Exploring the Heart of Sherry: A Journey through Jerez de la Frontera

Exploring the Heart of Sherry: A Journey through Jerez de la Frontera.

With a radiant sun and an almost summer temperature, Jerez de La Frontera kindly greeted us last April. A group of Dutch journalists including Inma Muñoz as our representative, was invited to visit this beautiful Andalusian city, upon invitation by Sherry Wine. We all were ready to immerse ourselves in the wonderful wine universe of this region and discover the diversity offered by its popular drink, known worldwide as: Sherry.  

Jerez de la Frontera is also the main city of the famous Sherry Triangle – Marco de Jerez- a magical place where unparalleled wines are born, which will be the starting point and the focus of this article. We invite you to join us on this interesting and fascinating journey!

4 days in Sherry with this amazing group.

A Fragrant History of Wine

Sherry has evolved through the influences of diverse cultures, unique production techniques, and the dedication of winemakers who preserve its rich heritage. From modest beginnings to its current status, the history of Sherry is a fascinating journey through time and flavor.

This journey began around 3,000 years ago when the Phoenicians, sailors and merchants, established a foundation for this legacy. Under the Roman Empire, the city, then called Ceret, laid the groundwork for the future wine industry of the region.

Around the year 700, during the Arabic domination, the area was named Sherish. The Muslim influence left a significant legacy in wine production and marketing. They introduced distillation techniques, enabling the creation of fortified wines, and influenced the architecture of wineries with the construction of distinctive “lagares” for wine production, utilizing the region’s favorable climate and soil conditions.

In the 13th century, Jerez began prosperous wine trade with the English. By the 15th century, now known as Xerez and under the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, Sherry expanded its reach to the newly discovered Americas.

Sherry gained popularity in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in England and the Netherlands. Despite challenges like wars, insect plagues, and changing consumer preferences, Sherry producers have demonstrated remarkable resilience, blending tradition with innovation to preserve its essence.

Unbeatable Geographic and Climate Conditions

The vineyards create a stunning contrast between the blue sky and the white Albariza limestone soil in the gently rolling landscape of the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry appellation. It’s a serene and beautiful scene to enjoy.

This D.O. encompasses a distinctive area in southwestern Spain, in Cádiz, one of eight provinces in Andalucía. Stretching along the Atlantic coast, it benefits from the sea breeze, creating an ideal microclimate. The Guadalquivir River, one of Spain’s most significant rivers, flows through Jerez into the Atlantic, while the Guadalete River also plays a crucial role in maintaining the water balance necessary for healthy grape growth.

The climate in this region is Mediterranean, warm and sunny, with a strong Atlantic influence. Summers can exceed 30°C, while winters are mild. The area enjoys abundant sunshine throughout the year. Annual rainfall is relatively high at 600 mm, mainly occurring in autumn and winter, with minimal rainfall during the growing season. The albariza soil enables the vines to thrive during this period.

An important factor in this area is the winds from the west (Poniente) and east (Levante), which significantly impact cultivation and aging.

The Poniente wind from the Atlantic Ocean brings marine humidity and coastal freshness. It’s particularly beneficial during warmer months, cooling the vineyards and moderating temperatures in both vineyards and cellars. In the wineries, Poniente’s humidity is crucial for the development of the ‘velo de flor,’ a yeast layer essential for biologically aged wines like Fino and Manzanilla (read more about this in our upcoming article ‘The Mystery Behind Flor’).

The Levante wind, originating from the Iberian Peninsula’s interior, is dry and hot, dramatically raising temperatures. It can stress the plants in the vineyards. In the wineries, its high temperatures and low humidity aid in water evaporation.

It is interesting to see how each Bodega we visited makes appropriate use of the influence of these winds for the aging of their wines. Also, to notice how all the wineries have large windows with curtains, generally made of esparto grass. Esparto grass is a natural fiber, traditionally used for its ability to allow air (Poniente o Levante) to circulate, while blocking direct light. Esparto grass curtains can also be easily rolled up, or down, to adjust the amount of ventilation and shade.

The influence and alternation of these two winds creates a climatic balance in the field, and in the winery, essential for the diversity and quality of the sherry wines.

Ventilation through open windows and curtains at Bodegas Tradición.

They also make use of ‘esparto’ grass to cover open windows.

Albariza Soil: Hidden Treasure

Amongst the great collection (~7,000 hectares) of vineyards in Marco de Jerez, there is a fundamental element, its natural jewel: the albariza soil. Albariza plays a crucial role in the distinctive character of Jerez wines. But what specifically is albariza? 

Albariza is a white, calcareous sedimentary rock, formed by the accumulation of marine calcium carbonate over millions of years, when the entire Marco de Jerez was submerged under the Atlantic Ocean. The soil is deep, low in organic matter, and highly porous, preventing waterlogging and promoting healthy vine development.

Despite its drainage capacity, albariza soil retains enough moisture, storing winter rain to keep plants hydrated during droughts. Its whitish color turns radiant in the dry, hot months, reflecting sunlight and helping maintain a cooler temperature in the vineyards. The chalky composition adds rich minerality to the grapes, enhancing the complexity, freshness, and unique character of the region’s wines.

During our visit to the vineyards of Bodegas Hidalgo-La gitana (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) we were able to see this precious type of soil, with our sunglasses on, due to the powerful glint of the sun reflecting off the albariza. We touched it. We walked on it and were even lucky enough to see the first shoots emerging on the Palomino Fino vines. 

Albariza, soils that were once sea at Viña El Cuadrado.

The albariza soil is the true treasure of the Marco de Jerez, transmitting personality and quality to its wines, which we can all fully appreciate in every sip.

Palomino Fino: The Iconic Grape

The white grape Palomino Fino is emblematic of Jerez wines, dominating the region’s vineyards. It adapts well to the warm, dry climate of southern Spain, thriving in high temperatures and limited water. In Albariza soil, it flourishes. Its neutral aromatic profile suits Sherry production, where vinification methods like biological aging (under flor) or oxidative aging (without flor) define the wine’s style.

Jerez also cultivates Pedro Ximénez (P.X.) and Moscatel, used for sweet wines and approved by the Consejo Regulador. P.X., with its thin skin, is ideal for sun drying, creating brilliant sweet wines. Most of these grapes come from Montilla-Moriles, a neighboring region where this variety is well-suited.

Palomino vines at Viña El Cuadrado, the core of Sherry.

Winemaking System: Tradition and Legacy

Sherry is a fortified wine, which means that alcohol is added during its production to increase its alcohol content and prolong its life. What you are about to read is a basic explanation to understand this system. For more information we suggest you to visit Sherry’s Regulatory Council’s website.  

The process begins with harvesting the grapes. Once harvested, the grapes are pressed and fermented to produce a dry base wine with a low alcohol content, approximately 11-12% ABV. This base wine is then classified into different categories based on the winery’s style. Next, the wine is fortified with wine spirit to reach an alcohol content of 15% ABV, the ideal level for the development of flor, essential for biological aging. For oxidative aging, the wine is fortified up to 17% ABV, a level at which the flor dies. Subsequently, the wine is transferred to wooden barrels to commence its dynamic aging process.

The wine is now transferred to wooden casks and begins its dynamic aging process in the criaderas and soleras system. The 600-liter American oak casks, known as “Botas Jerezanas,” are arranged in different levels called criaderas. The youngest wine is placed in the upper rows, while the oldest wine occupies the lower rows. The Solera, the lowest level, contains the oldest wine.

In a process known as “rociado,” the wine is transferred from the younger casks to the older ones. The first criadera holds the youngest wine at the upper level, followed by the second criadera with partially aged wine, and so on. The number of criaderas varies depending on the winery, but the system always culminates in the Solera.

This method blends and ages the wine, allowing the younger wines to acquire the characteristics of the older ones and maintain a consistent flavor over time, developing a unique harmony. The Solera wine, the oldest wine in the system, is ultimately destined for bottling. The term “Solera” is derived from “suelo,” the Spanish word for ground, indicating its position at the lowest level.


Our Inma at Bodega Emilio Hidalgo, with their ‘Sistema Solera y Criaderes’.

Conclusion: A Celebration of Sherry’s Rich Heritage

Our journey through Jerez de la Frontera has been a captivating exploration of Sherry’s rich heritage and the unique factors that contribute to its distinct character. From the vineyards basking under the Andalusian sun to the meticulous aging process in the criaderas and solera system, every element plays a vital role in crafting these exceptional wines.

The history of Sherry is a testament to the resilience and innovation of its producers, who have preserved and evolved the traditions passed down through generations. The unique climate, the albariza soil, and the iconic Palomino Fino grape all converge to create a wine that is truly emblematic of its region.

This concludes our first article in a two-part series on Sherry. Stay tuned for our next article, where we will unveil the ‘Mystery behind Flor’ and delve deeper into the vibrant city of Jerez.

This trip and article are covered by our own Inma Muñoz (@EigenwijNs). We extend our heartfelt thanks to El Consejo Regulador de vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla and Pitch PR for organizing our enlightening trip, and for providing an extensive and enriching program. Join us next time as we continue to uncover the secrets and delights of this remarkable wine region.