Port and Sherry are both fortified wines hailing from the Iberian Peninsula. The difference between the two is more than just the difference between red and white wines or the difference between Portugal and Spain. The end results define the difference between Port and Sherry as well. Originally these wines were fortified with brandy to survive the ocean voyage to England from the Mediterranean. The added brandy prevented spoilage and allowed the wines to age during the months spent aboard ships. Today Port and Sherry are popular throughout much of the western world.
Port is named after the Portuguese city of Oporto at the mouth of the Douro river and is valued by wine lovers for its capacity to improve with age. Port is made in a variety of styles with Vintage, Tawny, and Ruby the most common. Port is made in Portugal’s Douro valley from a variety of red grapes including Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, and Touriga Frencesa. These Ports start out as musts and are fermented halfway to dryness before brandy is added, halting fermentation. Since half the wine’s natural sugars remain unfermented, the resulting port starts out sweet.
After two years barrel ageing, a vintage may be declared if the majority of port producers agree. A Vintage Port is deemed to be of high enough quality to justify offering it as a top of the line offering. The Port is then bottled and aged for at least a decade. Because vintages are only declared during the best years, Vintage Port accounts for a very small percentage of total production.
Unlike Vintage Port which is bottled young, Tawny Port remains in the cask up to 30 years. This is called “Tawny” because it acquires a pale brown hue after spending decades in the cask. This lengthy ageing allows oxidation to occur. With added alcohol guarding against spoilage, oxidation improves the port’s flavor. The fruit flavors of youth evolve into mellower, more subtle flavors and the port becomes less apparently sweet. Unless labelled “Port of the Vintage” most Tawnys are blends of ports from different years chosen for their complementary characters.
Ruby Port is a blend of young wines and is named for its bright red color. Ruby Ports are a blending of young wines whose basic characters haven’t been altered by long ageing to produce an inexpensive and delicious Port. Ruby Port retains its primary flavors and intense aromas of ripe red fruits with faint hints of tannin, fire, and pepper.
Sherry is made by fortifying dry white wine made from the Palomino grape grown in southern Spain. Sherry’s name comes from an Anglicization of Jerez, the Spanish port city from which it is shipped. Because it’s often seen as a sweet beverage enjoyed by old women, Sherry doesn’t enjoy Port‘s prestige. Which is unfortunate because there are many fine examples on the market.
Sherry starts out in the vineyards of southern Spain. Here the Palomino grape is fermented into a dry wine. This wine, called “mosto” is fortified with brandy and allowed to age in barrels in the presence of air. While oxidation would damage most wines, mosto’s fortification protects it. In most of these barrels yeast develops on the wine’s surface. This cushion of yeast benefits the mosto. Yeast offers protection from oxidation and imparts flavor to the wine, continuing to fermenting it, adding more alcohol. These barrels produce Fino Sherry, becoming one of the paler Sherries (Fino, Manzanilla, or Amontillado). While these barrels develop a layer of yeast, some develop little or none at all. They give us Oloroso Sherry, one of the darker styles. The other two being Amoroso or Cream Sherry
Because Fino Sherry’s alcohol is concentrated, it’s given extra fortification only as required. In Spain Fino Sherry is often not fortified further and can rests at 16% alcohol. With its lower alcohol this Sherry will not last indefinitely once opened. The darker Oloroso Sherries receives a second fortification raising its alcohol to 18-20%. As such Olorosos will last longer once they’ve been opened.
The blending process used in Sherry production, called “solera” is unique. Barrels of young Sherry are connected to older barrels in such a manner that Sherries from different years are blended. As such there are no vintage Sherries. You may find an expensive Sherry with a year on the label which is usually the vintage year of the oldest Sherry in the blend and may be 100 years old.
When all is said and done there are two families of Sherry: Fino and Oloroso. Fino Sherries include Manzanilla, Fino and Amontillado. Oloroso gives us PX, Oloroso, and Cream Sherries. Manzanilla is a pale, dry fino from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Because it matures in casks stored near the sea it acquires a tangy, salty flavor from the coastal air. Fino Sherry is pale, dry, and best served chilled. Amontillado is noted for its nut like flavor and aroma. These characteristics, along with a light brown color can develop when a fino type of Sherry ages. Amontillado is commonly enjoyed at room temperature as a before dinner drink.
Contrary to popular belief darker Sherries are not necessarily sweeter as the Oloroso family of Sherry proves. In its natural state Oloroso Sherry is quite dry. Good Oloroso is dry, richly flavoured, full bodied, and medium brown in color. However, PX Sherry and Cream Sherry are quite sweet. In fact, PX is so sweet it’s often enjoyed as a sauce poured over dessert more than as a drink. Whereas Cream Sherry makes an enjoyable after dinner drink.