If I were to make a list of the most misunderstood wines of the world, I’d have to include Sherry. Sherry can be either dry as dust or sweet as sin, or almost anything in between. Sherry is a fortified wine, made stronger by the addition of brandy, and can age for years, or even decades. Sherry is a blended wine, made from wines of different ages. Sherry can be a mid-afternoon “pick-me-up”, a pre-dinner aperitif, a wine to enjoy with foods savory or sweet, or an after-dinner drink. Once you learn about the varieties of Sherry, you open up an entire new world of pleasurable drinks and drinking.
Sherry is named for the Spanish city of Jerez (Xeres), pronounced hair-eth, located in the south of the country. The name of the town comes from the Persian “Shiraz”, another city known for wine production, or the Phoenician Xera. Scholars are divided on this, but they do hold that Phoenicians were growing wine grapes here as early as 1100 BC. The white Palomino grape is used to make Sherry, with the sweet Pedro Ximenez occasionally added to make sweet wines, and Muscat used for the aromatic Moscatel of the area. The unique white loam soil, called Albariza, is considered the best for grape growing here, as it best holds the rain that rarely falls during the entire summer.
Sherry starts out as a dry white wine, with fermentation completed. The wines are fortified with much less alcohol added than with Porto, where the brandy is poured in to stop the incomplete fermentation. Lighter, more delicate wines are lightly fortified in the hope that they will develop a surface yeast, called Flor. Flor looks like a thin, white, pebble-textured sheet that covers the wine while it ages in barrel. It prevents the wine from coming into contact with air, so Sherries made this way are lighter in flavor and color, tasting fresh. This Sherries is called Fino if it comes from Jerez, Manzanilla if it is made in the nearby port city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. A Fino or Manzanilla may be further aged, without Flor, and become darker in color, taking on a slightly nutty, caramel aroma and complex, rich flavors. This Sherry is called Amon-tillado.
Wines judged to be less delicate are given more brandy prior to ageing, and the higher alcohol level insures that Flor will not develop. This means that the ageing Sherry will be in contact with the air, since the barrels are not filled to the top. The wines slowly oxidize, taking on a distinct aroma that we refer to as “sherried”. The lightest of these Sherries is the wonderful but rare Palo Cortado. It is aged longer than a Fino and has aromas very much like Oloroso but is drier, very much like an Amontillado. Oloroso (“scented” in Spanish) is aged for a longer time, taking on more complexity with time. Sweet Sherries are made by adding wine made from the Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes. These wines are made sweet by either partially drying them in the sun prior to pressing and fermentation, or by “cooking down” the finished wine into a thick syrup. Pedro Ximenes or Moscatel wines are dessert wines, and can also be tremendous bargains. A good Moscatel has exotic aromas of orange and spice, while Pedro Ximenes tastes of raisins and summer sunshine!
Sherries are not vintage dated because they are blended using a unique system called a Solera. Imagine barrels partly filled with wine stacked atop other barrels, atop other barrels. Some Sherry is drawn off from the lowest barrels, and those barrels are topped of with wine from the barrels above. Those barrels, in turn, are replenished with Sherry from the barrels above them, as are the ones above them, etc. Newly made Sherry is added to the uppermost barrels. As few as three to as many as nine levels of barrels are used in the Soleras, insuring a continuity of flavor and quality, as well as a “house style”.
Sherry should be drunk chilled, and should be kept refrigerated once it is opened. The glass used to serve it in Spain is called a Copa or Copita, and is basically the same size and shape as the tasting glass which is used in almost all wineries and wine competitions. The tiny glasses passed off as “Sherry glasses” are usually useless, since they are not big enough to allow you to swirl the wine, or to get a big enough pour.
Fino and Manzanilla is what most people drink in Tapas bars, since it goes well with almost any dish. Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, olives, shrimp with garlic... all will taste even better with a chilled Fino or Manzanilla. Amontillado is wonderful with pork, mushrooms and cheeses, and is what I usually add when a recipe calls for Sherry and does not specify the type. It is also my favorite after work sip, so I always have a bottle on hand. If you want to enjoy a simple yet mouth watering good dessert, pour some Pedro Ximenes over good vanilla ice cream. You’ll understand what I mean when I say it tastes like raisins and summer sunshine!