Christine Austin shares a sherry experience with quiz winner Bev Madden in deepest Andalusia.

“The best part of the trip was definitely the tasting. It was just fantastic to discover all the different flavours and styles of sherry.”
It would be difficult for Bev Madden, from Dewsbury, winner of The Yorkshire Post’s Fiendish Wine Quiz, to be more enthusiastic about her trip to Jerez in Spain. For two days Bev and her husband Andy were guests of Gonzalez Byass, producers of top-quality sherries, including the world’s best-selling fino sherry, Tio Pepe. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to taste some spectacular wines, I went along to share the experience.
The first thing that hit us on our arrival in Jerez was the temperature. The UK has been going through some chilly June weather, but in Spain the days are hot, climbing to 35C in full sunshine.
Our first sherry experience was a glass of chilled Tio Pepe with a tapas dinner and this set the scene for all of our meals. From grilled prawns, cheese-filled croquetas and artichokes to sea-bass, tuna and asparagus, a glass of Tio Pepe seems to settle around the food, lift the taste buds and complement all the flavours on the plate.
Next day we headed out to the vineyards that are surprising for the sheer whiteness of the soil. This is Albariza, the limestone-rich soil of the region which soaks up water in the rainy season and then releases it to the vines during the long dry summer.
Ninety five per cent of the vines are the Palomino variety which can be made into all styles of sherry, with just a small amount of Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez grown for sweet wines and blending.
We went from the vineyards to the Gonzalez Byass bodega in the heart of Jerez (pronounced Hereth) and it was easy to see the stamp of history in the shady avenues and lofty barrel stores of the estate. The large circular store was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in honour of a visit by Queen Isabel II of Spain in 1862. Many butts of sherry bear chalk signatures of the rich, famous and royal, making this one of the most unusual places to find autographs.
Making sherry is a long process. The grapes are picked in late August and transported to the winery where they are made into a still white wine. Sherry is a fortified wine; a process that involves adding distilled wine alcohol to boost the strength of the wine. This process was developed to help the wine keep when it was shipped.
Fino is fortified the least, just to around 15 per cent alcohol and then put into large 600-litre barrels, known as butts, which are left with a large headspace. Then a very clever thing happens. A film of yeast grows across the surface of the wine, keeping all the oxygen out and developing a yeasty, almond tang in the wine. The wine stays in the butt for around four years, gradually being refreshed by younger wines in a process known as the solera system. Other styles of sherry are fortified to slightly higher alcohol levels and also aged in a solera system. Amontillado sherry develops some floor covering for a few years, while olorosos are aged in butts in contact with air, developing richer, rounder flavours. Each variety has its own characteristic style, but the essential factor is that they are all dry in taste. If sweetness in the final wine is required then it is added after ageing, using a wine known as PX, made from dried, raisined grapes.
In the bodega, José Alberto, who has been making wine here since 1987, first pulled the stopper from a butt and invited us to peer and sniff inside. The surface of the wine inside looked rather like the white coat on a Brie cheese, while it had the smell of freshly made sourdough bread. The bodega’s Capataz called Claudio who is in charge of this vast stock of wine and then drew out a sample using a long-handled cylindrical cup called a venencia and poured it skilfully into glasses. This was a four-year-old fino sherry that had been selected to be bottled and sold “en Rama”. It is the freshest, brightest style of fino, released just twice a year for early drinking.
From there we went to the tasting room where a 10-wine tasting was set up, ranging from the bright, crisp flavours of Tio Pepe, through a 12-year-old Amontillado, a Palo Cortado sherry called Apostoles, aged for 30 years, and on to Olorosos that have been aged for 30 years and more. These are complex, concentrated wines and their aromas spill out of the glass, with notes of raisins, figs, toasted nuts and toffee.
“I had no idea that some sherries are aged for so long, and they have such wonderful flavours,” said Bev.
Tio Pepe is widely available in major supermarkets at around £10 while Bon Coeur in Melsonby has the complete range including those wonderful 30-year-old Apóstoles and Matusalem sherries.
And a final word from Bev. “We just love the food and the culture here. I had no idea that I would end up enjoying drinking sherry through a meal, but a fino such as Tio Pepe goes really well with food, and an Oloroso is perfect with a chocolate dessert.”

About The Author

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

Let us know what you think