Well before the Roman conquest some 2,200 years ago, the area around Cadiz, Spain already boasted a flourishing grape-growing and winemaking tradition. Canaanites, who founded the city around 900 b.c., brought vines and the winemaking trade with them. Greeks added to this knowledge and during Rome’s rule from about 200 b.c. to 100 a.d., Cadiz’s wine industry transformed from a local industry to a phenomenon throughout the known world. Vintages from the area around southern Spain soon were being shipped throughout the Empire. The drink that would become the sherry we know today was a favorite among the Roman elite.
Islamic bands from North African filled the power void in Iberia after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Moors, forbidden by their faith from consuming alcohol, nevertheless continued the winemaking tradition, finding it a valuable commodity in the trade with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. The Moors also were familiar with distillation, and in a few hundred years, this contribution to oenology – the process of adding brandy to the local wine – would fortify the wines of southern Spain, transforming into a close approximation of the sherry we enjoy today.
“If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.” Shakespeare Henry IV, Part 2
After the Christian reconquest, Spain evolved into a maritime power. Its adventurers and conquistadors created a vast empire, and Cadiz’s sherries contributed mightily to the country’s trade leverage. The region served as the home port to hundreds of Spanish galleons bound for Africa and the Americas. Christopher Columbus made sure his flagship’s hold contained plenty of sherry during his second voyage to America. Like most captains, Columbus used barrels of sherry as ballast, gradually refilling with water the casks they and their crews consumed.
With new markets in the New World and expanding demand in Europe – thanks to other wins supplies being cut off as the Ottoman Empire swallowed up wine-producing lands around the Mediterranean – Sherry grew in popularity and value in the 15th century. After one of many Franco-British disputes had cut off Bordeaux’s vintages, England established closer commercial ties with Spain, further expanding sherry’s influence. As the Ottoman Empire swallowed up more and more of Europe and the Mediterranean, sweet wines from Cyprus, Greece, and Romania also were lost to British drinkers. Sherry quickly filled the void.
Anglo-Spanish relations deteriorated after English King Henry VIII divorced Spanish Queen Catherine of Aragon, leading to a planned Spanish invasion eventually. Sir Francis Drake crippled those plans when raided Cadiz in 1587. Drake not only puts the torch to much of the famous Spanish Armada, but he also risked disaster, taking the time to capture a large booty of sherry, which was much appreciated by the British elite. So popular in England was sherry, or “sack” as it was called, that Shakespeare himself paid it tribute. In Henry IV, Part 2, the bard has Falstaff declare, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”
Pedro Domecq 1792
As new wars raged across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, Sherry producers again found foreign markets inaccessible. Britain’s new commercial relations with Portugal – largely driven by its developing taste for port wine – further dampened demand. Stocks went unsold. Stored in oak barrels, the sherry aged and absorbed woody highlights. To compensate for the volume loss in the now-concentrated sherry in the barrels, producers added new wine. This “fractional blending” gave Sherry new flavor nuances and better quality consistency. It was also around this time that makers began adding brandy to sherry, bringing it to the modern age and developing the varieties we know today – Amontillado, Oloroso, Manzanilla, etc.