Wolf Hall is a tale of Tudor times when drinking beer was the norm; the average person drinking around 17 pints each week mostly for the good reason that drinking water was a very risky business. Ale and beer being “brewed” (boiled) were safe, and hopped beer remained fresh longer than un-hopped ale. Those who could afford it drank French and “Rhenish” (German) wines, and the strong, fortified Spanish wines known as sack or sherris-sack.

Shakespeare knew all about sack; he enthused in his play King Henry IV, where character Falstaff, a man with a big thirst, praised ‘sherris-sack’: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack”. The use of the word sack in relation to sherry has many theories. H. Warner Allen in his “A History of Wine” suggests that the name sack comes from the Spanish saca, meaning to take out or take away, to export, as in “vinos de saca”. Later it became usual to refer to the wines of Jerez and the rest of the region as sherry and the term sherry was in common use by 1608. Ben Jonson in his play “Bartholomew Fair”, written in 1614, states that sherry was the name “by then used for the wine that was previously called sack”.

History guides us to Sir Francis Drake, adventurer, privateer or pirate, depends on your point of view; he ransacked the ancient Spanish port of Cadiz in 1587 (even today, you mention Drake in Spain and you will get a fierce look) and his fleet made off with 3,000 large barrels of sherris-sack as well as other provisions, precious items and a fortune in gold. It was the captured sack that laid down the fondness for it in England. Pictured right is Drake’s ship the Golden Hind. The Mayflower, an almost identical ship to the Golden Hind, was the sailing vessel that brought the Pilgrims from Plymouth to America and had spent many years in the wine trade, including shipping sherry from Cadiz to English west-country port of Bristol.

I like Sherry, particularly dry Fino. It is satisfyingly strong, it is the ideal lubrication for the brain. Modern dry sherries are not over-strong, coming out with alcohol levels about 15%. Sherry should be considered as a good wine for accompanying all types and styles of foods, as well as being a satisfying aperitif and a good mid/late morning, afternoon, evening reviver. Despite its complex production and its ultra quality, sherry is still a very inexpensive wine.

Andalucía in the sun baked south of Spain is the home ground of Spain’s fortified wines. Jerez (pronounced Hereth) is the home of sherry. Sherry is the key wine of Spain and one of the key wines of the world. Sherry in Andalucía is most often a dry wine in a range of styles. Pale fino, served cool, is light and dry with a refreshing, salty tang that goes beautifully with seafood. Manzanilla, the Sanlúcar specialty, is more delicate yet with a fuller salty flavour. Amontillado develops an astonishing complexity while oloroso, a sherry made in a completely different fashion to oloroso’s shipped for export, is rich, powerful and bone dry.

Production method

The method of sherry production is long and complex involving a long fractional blending system called the Solera. After the wine is fermented, it is fortified with brandy and placed in old oak barrels. Unlike most wines, a little space is left in the sherry barrels which offers a surface for a film of yeast to grow. This yeast, or flor, contributes to the distinctively salty, nutlike flavour of pale dry fino sherries. In fino’s that receive even more aging, the flor dies out and the wines become amontillado. Some sherries never quite develop flor to become oloroso, giving them richness and complexity.

The Solera system takes place in vast blending and aging sheds where you have thousands of large barrels (butts) stacked five high. The sherry for bottling is taken from the bottom layer of barrels – (the solera, the “foundation”) – the top row takes new sherry from the crianza, the “nursery” shed. The wine drawn off for bottling, about 20 – 30% from each bottom-row cask, is replaced with wine from the next row above, and that replaced by wine from the third and so on. This is fractional blending; it takes place two or three times a year.

The soleras of the bigger houses are large beyond belief. The “La Concha” solera of Gonzalez Byass, designed by the Eiffel tower engineer Gustave Eiffel, houses 12,400 butts, each of 600 litres capacity; put this together with their Tio Pepe solera housing a further 30,000 butts, together with the “Las Copas” solera housing another 60,000 butts and this gives some idea of magnitude. Bodegas Internacionales have a solera with 63,000 – 600-litre butts.

Sherry Styles

FINO. Pale, dry, astringent. One of the best wines in the world. Final alcohol content of 15-18%. Must be drunk quickly within a few days of opening. Internationally famous styles will be: Tio Pepe, (Gonzales Byass), La Ina, (Pedro Domecq), Bristol Dry,(Harveys), Fiesta, (Duff-Gordon), Fino Quinta, (Osborne).

If that glass of fino Tio Pepe, which should be lightly chilled and have a pale straw colour, comes to you looking like, and tasting like, weak black coffee, refuse it as it is too old, oxidised and undrinkable. Tio Pepe is the best selling sherry in the world; it is also of the very best quality. Second in line is La Ina which is the second best-seller in the world. La Ina has a slightly sweeter edge than other fino’s.

MANZANILLA. Pale, salt-dry palate, must be made in Sanlucar de Barrameda. 15 – 18% alcohol. The wines are aged in bodegas facing the sea; the resulting style has a distinct salty edge to the palate. Very dry in style, these are the very best of the dry sherries. One of the best manzanilla’s comes from producer Hidalgo, being their Manzanilla la Gitana. Other brands available are: La Luna manzanilla, (Duff-Gordon), Pochola, (Pedro Domecq), Solear, (Antonio Barbadillo).

AMONTILLADO. Dry, though not as dry as fino, and its very name will denote high quality. Some amontillados will have sweetening wine added to bring them to a sweeter style. Alcohol content will be 16-18-20%, rising to 24%. The name sack has not gone away; you can buy a fine medium amontillado from sherry makers Williams and Humbert named Dry Sack. Other styles available include Particular, (Croft), El Cid, (Duff-Gordon), Dry Fly, (Findlater), La Concha, (Gonzales Byass), Double Century, (Pedro Domecq), Club Amontillado, (Harveys).

OLOROSO/ AMOROSO/CREAM: Commercially blended range of sweetened Oloroso’s. Essentially for the UK market, now accepted as a style worldwide. Most noted firm is Harveys of Bristol. Styles available are Bristol Cream, (Harveys), Celebration, (Pedro Domecq), Santa Maria, (Duff Gordon), Armada, (Sandeman), Canasta, (Williams & Humbert).

PALO CORTADO: A style mid way between amontillado and oloro­so. Found mainly in Spain, not so common outside due to tiny production. These are sherries that have lost the flor earlier in the system; they have more body and colour than amontillado. The name refers to the palo or slash, “cut-stick” sign (right), marked on each cask to show its style and character. Grades are from one to four, four being the finest. Palo Cortado sherries are rare; a four-palo version would be very rare being older and having achieved great concentration and richness, yet always bone dry.

Shelf life

In buying sherry, especially dry sherries, the fresher the better. Sherry is at its peak when bottled and rapidly declines when opened and should be consumed as soon as possible. Sherry aficionado George Saintsbury, in his “Notes on a Cellar-book”, says “When sherries are opened, the finer ones especially, they must be drunk. I have known a bottle of Tio Pepe become appreciably ‘withered’ between lunch and dinner”. UK supermarkets, most of them that is, do well with sherry, sourcing their brands from reputable producers, and have a good turnover. The bigger sherry companies are focusing on quality at the expense of volume; making less, but better; a dictum that many winemakers in the world would do well to follow.

All sherries have a limited life. Sherry bottles should be stored in a cool, dark place. Fine fino sherries begin to deteriorate in bottle after about three months from bottling, and once the bottle is opened the contents should be consumed within three days. If you can’t manage that, (a) you aren’t trying and (b) invite a friend to help you. Sweeter and richer styles last a little longer in bottle. Serve dry sherries lightly chilled, 8–10c; fuller sherries at 15–18c. The ideal sherry glass is the copita, a full bodied glass which narrows towards the top; it should be filled half full to allow aroma to develop. In Spain you can buy the larger version, the cavatino which holds a more generous quantity. The best place to enjoy your sherry is in Spain. Not just in Spain but in Andalusia, particularly in the fine city of Seville with its 3,000 tapas bars, its wonderful cured ham, Spanish olives, manchego cheese and chilled fino sherry. Wonderful.