For most people, a glass of sherry sounds like the kind of tipple that is to be sipped in a Victorian-era British parlor by a bunch of old codgers, but in reality the fortified wine from Spain is on the rise again. A new generation of restaurant sommeliers and shop owners have re- discovered the virtues of sherry for its wide breadth of styles and flavors, and its ability to go with all sorts of crazy dishes from a pungent curry to the stinkiest cheese. As the owner of Tinto Fino, an all-Spanish wine shop in New York City, puts it, "Sherry works with bold flavors."
In part, dry sherry works so well with food because it offers a savory character rather than punchy, fruity flavors, plus sherry's oxidative side adds an umami-like element to a meal. If you've yet to join the ranks of the new-wave sherry drinkers, read on for a little primer, then cast all assumptions aside and grab yourself a copita.
First of all, yes, the Brits have long loved sherry. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Marlowe have all penned versus on the stuff, and the word sherry itself is said to be a British blunder of the word "Jerez," the region in Spain's Andalusia that produces this unique category of wine. Big name sherry houses like Osborne and Sandeman were originally English companies savvy enough to jump on Spanish-British trade relations. Despite wars and a tumultuous political relationship England continued her infatuation with sherry.
Where Sherry Comes From
Sherry comes from a regulated zone in Spain, which spreads from Cádiz to Jerez, and includes Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. The grapes used to make sherry are Palomino Basto, Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximenez, and Muscat of Alexandria, and the best vineyards are planted in the brilliant and blinding, limestone-rich, chalky-white soil called Albariza.
The wines ferment the way most still wines are, in stainless steel tanks, with the occasional producer fermenting in barrel. Once the fermentation is complete, all sherry is fortified with brandy. The amount of brandy added and the aging process that follows depends on the sherry's fate.
Fino sherries are made from the Palomino grape. They are bone-dry and light in color, with a distinctly savory and yeasty taste that comes from the blanket of yeast, known as flor, that grows on the surface of the wine during aging.
Flor is a fascinating freak of nature that develops from native yeast strains that are crawling throughout the winery. For Fino and Manzanilla sherries, the flor grows on the wine's surface and forms a film, which partially protects this style of sherry from oxidizing and imparts a wonderful almost-saline, savory tang. Manzanilla is made in the same method as Fino, but comes from the seaside town and port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Amontillado, Oloroso, and Palo Cortado
When the life of a sherry starts out as a fino and the flor eventually dies, exposing the wine to oxygen, you have another type of sherry known as Amontillado; it carries a darker hue and an oxidative-savory umami quality.
Oloroso is a long-aged sherry that has purposely been allowed more access to oxygen. It is dark and more unctuous than the aforementioned Amontillado, while remaining dry.
Palo Cortado is initially aged under flor, then became an amontillado, had yet another identity crisis, and developed Oloroso-like characteristics.
Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado and Oloroso sherries age in a solera system, which is simply a stack of barrels that are each topped with an older reserve from the next barrel, which in turn is replenished with wine from younger barrels. The barrels are never filled to the top, to allow for oxidation, plus, the nutrients in the young wine of a solera system keep the precious flor alive. Full disclosure: flor looks grossly unpalatable but the flavor it imparts is pretty magical.
There are sweet sherries too, an intense Pedro Ximénez (PX), which is made from sun-dried grapes, or an aromatic Moscatel are good examples. Cream Sherry is the sweetest sherry style.
You can read all you want, but the best way to get to know sherry is to try a bottle from each category. Look for a shop with a wide variety of sherry and staff who are passionate about it—if you're in New York, Tinto Fino in the East Village is a great place to start.
Valdespino Inocente Fino This bodega has been producing wine since the thirteenth century. They make sherry from their own vines and this particular fino is made from a single vineyard. A lovely, focused, light and dry sherry, with mineral tones and hints of sea spray. A delight to drink on its own or with light fish dishes. (around $20)
Equipo Navazos I THINK Manzanilla En Rama These guys are responsible for the cult-favorite La Bota sherries. This is a deliciously salty and intense Manzanilla that will work with raw oysters, seafood paella, and any spiced seafood dishes. (Around $18)
La Garrocha Amontillado A gorgeous medium-rich sherry that still remains dry but fuller-bodied. The palate gives tastes of nuts and spice with a hint of salt. (Around $15)
Sangre y Trabajadero Oloroso With rich nutty aromas, this sherry offers hints of mushroom, dried orange peel, spice and walnuts. Pair with pâté and Asian meat dishes. (Around $21)
Lustau 'Almacenista' Palo Cortado Offers a little salt, a little tang and some richness, while remaining elegant and showing tertiary, oxidative qualities. Great with washed-rind cheeses. (Around $37)
Valdespino El Candado PX Rich, intense and sweet, this dessert sherry offers characteristics of figs, prunes and raisins. Possibly the only wine that will stand up to chocolate desserts. (Around $26)