This story was first published on Departures.com in March 2021.
A trip to Jerez de la Frontera is a pilgrimage for any lover of good drink. The town in southern Spain is known for its famed fortified wine—sherry—and the surrounding region is steeped in centuries of history in its production, enjoyment and export. The sights and smells and tastes of Jerez and its bodegas stay with you long after a visit, and months after my latest excursion to a sherry producer, I poured a glass from a bottle I saved from the outing, and once again, with every sip I was transported back to its special place of origin. Only this time it wasn’t the sherry triangle in Andalucía, but rather, the vast expanse of west Texas. That’s right, there’s American-made sherry coming from Lubbock.
How Sherry is Made in Texas
Yes, I was surprised too. However, winemaker Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars has been producing sherry for over three decades. “I said hell, I’m just going to make a barrel’s worth and we’ll have it out back, we’ll just make it for ourselves, but it kind of took off!” he says with a hoarse chuckle redolent with Texas twang.
He still has that original barrel, now containing sherry over 32 years of age, as the foundational base of what’s grown to be a two-layer, 15-barrel solera system. Solera maturation is a key principle of sherry production in which rather than emptying barrels, they’re fractionally reduced and topped off with younger wine, and to produce a final product, barrels of different ages are blended together.
“I try to follow as close as I can to the heritage of sherry that I can do here, you know,” McPherson says. “You can’t do it the same, but we try to do it as close as we can. And I think it comes out very, very nice.”
One key difference is the types of grapes he uses. There’s no Palomino Fino, the predominant variety deployed in Jerez, but what McPherson does have is an abundance of Chenin Blanc. “We just started using Chenin because it was plentiful, and it made decent white wine,” he says. “Now whenever we do Chenin Blanc I peel a couple of tons off from that.”
He’s found that the choice of grape does impact the final flavor, too. “I think we do get a little more of an apple character, you know that honey apple character as it ages,” McPherson says. “I’ve seen these Chenin Blancs that I have that I set back, and they’re five or six years old, they have this really nice, incredible nuttiness and bruised apple, and honey. And I think that really adds to that sherry flavor profile.”
Another key point is that the climate in the Texas High Plains AVA is a bit different from Andalucía, Spain. The regions may go toe-to-toe in summertime heat, but the Texas High Plains has a greater seasonal and diurnal temperature shift, and is quite arid. Therefore, McPherson doesn’t attempt to produce a Fino style sherry, which is matured with what’s known as biological aging, entirely under a layer of yeast known as flor. “I’d love to make a Fino, but we just can’t do it biologically, because the flor yeast needs a little humidity, it just doesn’t grow well here,” he says.
Instead, he follows the path of an Oloroso sherry, fortifying the wine immediately—the higher ABV would kill off the yeast even if it could develop—and aging it oxidatively. “Oloroso just requires summer, the sun, the only thing I haven’t done is paint my barrels black, like those guys do over there [in Jerez],” McPherson says with another laugh.
He bottles his Chansa Solera Reserva as a cream sherry, though, boosted with a higher sugar content to match the tastes of what he’s found consumers to be interested in—even if that doesn’t line up with his own. “Me and Jamie, my cellar master, we like it dry,” McPherson says. “So before we sweeten it up, we probably take three or four cases for us. Because we like it dry, but I can’t sell it dry.”
Will Sherry Grow to be a West Texas Trend?
McPherson isn’t the only Lubbock winery producing sherry, either. The late Dr. Roy Mitchell, who passed in 2017, had been researching and producing sherry at Lubbock’s Texas Tech as far back as the early 1970s, eventually offering bottlings known as La Bodega de Mitchell Crema Del Sol, Texas Cream Sherry.
Elsewhere in town, English Newsom Cellars is now producing sherry as well, though its inaugural release likely won’t come until the end of 2022. The winemaker in charge of the project, David Mueller, became familiar with the art of Texas sherry production while he was an intern… for McPherson Cellars. “I actually started my winemaking career as an intern at McPherson,” he says. “One of my favorite projects from my time there was doing the final blending of sherry from all the different ages of barrels they had.”
He’s using Pinot Grigio, also making his initial choice of grape based upon availability. “It can typically be a high-yielding variety, which can leave extra juice for projects and experiments,” Mueller says. “We thought that as a fairly neutral variety, we wanted to express the flavors that would come from the aging process.”
While the plan is to produce a cream sherry, he too, is clamoring for a drier bottling. “The cellar staff is fighting to do a small portion as a standard Oloroso,” Mueller says. In the meantime, he and his team are playing a waiting game, watching those barrels bake in the sun until they’ve come of age.
Back at McPherson Cellars, Kim produces a few hundred cases of sherry biennially, a measured pace and approach that suits his west Texas sensibilities just fine. “We don’t bottle this but every two years,” he says. “My team says you know, we’re out of sherry, I know, well when are you going to get to it, we’re going to get to it, don’t worry.”
So even when a guest—whether one the members of his wine club, or perhaps a pesky journalist with a penchant for sherry—encourages him to dive in full force, it can’t happen overnight. “I mean, you can’t speed this up!” McPherson reminds.