In my talk on sherry at Tales of the Cocktail, I was trying to summarize sherry in a way that makes it easy to understand what is in the bottles you find on shelves.
I think the three slides below get us pretty close (though I had 90 slides during the talk!). The last chart is the most important one if you want to skip ahead.
Sherry is aged in three ways:
- With a layer of yeast called flor that floats on top of the wine in the barrel. This is biological aging. This sherry usually tastes yeasty, light, and often salty/ocean-influenced. Fino and Manzanilla sherries are exclusively aged biologically.
- Explosed to air in the barrel. This is called oxidative aging. This sherry is darker in color and richer in flavor, tasting of leather, walnuts, and tobacco. Olorso sherries are exclusively aged oxidatively.
- Or some of each. Amontillado and Palo Cortado sherries are aged first under biological and then oxidative aging; with Amontillado sherry spending more time under flor than Palo Cortado.
Each of these types of sherry can be unsweetened, or sweetened to different levels, and all are aged.
Sherry is not sweetned with sugar, but with naturally-sweet Pedro Ximenez (PX) and/or Moscatel wine made from those grape varietals respectively. These wines are aged in the solera system and are also sold on their own as sweet wines. Another sweet wine (that I've not seen on US store shelves) is Dulce sherry, which is a sweet wine made from any of or a combination of PX, Moscatel, and the Palomino grapes.
Oloroso, Amontillado, and Palo Cortado sherries are either dry (without a sweetness label) or labelled as Dry, Medium, or Cream.
Fino and Manzanilla sherries, when sweetened, are often sweetened with rectified wine musts instead of PX/Moscatel (because those wines are dark and would alter the color of the wine). These are called "Pale Cream" sherries.
When Fino and Manzanilla sherries are aged a long time (this is not easy to do, and more often the case with Manzanilla), they can be labelled as "Pasada," as in Manzanilla Pasada.
The other sherries can have average age statements (the solera aging and blending system makes exact age statements impossible). The only approved average ages allowed to be put on bottles are for 12, 15, 20 (VOS), and 30 (VORS) years of age.
Anada sherries, which are hard to find outside of Spain, are vintage-dated wines not aged in the solera sytem.
Finally, many/most Fino and Manzanilla sherries are filtered through carbon to make them light in color, though this will affect the flavor also. "En Rama" sherries are unfiltered (except to get rid of the flor).
So, putting it all together, I came up with this chart: