Oh Sherry!

Fino sherry

Sherry gets a bad rap. At best, its a supporting player in wine-based cocktail recipes. At worst, its what your maiden aunt drinks before supper at 4:30 in the afternoon. In the United States, it’s hardly considered at all. But sherry deserves more love: its an old and integral part of Spanish cuisine, its delicious, and theres nothing better to enjoy with some newly-available jamn iberico.

Sherry is a style of fortified wine, like port and Madeira, meaning additional alcohol is added after the grapes undergo their natural fermentation. Sherry is like port in that the traditional additive used is brandy. It is unlike port in that your average oenophile does not have a bottle of it in their cabinet. That is a shame.

Styles range dramatically, from the extremely dry fino and Manzanilla sherries to the almost port-like Pedro Ximnez. Dry sherries are unlike other fortified wines: theyre light, crisp, and possibly even somewhat briny. In the middle are Olorosos and Palo Cortados, which are still classified as dry but have stronger aromas and fuller bodies. Sweet sherries, including Cream sherry, are dessert wines, dark amber or ruby red in color. Cream sherry is what your aunt drinks, but dont hold that against it (or her!)

Two production methods are unique to sherry and account for its particular range of flavors. The flor (Spanish for flower) is the veil of yeast that forms during early fermentation of all sherries. In some varieties, such as Finos and Manzanillas, the flor is retained and only minimal amounts of alcohol are added (bringing their alcohol content to about 15%). In the medium-bodied Olorosos, the living yeast is killed off by the higher levels of alcohol. Generally, wines produced with the flor intact are crisp, clean and dry.

Solera, from the Spanish suelo, or ground, refers to the method by which the oldest barrels of sherry (stacked on the ground) are successively blended with newer wines (stacked above). Sherries generally do not have vintages; most bottles are a blend of numerous harvests.

In the European tradition, sherry is a wine meant to pair with food. Finos go great with bar snacks: olives, salty breads and dry cheeses. Manchego is the classic Spanish snacking cheese but I prefer Mahn, widely available in upscale cheese counters and especially good when made with raw milk.

If you like drinks that are light but with a hint of sweetness, there are numerous off-dry or semi-sweet varieties, from the ominous Amontillado (in which, for the love of God, the flor has been allowed to decay) to blended sherries like Pale Cream, Medium or Cream (in which the winemaker combines sweet and dry base wines). Theyre suitable for drinking alone, as a simple chilled aperitif before or after a meal.

I normally drink dry sherries but for the purposes of this article and solely in the interests of journalism I tried a 2001 Don PX from Bodegas Toro Albal (web site is in Spanish). Made exclusively from the Pedro Ximnez grape, this unusual vintage sherry does not undergo the solera blending. To a port drinker, lulled by the dark, tawny color, a Pedro Ximnez is a little jarring at first: still sweet, but more evocative of prunes than grapes, and more honey-like than smoky. At $26 its quite expensive for a sherry; more common but respectable brands such as Emilio Lustau retail for between $10 and $15 a bottle across all styles.

Spanish food is delicious (and very in right now), and a great way to break in to sherries is to drink them in their natural context. Make your next dinner gathering a tapas party: open a few different styles of sherry, slice your $1200 imported ham, and dont forget to invite me.

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