Knowing the Difference between Port Amp Sherry

The main difference between Port and Sherry can be defined by location. Port (noun) a sweet dark red fortified wine from Portugal. Sherry (noun) a fortified wine originally and mainly from southern Spain.

Similarities – both are fortified wines from Europe.

Differences – vast !

Lets start with Port.

Port is a fortified wine originating from the Douro Valley in Portugal it takes its name from the city of Oporto. Port style wines are now made around the world including Australia and California but in order to be a true Port it must come from Portugal.

Over 80 grape varieties are authorized for the production of Port but the 5 considered the best are :

Touriga Nacional; the backbone of most vintage Ports, renowned for its colour, intense blackcurrant nose and powerful tannins.

Touriga Francesca; a much more delicate variety brings a certain softness to the blend.

Tinta Roriz; also known as Tempranillo, brings firmness, structure and length.

Tinta Borocca; an early ripening variety with a much higher sugar content than the other grapes, a more flowery aroma and softening properties.

Tinta Cao; noted for backbone and structure it contributes to the long finish on the palate.

Much of the harvesting in the Douro Valley is still done by hand due to the steep slopes and inaccessibility for machine harvesters, sadly the tradition of stomping the vintage bare foot has in the main given over to machinery. Now, however, a few of the Port houses maintain the tradition for at least a part of the blend. And the festivals after the ‘crush’ are amazing to attend, even if you have purple feet!

Once the fruit has been crushed the juice (known as ‘must’) is stored in stainless steel tanks and allowed to ferment relying on natural yeasts. When around half the sugars have fermented into alcohol grape spirit is added to the wine at a ratio of around 1 part spirit to 4 parts wine to halt fermentation, this is where the Port wine is fortified. The wine remains sweet and the alcohol level is raised.

Once the fortification has been completed the resulting wine is then moved to one of the shipper’s lodges where it is stored in wooden casks to begin maturation. The wines can be stored for years before the master blender believes they are ready to become part of a blend.

The blending of the wines is a very specialised art with sometimes up to 12 / 15 batches of wine being brought together to make that perfect blend. The majority of Port wines that can be purchased are Non Vintage wines – a blend of wines from various years. A Vintage is only declared when the harvest for that particular year has been exceptional.

There is so much more to learn about Port I could go on for another page, but let now look at Sherry.

Sherry is a fortified wine made in and around the town of Jerez (pron : Hereth) in Spain. Legally if the wine is not from the area of the province of Cadiz, a triangular area between Jerez, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria, then it cannot be called Sherry unless clarification of region is clearly given on the label such as ” Californian Sherry”

There are only 3 grape varietals used to make Sherry:

Palamino Fino ; used in around 90% of Sherry producing

Pedro Ximenez (PX); used in the darker sweeter Sherries, these grapes are sun dried after harvesting to concentrate the sugar levels.

Moscatel; used in the same style as PX but now rarely used

The majority of these grapes are grown in vineyards on ‘albariza’ soil, this soil is chalk, limestone and clay and the perfect growing medium for Palamino grapes.

Harvesting is again done mainly by hand due to the fact that the Palamino grape is a very delicate thin skinned varietal.

After harvest the grapes are gently pressed with the first 65 – 70% going to make Fino and light Sherry styles, the next 20% goes to Oloroso and heavier styles and the remainder is sent to be distilled.

The production of Sherry differs from that of Port as the fermentation is allowed to finish completely turning all the sugars into alcohol, whereas Port fermentation is stopped halfway to maintain the sweet style.

The wine will have developed a layer of yeast known as ‘flor’ on the surface. This is important for the winemakers as it has a distinguishing effect on the style of the wine and their decision making as to what Sherry will be produced from each barrel.

If you ever get to experience the heady aromas from a Sherry barrel hall it is quite amazing.

Once the winemakers have chosen which barrels will go to which styles of Sherry then fortification is carried out by the process of blending in to the wine alcohol grape spirit. Fino is fortified to a lower level than Oloroso to enable the Flor to survive. In the Oloroso barrels the Flor will die and oxidation will occur which gives Sherry its dark colour – imagine an apple core left open to the air and the colour changing from clear pale fruit to brown.

At this stage there are only 2 styles of Sherry – Fino & Oloroso. From these 2 base wines the winemakers will blend out the other styles.

Once fortified to the required level the wines are left in barrels for around 6 months. The winemakers constantly monitor the progress of their maturation in order to decide which barrels will remain as Fino Sherry and which will be blended out to become other styles.

The aging and blending process for sherry is unique. The method is called the ‘solera system’ and is a process difficult to describe without pictures but I’ll have a go.

Imagine a stack of wine barrels 3 high. Sherry for blending and bottling is only ever drawn out of the bottom barrels ( the oldest wine) , these are never emptied. Once part of this wine has been drawn out the bottom barrels are topped up with wine from the layer directly above. These barrels are then topped up with wine from the barrels directly above. These barrels are then topped up with the new vintage wine just produced.

This system maintains a style required by the winemaker and is a constant blending and aging process.

Sherry styles include :
Fino – the pale dry style (think Tio Pepe)
Manzanilla – a variety of Fino but made around the area of Sanlucar de Barrameda
Amontillado – darker than Fino but lighter than Oloroso, dry to taste
Oloroso – aged oxidatively for longer than Fino or Amontillado a dark rich wine, dry to taste
Palo Cortado – very difficult to find nowadays, crisp and dry but dark
Sweet Sherry – This is where PX is added to sweeten the blend. Many varieties abound – Pale Cream Sherry, Cream Sherry, Medium Sherry.

PX – WOW ! If you ever get the opportunity to try a bottle of Gonzales Byass PX you really must. It has incredible sweetness and depth.