Sherry comes from southwestern Spain (Andalusia), in the same way that Porto comes only from Portugal (Douro) and Champagne comes only from France (Champagne). Sherry can range from a bone-dry, delicate, low alcohol aperitif, to a lush, rich, sweet dessert wine that might be suitable for pouring over ice cream or French toast. (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.)
Sherry is produced from Palomino grapes, though two other grapes are permitted (see the next paragraph). Although there are a seemingly infinite variety of Sherries, all start out completely dry and evolve on their own . . . thus, in one sense, Sherry is one wine but with “hundreds” of variations.
The two other grape varieties are Pedro Ximénez and Muscat of Alexandria. Whereas Palomino is always fermented and aged bone-dry, with no residual sugar, many specific bottlings of Sherry contain slight-to-considerable levels of sweetness. It is the Pedro Ximénez (or “P.X.” for short) that gives the sherries their sweetness. P.X. is always aged as a sweet wine, and then mostly blended into various types of (dry) Palomino. Every once in a while, one will come across a bottling of “straight” P.X. It is syrupy=thick and oh-so-sweet. So, too, is the Muscat, which is only bottled as a single varietal, sweet dessert Sherry.
As with Porto, there are a multitude of ways one might describe the various types; I have chosen to model this after a graphic that can be found in the various editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson. (Keep in mind, this is rather simplified.)
Depending upon how the young wine evolves, they are categorized as follows, based upon its inherent quality, style, and on the geographic location of the bodega.
Starting with the Young Wine . . .
If the flor (a film yeast) develops atop the wine, the wine will be FIRST categorized as either a Fino (if the Bodega in is Jerez), a Puerto Fino (if the Bodega is in Puerto de Santa María), or a Manzanilla (if the Bodegas is in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. These wines are bone-dry, and differ in quality/character – generally, Fino will be the lightest, Puerto Fino the fullers, and Manzanilla is often described as having a slight “salty” tang. Most of the production of these three wines will be bottled quite early, to preserve the wine’s fresh youthfulness. Before bottling, these wines will be filtered and fortified with added alcohol. Many larger producers will fortify these wines by increasing the level of alcohol from the legally required minimum of 15 percent to between 18-20%; this results in a longer “shelf-life” for these wines, and are typically destined for Export. Some will bottle their wines without additional filtration or fortification, preferring to sell their wines at 15-15.5% alcohol content; these are the best in terms of quality, but must be consumed while still fresh! Some producers will not filter their wines, and these are labeled Fino En Rama.
If the flor does NOT develop, the wine (based not on geographic locale but by taste and quality) will be categorized as either an Oloroso or a Raya, which is an inferior category of oloroso. However about two percent of the wine falls “in the middle,” so to speak. It does not have any flor but in its taste profile, it more closely resembles an Oloroso. This will be designated Palo Cortado.
As the wines AGE . . .
With additional age in the solera (another topic entirely), a Fino and a Puerto Fino will mature into a wine called Fino-Amontillado. The equivalent wine from Sanlúcar is a Manzanilla Pasada. These are still bone-dry, but with an added richness and depth. With even more aging, both Fino-Amontillao and Manzanilla Pasada evolve into a true Amontillado.
As the oloroso continues age and mature in the solera, it remains an Oloroso – full-flavored, ver complex. Some Oloroso is bottled dry, while some may be lightly sweetened. Those Oloroso which receive a higher degree of sweetening can and often are called Cream Sherry.
Therein lies a problem, however. Raya – that inferior type of Sherry – is always sweetened with P.X. If it receives a little bit of sweetening, it is labeled as a commercial Amontillado. More sweetening, and it labeled as Cream.
So how does you know if you have a true or a commercial Amontillado? or a Cream Sherry which is Oloroso + P.X., or one which made of Raya + P.X.? From the label, you can’t. Your best bet, aside from tasting it, is to look at the size of the producer. The larger the producer, the more likely you are drinking Raya + P.X.
Occasionally one may come across a bottle of something called Pale Cream; this is a sweetened Fino.
Palo Cortado remains just that: Palo Cortado. It will mature with aging in the solera, may or may not – the best do not – have a little added sweetness, and are very rare and scarce.
Hope this helps . . .