One of the common misconceptions about sherry is that ALL sherry is sweet… This couldn’t be further from the truth but there is a very good reason why people - particularly in the UK - beleive this, and that is because of a style of sherry popularly known as Cream sherry.
In the 1860s the people of Jerez discovered that if you took a dry sherry and mixed it with a sweet sherry (Often the grape variety Pedro Ximenez or PX) you had a new style of wine that still held the complexities of the original wine, but the palate had an engaging sweetness that was popular with port and madeira drinkers. Fast forward to the mid 19th century and much of this style passed through the great trading port of Bristol and thus became known as ‘Bristol Milk’. Legend says an aristocratic lady tasted a new richer style and exclaimed ‘if that is Milk, then this must be cream’ and in 1882 Harvey’s Bristol Cream was trademarked.
By the 1950s this was the best selling sherry in the world and was sold on such a massive scale that the entire category was named ‘cream’ based on it rather than the other way around!
So what is the difference in production of Cream sherry versus Fino sherry? Let’s TRY to keep it simple.
All sherries start life in the same way….exactly like a wine. The grapes are picked, pressed and vinified. The Palomino grapes (the variety that forms the basis of most sherries) are fermented until ALL of the sugar has been turned to alcohol (hence why is lower in calories than wine!) and then this base wine is fortified with a local grape brandy which essentially just means high strength alcohol is added that raises the total % alcohol. Historically this was done to stabilize the wines for their long journeys around the world at sea (those sailors had to be kept entertained!).
Now at this point the wines have already been classified which means their future as a Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado etc. has pretty much been decided.
The wines now go into what is called the Solera System which is just a system of fractional blending which, by careful management, results in the same style being produced consistently over the years. This time spent in the Solera is extremely important as for a Fino to be a Fino, a layer of yeast called 'Flor' (the Spanish word for flower) grows across the the top of the wine, preventing any contact with oxygen and allowing the wine to retain its pale colour and delicate aromas. Are you still with me?!
After a minimum of two years in the Solera (some are MUCH older) the Fino will be ready to rock as a pale, dry wine (best served chilled!) with an alcohol content of 15%.
Fino’s closest relatives are Amontillado and Oloroso. Amontillado is made the same way as Fino but halfway through the ageing process the Flor dies and oxygen is allowed in to the party, creating a richer more nutty style. Oloroso is the richest wine on the scale - it is fortified to a higher % alcohol which prevents any Flor for forming, and thus is is exclusively aged 'oxidatively', resulting in the richest styles of sherry.
Backtracking to Pedro Ximenez which forms the basis of Cream sherries. Things are similar but a key difference at the beginning of the process is that the grapes are picked overly ripe which means they have a seriously high percentage of sugar and the fermentation is stopped early through the addition of fortification alcohol - i.e. the yeasts don't eat all the sugar - leading to what is, in sharp contrast, one of the sweetest wines in the world.
This is then aged like the Oloroso (with oxygen) and turns out almost like black treacle but with a wonderful complexity of flavours. On its own this is a pudding wine of kings but it is also DELICIOUS over vanilla ice cream... but I digress...
To finish what I started, Cream sherry is a blend of a base Amontillado or Oloroso wine which has been topped-up with the sweet Pedro Ximenez. This can be done in varying percentages - look out for 'medium cream' which will be slightly less sweet.
This is a COMPLEX subject (and I am not going to discuss Pale Cream here, which is a slightly modified version of the above!) but the idea is to give a simple overview. If you want to learn more (especially the technical deets) I highly recommend visiting www.sherry.org which will give you more than you ever knew you wanted to know and will certainly enrich your life.
Over and out,