Carl Kanowsky: Sherry – The Impossible Wine

Terry Kanowsky and Simon Leth-Nissen, International Brand Manager for Gonzalez Byass, on tour of Sherry winery in Jerez, Spain.
Bodega Gonzalez Byass’ illustration of the Solera System used to make Sherry.

That Sherry gets made at all is close to miraculous.
The grape vines struggle to survive in hard, chalky soil known as albariza.  The soil’s so dense and white that it looks like the vines have punched through concrete to reach the water below.
The vines get no relief once they’ve become established.  The Sherry Regulatory Council (the body that oversees Sherry production in Spain) forbids watering.  So, these poor vines bake in the southern Spain heat from May to September, when little rain falls.
The Council then mandates that the vineyard can produce only 80 hectoliters per hectare.  Converting that to our standard measurements, that’s 2.8 tons of grapes per 2.47 acres.  The average production in Napa for cabernet sauvignon grapes is three to six tons, or about 3.5 times more grapes than what is allowed in Spain.
And understand, the Council does not provide “guidelines” that “recommends” what the farmer and bodega (the Spanish word for winery) should do in making Sherry.  These are mandates.  If these rules are not followed, the entire production will be discarded, dumped down the drain.
As if this is not enough pressure, the bodegas then face the daunting task of producing Sherry using the Solera System.
See the picture of the three rows of barrels.  Looks like what you’d see in any California winery.  But there are some important differences.
The first row of barrels is labelled “Solera”.  According to Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible” (a terrific resource), the word solera comes from another Spanish word, Suelo, which means floor.  These barrels house wine that’s as old as 100 years.  The row above, 2nd Criadera, holds the second oldest wine.  3rd Criadera contains newer wines.  This staging can have as many as fourteen different aged wines.
So, Sherry from the Solera row is used to fill bottles.  It is never emptied entirely.  Say 10% of what’s in the Solera casks is used for a year’s production.  Those are then refilled (never to the top) with wine from the 1st Criadera, which is then refilled with wine from the 2nd Criadera, which is likewise replenished by the 3rd Criadera, and so on.
The result is that each barrel holds numerous vintages of wine, some dating back to almost the 19th Century and some only four or five years old.  Thus, given the way Sherry is created, there’s never a vintage on the label of the bottle because to be accurate, you’d have to list endless years.
Each style of Sherry (Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, etc.) is made using the Solera method.  That seems like enough pressure on the bodega to get a final product.  First, the winery has the distinct challenge of planting, caring for, and harvesting the grapes.  And you’ve got Tio Samuél (Uncle Sam) monitoring your every move.  Then try making wine with this complex Solera production process.
The respectable Sherry bodegas add to their woes by insisting that the Sherry they make is a consistent style, year in and year out.
In my last column on Sherry, we’ll actually taste some Sherry.

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