On the Trail

Harvest in Jerez de la Frontera

Olivia Ragni

What makes Sherry… Sherry? As the sherry liaison here at K&L, this is one of the questions I encounter most often. In other words, what makes Sherry unique in the world of wine? The answer is not simple and involves an in-depth history lesson, but the three basic attributes that make sherry unique are that it is fortified, it has unique aging processes, and that the terroir of not only vineyards but also the aging warehouses are very important. Over the next four weeks I’ll be working a Sherry harvest with Bodega Faustiano Gonzales, or Cruz Vieja, and exploring the region to learn more about the wine, its history, and its culture. Hopefully, by the end of my stay, I’ll be able to provide an insightful commentary on what makes Sherry so special.

One of the most exciting elements about studying wine is wine’s deep connection to history. All wines have it, but Sherry is unique in that its history is directly tied to the creation of the modern Western world.  Sherry’s home, Jerez de la Frontera was long the battleground between Moorish and Christian powers, a battle that raged for centuries and ultimately decided the fate of Western Europe. The term Sherry is a bastardization of Jerez or Xerez which is also a bastardization of the Moorish word Scheris, the name given to Jerez by the Moors. The Moors brought distillation to the area, which would contribute to making Sherry what it is today. Under Moorish rule, Jerez flourished as the cultural hub of Europe. But the fall of the Moors gave rise to the Spanish empire, and with it world exploration. World explorers set sail from port towns like Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, the two other Sherry-producing cities along with Jerez that comprise the Sherry triangle, or el marco de jerez. In fact, the first map of America (which you can now find in a museum in Madrid) was drawn in El Puerto de Santa Maria in 1500. It’s no surprise that Sherry was often the drink of choice aboard the ships, and this wide-scale exploration would bring Sherry international fame.  During the height of Spanish exploration, Sherry was widely drunk around the globe and became a staple in the UK and eventually found fans in the Founding Fathers of the American Colonies.

A series of unfortunate events lead to the downfall of Sherry’s popularity, but perhaps no event had more of an impact on Sherry than Prohibition. Before Prohibition, Sherry was drunk with meals, but post Prohibition Americans drank very differently. Following the repeal, Sherry was treated as a substitute for spirits rather than as an accompaniment to food. Over time, the American and British palates shifted towards drinking table wine and Sherry was relegated to the corners of the kitchen in the form of cooking wine or the cloyingly-sweet Cream Sherry. Only recently has interest in traditional dry Sherry surged and people are looking to rediscover the quirky and esoteric wine that was once one of the world’s most famous.

A little over six years ago, a sip of oceanic manzanilla at a restaurant staff training got me hooked on Sherry. My infatuation led me to Jerez a few years ago, and has now brought me back to work a harvest.  I have no idea what to expect from this experience, but I cannot wait to find out what’s in store.  I’ll be posting about Jerez, the harvest, and new discoveries in Sherry from Jerez for the next few weeks.  Follow me as I work, learn and wander about the Sherry triangle. Stay tuned for more posts from Spain.

~Olivia Ragni