“Now that we know the setting and the history that gives rise to Sherry wine… AND IF NOT, STOP READING AND GO BACK ONE ENTRY! We are ready to delve into its production process.
We could summarize the steps through which the grape goes until it reaches our table bottled as Sherry wine in these six stages:
- The harvest.
- Crushing and pressing.
- Classification and encabezamiento (vinification)
- Soleras and Criaderas.
At the end of August or early September, when the two grape varieties mentioned earlier, Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximénez, reach their optimal level of ripeness, the grape harvest takes place.
Traditionally, it is done by hand, and this method is still mostly used today because human hands are more attentive to plant care and more skillful than machines.
The Palomino Fino grapes are quickly transported to the location where crushing will take place. In contrast, the Pedro Ximénez grapes will remain in the vineyard. We will see the process that this grape goes through when we discuss the different Sherries.
Crushing and Pressing.
The next step is to pour the grapes into the hopper, a type of screws that, when turned, promote the breaking of the skins. As for the stems, they can be removed before or after crushing in the destemming machine.
Now it’s time to press the grapes. By exerting low pressure, we obtain the first juices, which are more suitable for biological aging wines. These juices are known as the first must. By exerting even more pressure, the next juices are the second must, which will be used for the rest.
The must is poured into temperature-controlled metal tanks to allow the natural transformation of grape juice sugar into alcohol. This process is rapid at first, and then the rest gradually transforms into alcohol, until the end of November, or the feast of Saint Andrew, because as the saying goes…
“Por San Andrés, el mosto vino es” (“On Saint Andrew’s day, the must turns into wine.”)
Classification and vinification.
And by the end of November, we already have that new year’s wine, the must, which contains about 12 degrees of alcohol after the fermentation process.
This is the moment when the wisdom and skill of the winemakers, knowledge passed down and learned from generation to generation, come into play.
Through sight and smell, the wise winemakers, along with the oenologists, classify the wine into two main groups that will undergo the two main aging processes, fino and oloroso.
The clearer, more piercing, and delicate wines from the first must are classified as fino, while the rest are categorized as oloroso.
Once classified, it’s time to increase the alcohol content, in other words, fortify the wines. For this, wine alcohol from the same Palomino Fino grape is used.
Fino is fortified to reach up to 15 degrees of alcohol to facilitate its biological aging. The rest, classified as oloroso, has its alcohol content increased to 17 degrees to achieve oxidative aging.
All these terms may seem a bit confusing, but if you continue to follow this blog, you’ll surely get a better understanding as I address and develop each point (and if you have any questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll clarify).
At this point, we have the wine ready to transfer it to barrels, or as we say in Jerez, ‘botas,’ for a period of 6 months, at the end of which we will check again if the wine follows the evolution established in the initial classification.
It’s important to consider that Sherry wine is a living entity, subject to many factors such as climate variations, chemical reactions, and other elements that can alter its evolution.
The ‘bota’ is also a crucial factor since it will be the vessel where the wine spends a season or many years.
The Jerez ‘bota’ is made of staves (planks) of American oak wood. These are joined and shaped using fire. Metal rings are used to hold them together and give shape to the ‘bota.’
American oak wood is ideal for Sherry, given its porosity and durability. It must endure over the years while allowing the wine to oxygenate and the alcohol to evaporate, that perfume that fills the cellars when we visit, better known as ‘the angel’s share.’
Soleras and criaderas anging process.
After six months in the ‘bota,’ the wine reveals its character and is finally ready to age in the ‘botas.’
One of the processes that makes our wines unique is our aging system, the Solera and Criaderas system.
When we visit a winery, we can observe that the ‘botas’ are grouped or stacked in three or four rows, one on top of the other, forming a pyramid-like structure. This pyramid is called an ‘Andana’ (see photo above).
Starting from the ground, the row of ‘botas’ closest to the ground is called the ‘solera’ (which derives from the Spanish word for ground, ‘suelo’… ‘solera’). The rows above the ‘solera’ are called ‘criaderas,’ with the first row directly above the ‘solera.’ So, in a typical ‘andana,’ we see the ‘solera,’ the first ‘criadera,’ the second, and the third.
In the ‘solera,’ the oldest wines are stored, and as we move higher, the wines are younger, with the highest ‘criadera’ containing the youngest wines in the entire ‘andana.’
How does the process begin? Well, it starts with the ‘saca,’ when the wine is ready for bottling.
The ‘saca’ involves drawing wine, always from the ‘solera,’ and specifically one-third of the ‘bota’ (of those with a capacity of 600 liters, although in some cases, the ‘bota’ is not completely filled, and a space is left inside, as we will see later…).
So, we extract one-third of the wine from the ‘botas’ in the ‘solera,’ which continues its process for bottling. Now, the one-third that we have taken from the ‘solera’ is drawn from the row of ‘botas’ above it, the first ‘criadera,’ and it is poured into the ‘botas’ of the ‘solera.’
Following the same method, we reach the last row of ‘botas,’ usually the third ‘criadera,’ which is topped up with one-third of the new wine from the last year.
As you can see, the wine that ends up in our glass is the result of blending many harvests…
Clarification and Bottling.
When we remove the wine from the barrel, it’s necessary to clean it of impurities so that it reaches the bottle, and consequently, the glass, clear.
Clarification is done today in large metal tanks where the wine undergoes a cold process to induce the settling of any impurities it may contain at the bottom of the tank. In the past, this process was not mechanized and was done differently, which I will also mention later (so stay tuned).
Finally, the wine goes through the bottling process, to the storage, to the store, and to the consumers.
With all that said, I believe we can conclude here the Sherry production process and continue with the types of wine and their pairings.
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