Fortified Wines

Comparing Sherry and Champagne

Just prior to the opening of Sherryfest West, Martine’s Wines and Valkyrie Selections hosted a Sherry and Champagne event at The Battery in San Francisco. The event included several flights of grower champagnes, followed by flights of grower sherry, all accompanied by a panel of experts.

The panel included Baron Ziegler of Valkyrie Selections, and Gregory Castells of Martine’s Wines to introduce champagne, and Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias of Bodegas Tradicion, and Jan Pettersen of Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla to discuss sherry. Peter Liem opened the event with a discussion of the ways in which champagne and sherry unwittingly resemble each other.

The Houses Poured

The wine flights included Champagne Gonet-Médeville, Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Champagne Saint-Chamant, then Fernando de Castilla, and Bodegas Tradición.

Champagne Gonet-Medeville offers a focus on refined freshness, rather than opulence. The wines carry delicacy, purity, and beautiful subtlety throughout.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier gives a center line of salinity and freshness through a body of texture and fruit presence. The wines are all made with only native yeast ferment, a condition quite unusual in Champagne, and sparkling wine more generally. With the exception of their rosé, their wines are all 100% Chardonnay. The house is also one of the biggest proponents of bio-dynamic farming in the region, a recommendation that proves challenging as Champagne suffers high mildew pressure. Biodynamic farming, then, requires far more hands on viticulture in the region.

Saint-Chamant Champagne delivers a wine of opulence, with incredible complexity, while at the same time maintaining freshness. The wines open with age offering an easy balance of opulence and mineral freshness. Current release vintages from the last decade are still quite young and would do well with time in the bottle before opening.

Fernando de Castilla could be considered a boutique bodegas, or grower sherry house. It developed through a focus on only the highest quality sherry, wines made for the best of the local market. More recently Fernando de Castilla has begun to export these unique styles of sherry outside the Spanish market. As an example, Fernando de Castilla offers one of the only remaining examples of Antique Fino, a wine made through the older approach to sherry rarely possible today. To read more on the heritage of Antique Fino:

Bodegas Tradición, another boutique level bodegas, seeks to create the finest quality sherry by avoiding or reducing filtering, and additives, and hand selecting the best lots for bottling. The result are wonderfully pure expressions of the wine. They also succeed in delivering beautiful older examples at small production levels.

The Discussion

The coupling of champagne and sherry appears at first an unusual choice. The two wines are thought of rather separately with bubbles from the cool Northern reaches of France seeming unlike fortified wine from the warmer areas of Spain. As Liem explored, however, in terms of methodology and production there are actually numerous insightful comparisons to be made between the two wines.

Following are thoughts from Peter Liem, during his introduction to the event.

Peter Liem introducing Sherry + ChampagnePeter Liem (right) discussing the commonalities between Sherry and Champagne
Sherryfest West, San Francisco, June 2014

“Champagne and sherry are two wines very dear to me for personal, and professional reasons. On the face of it, sherry and champagne look like disparate things.

“Champagne is the epitome of cool climate, from Northern France, delicate, and low in alcohol. Sherry is fortified to be above 15% in alcohol, from one of the Southern most growing regions in Europe, and is low in acidity.

“There is a spiritual element common between the two, as well as commonality in the production processes. Both are very much about where each is made. They come from calcareous soils. We often say “calcium” for short.

“In Champagne, we have chalk. The rock, you can break it off. It is very old from the Cretaceous period. In Sherry, we have albariza. It is a younger soil, around 35-million years old, and is much more crumbly in structure than chalk. It is more akin to sand, than the rock found in Champagne.

“In Champagne, you find actual physical rocks. In albariza, when dry, which is 5 months of the year, the soil can be compact, dry, and very hard. When it rains, it turns to mud. Albariza is like a light, calcareous sand.

“The affect of both soils is to create a distinctive minerality in both of these wines. When we think about the minerality of these wines it becomes interesting to compare them. When we compare them, we can compare their processes.

“In the past we would say both come from rather neutral grapes. No one would say that anymore. Producers as recently as 10-years ago, champagne producers would say they were looking for neutral base wines because the character of champagne comes from aging.

“In general, the base wines of sherry and champagne are not wines we want to drink. Both of these wines rely heavily on yeast. In champagne, the secondary ferment, and lees aging contribute greatly to the wines’ character. In fino and manzanilla, the layer of flor affects wine in important ways. Both are aged for a long time.

“For champagne, 10-years is nothing for aging. Many of the best need 15 years to show their best. Sherry is very long lived. It undergoes very long aging processes.

“In terms of perception, there is also a lot in common. Both wines are largely misunderstood. Many people don’t even think of sherry as wine. People often think of champagne as apertif only. In actuality, sherry is a very complex wine. It is also the most food friendly wine on the planet, bar none. In terms of perception, there is a lot of work for us to do.

“Both wines are a product of blending. In some cases, these wines are the result of extremely vast blends. Non-vintage champagnes can be comprised of hundreds of base wines. A sherry solera can be 200-years old and encompass, for all intensive purposes, hundreds of base wines.

“Finally, both champagne and sherry have been sold, or marketed as brands. In both, the brand of sherry, or the brand of champagne is the defining element for the beverage. Sherry bodegas are known for giving a consistent product. A champagne house develops their blend early in the process, and is often known for it.”


For more from Peter Liem on Champagne, check out his site:

For more from Peter Liem on Sherry, check out his site, also carrying his book on Sherry, co-authored with Jesús Barquín:

Peter Liem discusses his work on in an I’ll Drink to That podcast with Levi Dalton, episode 11:

and his book, Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, written with Jesús Barquín in I’ll Drink to That podcast episode 38:


Thank you to Noah Dorrance.

Thank you to Baron Ziegler, and Gregory Castells, Lorenzo Garcia-Iglesias, Jan Pettersen, and Peter Liem.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to



Gratefully sherry’s reception in the United States has gone through a renaissance with a range of styles, and producers now available. It’s a treasure of a wine offering a range of weight and flavor, and surprising compatibility with the stubbornest of foods.

Growing up in Alaska, our days would close with Native-style smoke fish, and occasionally tundra berries frozen then thawed from our winter cache. The combination produced the best dessert — a rich savory fill of concentrated salmon flavor, alongside a nip of berries more sour than sweet. It’s still my favored dessert.

As an adult, closing a meal depends not only on the last taste of food, but also its beverage accompaniment. With a yen for flavors like smoked fish, however, few wines have the chance to stand up to the close of a meal.

Enter sherry. Fino goes brilliantly with smoked fish.

Sherry carries its own unique categories of production, taking grapes perhaps less interesting or long-lived for still wine (though there are a few examples of people making examples from Palomino), then fortifying them at varying levels depending on intended type, and aging them for years in a complex solara system that depends on either oxygen influence or development under flor.

The Making of Sherry

The Making of Sherryclick on image to enlarge

Understanding the many intricacies of sherry production can be challenging, as can remembering how each of the styles is made. With that in mind I set out to distill the information into a one-page image that would retain the complexity with accuracy, while presenting it in a more accessible manner.

Above you will find the result, a drawing that explains production of each of the major types of sherry — Fino, Manzanilla, Manzanilla Pasado, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, and Oloroso.

Six Examples of Sherry

Following are notes on six examples of sherries available in the United States and well worth drinking. The notes progress by order of richness and weight, as would work too in stages through a meal.

Cesar Florido Fino offers delicate persistence with a saline crunch and seaside presence. The wine carries mineral clarity that would do well with oysters on the half shell, or lightly salty charcuterie and melon.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla Pasada does well with a light chill, offering both surprising brightness and complexity with saline crunch, nutty accents throughout, and pleasing savory elements all on pleasing texture. This wine’s seaside aspects and weight would do well with creamier, and lightly spiced seafood dishes.

El Maestro Sierra Amontillado Viejo 1830 brings complexity and great juiciness through floral notes with light nut on a spine of light cedar-tobacco. This wine evolves like crazy after opening, and continues to be enticing throughout. I’m inclined to say enjoy it on its own rather than worry about food pairings. However, it would do well alongside jamon, cured meats, and wild game, as well as firm cheeses.

Cesar Florido “Peña de Aguila” Palo Cortado gives rich, warming aromatics and palate of amber, cocoa butter, nuts and light smoke with tons of length and complexity. The wine is technically produced outside the sherry triangle, but still in excellent proximity to the ocean for aging. This wine would do well with duck, sauteed mushrooms, and firm cheeses.

El Maestro Sierra Oloroso 1/14 brings intensity, juiciness, and lots of length through nut and dried fruit elements mixed through with exotic spices hinting at amber and saffron. Serve only very slightly chilled, closer to room temperature, alongside stronger cheeses, dried fruits, or even spiced (not very sweet) desserts.

Cesar Florido Moscatel “Especial” depends upon an additional step. Grape must that has been heated to concentrate its flavors is added after fermentation in order to bring an additional layer of complexity. The wine carries baking spices, dried cocoa, and hints of nut on a sweet body with brooding length. This wine caps a meal perfectly alongside a nut and cheese plate, or just with coffee.


If you want to read more about sherry:

I highly recommend Sherry, Manzanilla, and Montilla, by Peter Liem and Jesús Barquîn. You can purchase the book here: (Incidentally, Peter’s work on champagne is also excellent. You can read it here:

From Eric Asimov,  The Book on Amontillado:

Keep an eye out for Talia Baiocchi’s book, Sherry, due this October:


The above drawing, The Making of Sherry, was originally commissioned by Steven Morgan, Liz Mendez, and Steven Alexander for a sherry event that took place in Chicago this Spring. Some of the wines mentioned here were received as partial trade for that commission.


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