juice have fallen to the bottom.

Once this is done, the sommeliers decide the next course for each wine depending on the characteristics they show at this stage. This is the fortification stage where they raise the alcohol content in the wines to make them ready for ageing in oak barrels.

The ageing process of the wines from the DO Jerez that takes place in oak barrels is called criaderas y soleras. The oak barrels containing the wine are organized by their age (oldest at the bottom, youngest at the top), and small quantities of the older wines are poured into the younger wines and vice versa. This unifies all the wines, and specially helps the youngest wines achieve the quality expected of the wines from the DO Jerez, which have to be aged for a minimum of three years to be considered part of this designation of origin. It is a very arduous process, but the taste, evocative of Spanish summers, is so worth it!

There are several types of wines under the Jerez designation of origin, and the most popular ones are:

  • Fino: Dry wine with a pale yellow colour and an almond flavour, between 15%-18% of alcohol content.
  • Manzanilla: Dry wine with a paler colour than the Fino variety. The main difference between them is that the Manzanilla is exclusive to Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanilla has between 15%-19% of alcohol content.
  • Amontillado: Dry wine with a deep amber colour, hazelnut flavour and an alcohol content of between 16%-22%.
  • Oloroso: Dry, with a full body, deep mahogany colour and a hazelnut flavour. Alcohol content: 17%-22%.
  • Palo cortado: Dry, full bodied, hazelnut flavour and brilliant mahogany in colour. This kind is hard to come by because the grapes used for its production died out due to a plague in 1894. Alcohol content: 17%-22%.
  • Pedro Ximénez: Sweet and soft, tastes like raisins and dark mahogany in colour.
  • Moscatel: Very sweet, deep mahogany colour.