Sherry’s Rich History: The Tale of Spain’s Fortified Wine

february 12, 2021

To be hosted again soon, we had our Spanish Saturdays wine tasting to debunk the notion that sherry is a cooking wine and little more.Here in Spain, we celebrate this complex wine, with its many layers of flavor and aroma, and enjoy it alongside some of our favorite tapas, such as olives and gambas al ajillo!  We sat down with Raúl Orantes, our resident wine buff, to find out the intricacies of sherry and its origins in southern Spain’s Andalusia region.


Sherry’s history began approximately 3000 years ago when the Phoenicians brought the first vines to the port city of Cádiz, known as “Gades” at the time.  The region’s epicenter of sherry production, Jerez, also went by a different name, Xera, and began supplying sherry to the whole of the Mediterranean.  The wine was not just a commodity for exportation and, under Roman rule, the people of the area enjoyed bountifully the fruits of their labor.  In addition to growing grapes for wine, they also began to make raisins as an important source of energy to fuel the soldiers.

After the Roman period of growth and expansion, Muslims arrived in Spain in 711 and sherry production, due to the Muslim’s abstinence from alcohol, entered a period of decline.  In the year 966, in fact, they pulled out approximately ⅓ of the vines that had been growing in the area.  Despite their lack of interest in grapes and drinking wine for the purpose of intoxication, they did come to appreciate the medicinal value of the product, as well as the use of raisins as an excellent source of sugar and energy.  This realization saved grape growing from being abandoned all together in the region.

In the year 1264, the region was reconquered by Catholics and sherry production was revived. Sherry became extremely popular on the English market and exportation began, not only to England, but to France, Flanders (modern Belgium), and Spanish colonies around the world. In 1402, an agreement was made with England to trade wine for wool and the close partnership continued for many years until relations soured between the two countries. 

England had long had invested interests in Cádiz, not only for its wine but also for its strategic positioning, prompting a series of failed invasions of the area.  The main characteristic of sherry that attracted the British, with its focus on colonization far and wide, was its durability.  Sherry wine travels exceptionally well, with the capacity to endure high temperatures and get better with age.  This distinguishing quality of sherry made it the first wine to circumvent the globe with Magellan in 1519.  The Portuguese explorer took 253 barrels of sherry on his journey around the world and arrived back in Spain with some still left on board (I doubt that I would have been able to show the same restraint!)  This trip gave rise to an enthusiasm for exchanging wine among members of the royal families.  For the British royal family in particular, sherry was the unchallenged wine of choice.  Queen Elizabeth I of England claimed that sherry was the ideal wine to drink and King James I, at one point, felt it necessary to “limit” the family to ONLY  12 gallons of sherry from the royal winery per day!

In 1625, with sherry becoming an invaluable product, Edward Cecil, 1st Viscount Wimbledon led an invasion on the city of Cádiz.  His attempt was unsuccessful but this invasion led to many British families settling in Jerez in order to establish their own sherry exportation businesses.  Many of these British transplants remain and continue to thrive in the area, making up some of the most important wine families of the region. With the arrival of the English also came the establishment of order in the sherry making process.  The people of Cádiz, with their laissez-faire attitude, had not felt the need to name and classify the varying styles of sherry they were creating. The English, on the other hand, forever sticklers for organization and structure, felt it of the utmost importance to label the different styles and distinguish them from one another. 

During our virtual experience, we tasted Fino and Manzanilla, two sherry types that are made in the same style, both tasting very similar and requiring 3 years minimum of ageing.  The reason for the difference in names is that Manzanilla is produced exclusively in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Fino is made anywhere else in the region.  The climate is much milder in Sanlúcar de Barrameda than in Jerez, with cooler summers and warmer winters.  The Manzanilla vineyards and wines are affected by both the Atlantic breeze and salt from the ocean.  It seems that the Sanlucareños feel their manzanilla deserves more of the limelight than they currently share with their neighbours in Jeréz.  Raúl predicts Manzanilla will become, in the not too distant future, an entirely separate appellation from Jerez.

Join us in the fall to learn more about sherry’s dynamic history, the complex process it requires to make it, and the resulting, multifaceted smells and tastes that are produced due to this process.  We will also be making a delicious shrimp and garlic tapa dish that pairs perfectly with, and is enhanced by, our sherry.  An event not to miss!

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