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What's in a Sherry?........

One of the oldest and most wonderful fortified wines made is a Sherry. Sherry comes from a corner of south-west Spain called Andalusia. The grapes are grown in the white, chalky soil characteristic to that region known as 'albariza'. This is a very porous soil that soaks up the brief rains and allows the grapes to survive the hot humid summers. Rain falls on average for only 75 days a year. Palamino and pedro ximenez grapes are the two traditional grape varieties used in Sherry. When picked, the grapes will be left to dry for up to two weeks to concentrate the sugars before they are crushed. This gives a small quantity of juice with a very high sugar content.

In a twist on the ancient method of crushing grapes by foot, the grape stompers of the finest Sherries wore boots with nails in the soles. The nails trap the pips and stalks and leave them undamaged enhancing the pure grape flavours. The wine is fermented for several months before fortification. The final Sherry blend is produced by a 'solera' system using rows of barrels of wine drawing from 'criaderas' (smaller reserves of younger wines). As wine is drawn from the barrels of a solera it is replaced with wine from the first criadera. This criadera is now topped up from the second cria-dera and so on down the track. The finest Sherries may have wines over 200 years old in them.

The barrels are only ever filled to about two thirds ca-pacity. Generally, a white yeast called a Flor develops on the surface of the maturing Sherry and contributes to the unique Sherry flavour. It floats on top of the wine in the barrel. The flor forms a protective, foamy layer over the wine that seals off the air from the wine. Fino, Oloroso and Amontillado are the three classifica-tions used to very closely define the quality of Sherry. A fino is left at around 15.5% alcohol by volume as the flor is a natural yeast and will die when the alcohol content exceeds this.

A fino is allowed to develop for many years growing natural flor yeast. It will be pale straw in colour, dry and with a light fresh clean nose when ready to drink. Oloroso is a Sherry that has never developed a natural flor or has had the natural flor growth stopped by fortifi-cation. Fortification is the process where pure grape spirit (alcohol) is added to the wine to stop the fermenta-tion by killing the yeast and leaving some residual natu-ral grape sugar in the wine. Oloroso matures earlier than fino and is richer and fuller to taste but not necessarily sweeter. Oloroso means 'fragrant' in Spanish and this describes very well the darker, richer oloroso Sherries. An oloroso Sherry will be fortified to over 17% alcohol to produce a richer and stronger wine. Some partial oxi-dation will have occurred in the process and this contrib-utes to the natural golden colour.

Amontillado is a fino Sherry that's matured in the barrel for at least eight years. The flor yeast will have died and the wine will have partially oxidised. It will be a fuller and richer Sherry with nutty flavours and a strong nose with a dark gold colour.

And, the Australia Wine and Brand Corporation say that: The Australian Traditional Expression "SHERRY" was entered in the Register of Protected Names on 1/2/1995 under the following conditions of use: "Except where the word "sherry" is used as a registered geographical indication, it may only be used to describe and present a fortified wine."

Wine has been made in Spain for many hundreds of years but it was only in the 18 th century when the mod-ern Sherry business began. The English were familiar with Sherry since the Middle Ages. 1340 is the first year we have a written English record of wine being imported from Spain. 1340 was also the year when Chaucer was born. He wrote in the Pardoner's Tale: "This wine of Spain creepeth subtilly Of which there riseth such fu-mositee." He was almost certainly writing about a rich Sherry.

1587 was the year when Sherry shot to prominence after Sir Francis Drake set alight the Spanish fleet in Cadiz and made off with 3,000 casks of Sherry. This helped start large scale Sherry drinking in England. During the next centuries, Sherry became a common drink that was found in every house. In 1873 some 68,500 casks were imported into England.

Sherry is usually served after dinner with fruit, cheese or desert. Usually it is served at room temperature in a small glass and if you're really lucky, in front of an open fire with wonderful company.

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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