“Sack wine” is one of those funny old wine terms that pops up now and again, and is largely misunderstood. The history of sack wine goes back to somewhere around the 1500s, and the phrase pops up in history books and import/export documents alike. Sack wine in the classical sense is no longer available, though. With the exception of Dry Sack Sherry and other specific wine brands with the word “sack” in their titles, sack wine is a thing of the past.
Broadly speaking, sack wine referring to fortified wine of varying origins, most notably Spain and the Canary Islands. The etymology of the phrase “sack wine” is a little contentious, with a number of conflicting theories out there as to how the name came about. The best known types of sack wine included:
Sherris sack wine, from Jerez de la Frontera
Canary sack wine, from the Canary Islands
Malaga sack wine, from Malaga
Palm sack wine, from Palma de Mallorca
If some of the above look familiar, don’t be surprised. In particular, Sherris sack wine from Spain’s Jerez region has developed into today’s Sherry. If somebody talks about sack wine today, it is quite likely (though not exactly accurate) that they are referring to modern Sherry or Jerez wine. Malaga wine is still produced today, in a delicious sweet style.
What’s so important about sack wine?
Sack wine, interestingly enough, has featured widely in the world of literature. Shakespearean character Sir John Falstaff was a sack wine proponent, and is well-known for the quote, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.” We don’t advocate addiction by any means, but we can appreciation his fondness for the stuff! English poet Robert Herrick wrote a number of poems dedicated to sack wine, and the playwright Ben Jonson made reference to Canary sack wine too.
In the land of the living, sack was a popular drink, possibly for its high alcoholic content. Former British MP Samuel Pepys likened sack wine more to a spirit than a wine.
Can you buy sack wine today?
Strictly speaking, no. Sack wine is an antiquated term that doesn’t have any official meaning today. Most commonly, the phrase is used mistakenly to refer to Sherry, or else as a broad term to cover fortified wine in a general sense. The sack style of wine was thought to be very sweet, and matured extensively in oak. Broadly speaking, medium dry Sherry is probably a close modern equivalent of the sack wine of yesteryear.
What to drink instead of sack wine
If you’re determined to recreate the sack wine drinking experience, your best bet is to look for a Spanish fortified wine from Sherry. While traditional sack wine was likely high in alcohol, high in sweetness and relatively low in quality, you’ve got a lot of choice today. Thankfully, quality is quite high across the board these days. Instead, take your pick of sweetness.
For a dry sack wine style, go for Hidalgo Gobernador Oloroso. Sherry labelled as Oloroso undergoes oxidative ageing in wood, and are dark in colour. It’s quite likely that old Sherris sack wine looked quite a lot like today’s Oloroso Sherries.
If sweet wine is your thing, go with Hidalgo Pedro Ximénez. This wine has luscious sweetness and (relatively) low alcohol, at 15%. This will give you an idea of what sweet sack wine may have tasted like, but you should be able to still stand after a glass!
Can you recommend any other fortified wines for adventurous wine drinkers?