People often look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that sherry is what I drink most often when I’m at home. Well folks, here’s my explanation. There is so much to enjoy about sherry, for so many different reasons.
Where - The Experience
This past October 12th in Boston, I took part in a tasting and educational session presented by César Saldaña, the director of the Consejo Regulador in Jerez, and hosted by Steve Olsen, aka wine geek and the Sherry Council of America, on behalf of FedeJerez and Wines from Spain. A wonderful lunch was also provided by the staff at Barbara and Colin Lynch’s Menton. Highlights included tasting the pre-fortification palomino wine that is used for sherry and some rare, very old bottles. Luckily sherry is one of the great wine values in the world right now thanks to much misunderstanding and its peculiarity. That means that you don’t need to have been present at this event or spend a ton on rare bottles to appreciate sherry.
What - Different kinds of sherry
Jerez wines, being so close to the Strait of Gibraltar, are fortified to preserve them to ship. Three other unique characteristics are that it comes from the palomino grape which is a pleasant straight forward varietal often grown in extreme albariza soil, that it is blended through the solera system, and, that flor yeast protect some sherries from oxidizing.
A solera is a progression of wine barrels that blend a bit of wine from each newer barrel into the next older one, creating great consistency and making up for the volume lost through the barrel. The year designated on a bottle of sherry is the average age of its content. Therefore, a 20 year old sherry comes from a 40 year old barrel. It contains a small amount of 1 year old wine, but, since each barrel loses about 15% of its content each year, it also contains a small amount of very concentrated 40 year old wine.
The first pressing of the grapes is lighter than the second that extracts more from the skins and seeds. The juice from the first pressing is designated for dry fino sherry that won’t be oxidized. The second pressing is designated for oroloso sherry which is oxidized. Sherry is aged in seasoned American oak barrels (botas) that are open to the air. Fino sherry and manzanilla (a fino made near a specific port town) develop a layer of yeast on the surface that can survive in solutions with higher alcohol levels. This surface yeast – flor – protects the wine from oxidation. Olorosos have high proof brandy added so that the flor can’t survive and oxidation occurs during the entire aging process.
In some cases the flor dies off after time, exposing the sherry to oxygen. These are amontillado sherries. Certain wines from the first pressing are selected to become palo cortado sherry. Brandy is added to these selected botas to kill the flor and begin oxidizing the wine. Most sweet sherry, or as the British term cream sherries, are made by adding sweet wine or grape must from dried Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes. Other sweet sherries, such as PX, are simply made from these grape varietals from the start.
To summarize the types then...
- Fino & Manzanilla are dry and not oxidized
- Oroloso is dry to moderately sweet and oxidized
- Amontillado and Cortado are dry to moderately sweet and moderately oxidized
- Cream and PX range in oxidation but are always very sweet
Why, When & How - Drinking the right sherry in the right context
Sherry can be dry as a bone and almost acidity free or sweet as honey with a nice twang. These two extremes can be quite extreme and the oxidation that occurs in sherry can be unfamiliar to non-sherry drinkers but the quality and complexity of flavors across the spectrum of Jerez wines make it unique and wonderful. Good sherry has nothing to do with the cooking sherry that your grandmother may have been nipping on in the kitchen during holidays or the dusty, sugar encrusted bottle that’s been sitting on the shelf at the corner bar for the past twenty years. Fino sherry should be treated like white wine, refrigerated after opening and consumed within a week or two. Only very sweet olorosos will keep well.
Different kinds of sherry should be enjoyed in very different ways but almost always with food. A cortado or good amantillado is one of my favorite things to sip on its own, and the English love sweet sherry after meals, but the Spanish have found dry sherry to be the perfect versatile compliment to tapas. A fino or manzanilla (a fino made near the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda) is a wonderful aperitif. A Flame of Love cocktail (chilled vodka, fino sherry and a flamed orange twist) completely cuts though caviar and crème fraiche blinis making it one of the best food and drink pairings I’ve ever experienced. PX sherry can be used as a syrup with dessert, complimenting figs or complimenting vanilla ice cream or candied nuts. Drink sherry because it makes food better and drink it because it tastes good.