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History of Sherry

A WINE FROM ANCIENT TIMES

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Map of Al-Idrisi showing Sherish
(aka Jerez),
ca. 1150
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The ordinance of the Guild of Raisin and Grape Harvesters,
ca. 1483
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The solera and criadera system, bodega architecture and Jerez wines as we know them today began to take on their distinct characteristics in the late 18th Century.

The general character of sherry wine is not just the result of its geographic origin, as exceptional as the natural conditions of the Jerez Region are. For over 3,000 years different historical circumstances have moulded the identity of these wines, in the same way that the wine itself, its production, selling and enjoyment, have played a determining factor in the history of the region and the cultural identity of its inhabitants too. Sherry wines are the culmination of marks left on the land by very different cultures; some very distant in origin. 

Ancient Times

THE OLD WORLD

The very first mention of Sherry wine comes from the Greek geographer Strabo in the 1st Century BC. He wrote that the first vines were brought to the Jerez Region by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. The remains of ancient wine-presses have been found at archaeological excavations at Castillo de Doña Blanca, located just 2.5 miles from Jerez. These remains confirm that the people who settled in the ancient town of Gades, present day Cádiz, brought the art of wine making with them from the far off lands of what is now known as Lebanon.

From Xera, the Phoenician name for Jerez, these people began producing and exporting wines throughout the Mediterranean Basin, especially to Rome. Thus, right from its most remote origins, sherry wine acquired one of its most important characteristics, one which has become an identifying factor over the centuries: that of being a wine which "travels."  Soon the fame of this wine reached not only Rome, but all corners of the empire; proven by the widespread archaeological discovery of many amphoae remains with the tax stamp from this region. 

The Land of Sherish

MEDIEVAL TIMES

The Moors conquered Spain in 711 AD and started a period of history which in Jerez would become a large wine-producing centre, lasting for over five centuries (despite the Koran's prohibited the consumption of alcohol). This was due, in part, to the variety of uses of wine and alcohol were used for, including its medicinal properties.  In fact, in 966, when Caliph Al-Haken II decreed that all vines were to be dug up for religious reasons, the people of Jerez informed him that the grapes from their vineyards were used to produce raisins to feed the troops fighting in the Holy War, which was indeed partially true, and thus ensured that only a third of their vineyards were destroyed. In any case, we know that during specific times of reduced religious fervour, wine was both widely appreciated and consumed, especially in the more elite social circles of the time. A map of the region dating from 1150, designed by the Moorish geographer Al-Idrisi and perplexingly made to show North on the bottom and South at the top, displays the Moorish name given to the city of Jerez: Sherish. 

The Wine After The Reconquest

RENAISSANCE

In 1264, King Alfonso X of Castile reclaimed Jerez from the Moors, and life in the Sherry region changed radically. Tradition has it that one of his most important military officers, Fernán Ibáñez Palomino, gave his name - Palomino - to the variety of grape that later became a local classic. There was also growing demand for this special wine from Sherish in England. So much so that King Enrique III of Castile prohibited the uprooting of even a single vine by Royal Decree in 1402. Even going as far as to forbid the placement of bee-hives in close proximity to the vineyards in case the bees should damage the grapes. 

This growing demand, also by the French and Flemish, sparked the creation of the Regulations of the Guild of Raisin and Grape Harvesters of Jerez on 12th August, 1483. These were the first rules governing thhe Denomination of Origin: regulating all the details of the harvest, the characteristics of the vines, the ageing system and commercial procedures.

Foreign Investment

SHERRY AROUND THE WORLD

During the next three hundred years, sherry became more popular and was even known to be a favorite of 

of King Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, is on record saying, "The King, my husband, keeps the very best wines from the Canaries and Jerez for himself". 

Sherry even made its way to the New World of America - in fact, Magellan purchased 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of Sherry before setting out on his long voyage, which means that Sherry was the first wine to complete a voyage around the world (assuming any remained by the time his ship returned under new control). Jerez's close-to-port location made its wine convenient for the long voyages to the new world from the Port of Seville.

There is also evidence that Sherry wine was present at events celebrating the conquest of new territories such as Venezuela and Peru. 

The British became especially fond of sherry and even became the subject of privacy. The greatest haul of sherry wine was made in 1587 when Sir Francis Drake attacked Cádiz and carried off 3,000 kegs of sherry to Elizabeth I. Subsequently, Kind James I ordered that the Royal Cellars should limit the amount of sherry brought to his table to a modest 12 gallons (48 litres) per day! Even Shakespeare was a noted fan - in his Palinodia (1619), Pasquil declares that "all drinks stand hat-in-hand in the presence of sherry."

The Shaping Of The Industry

THE MODERN AGE

After a particularly unsuccessful piracy attempt, the British began to establish legitimate trade routes to cater to the growing love of Sherry. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the establishment of British wine merchants and regulations on export taxes led to a four-fold increase in sales of sherry between 1825 and 1840. 

In the mid-eighteenth century the wines being exported from the Jerez Region to overseas markets were very different to what we now recognise as Sherry Wine. As the wine became a more popular drink all over the world, tastes changes as well. The British began to prefer matured, darker colored wines to their previously favoured light pale ones. 

However, the complex norms of the Vintners' Guild restricted the possibility of ageing wine, considering this to be a speculative practice, and thus favouring the trading of young wines whilst at the same time hindering the producers, or "extractors", from selling the type of wine for which demand was steadily increasing. In the late 18th century there was a move toward liberalisation of winemaking and the Guild was abolished. 

This gave rise to one of the major characteristics of sherry production: the ageing method known as Criaderas and Solera. The wines also started to be left in barrels for longer to stabilize them, rather than by being fortified. Instead, fortification vai the addition of grape spirit became a studied wine making technique and provided the origins of the wide range of sherry wines available today.

The 20th Century

TO PRESENT DAY

In end of the 19th century, Jerez, like most other European wine regions, fell victim phylloxera - an insect that damaged most vines and let the vintners no choice but to rip up their vineyards and restart with American rootstock (resistant to the bug) grafted to their local varieties.

 

The following years were prosperous ones and in the early decades of the 20th Century improvements in communications and transport allowed sherry wine to expand into international markets. However, Jerez Sherry soon faced a big marketing problem: as its popularity began to rise, so did products made in a similar way under the names of "Australian Sherry", "South African Sherry" and "Canadian Sherry." Thankfully, legislation started to value the ideals of intellectual property and the concept of 'the Denomination of Origin' arose. The wine producers of Jerez were at the forefront of this legislation in Spain and therefore, with the first Spanish Wine Law was published in 1933,  'Denomination of Origin Jerez' and its Consejo Regulador, became the first to be legally constituted in Spain.