Sherry: Crash Course

Who knew squid testicles could be so delicious? More to the point, which lunatic tried cooking with them in the first place? I only felt mildly grossed out once I’d got back to England. At the time, sitting in a tapas bar in southwest Spain, they proved a tasty morsel, albeit rather rubbery. This isn’t the first time the Andalusians have developed something strange but delicious in the realm of food and drink. I looked at the glass of Manzanilla sherry in my hand and contemplated how such a unique wine might have come about.

Sherry essentially comes in two distinct types – white (Manzanilla or Fino) or brown (Amontillado, Oloroso or Palo Cortado). These are the ones that are most worth exploring. You can also get Cream sherries, which are sweetened Finos and rarely that interesting; and a very sweet black sherry called Pedro Ximénez, which is made in a different way with a different grape variety and tastes nothing like the others. Let’s stick to the white and brown varieties.

All sherries start their life as normal white wines made from the Palomino grape, but then they are matured in different ways to produce different styles. Winemaking was probably introduced by the Phoenicians who inhabited this corner of Spain from 1,100BC. It’s hard to know what these primitive sherries would have tasted like, but wines like the brown sherries we still drink today were almost certainly being made by the late 1400s. The white ones are relative newcomers. No individual invented them; Eva Buzon of Bodegas Argüeso explains that the first written documents referring to Manzanilla date from 1823, though it appears they were being developed long before that. It’s hard to imagine such a product coming into being in these days of quality control, health & safety and stringent winery hygiene. Looking inside a barrel of maturing Manzanilla, you are greeted with what looks like a layer of grey mould over the surface. It looks far from appetising.

The inside of a barrel of Manzanilla sherry with 'flor' growing on the surface

What looks like mould is in fact a beneficial film of yeast, known as flor (‘flower’), and it’s this that keeps white sherries white. This style of sherry is called Manzanilla if it’s made in the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda; it’s called Fino if made elsewhere in the sherry region. Flor is delicate, and will only grow in very particular conditions. It feeds off nutrients in the sherry and in return imparts a subtle yeasty flavour; it also creates a barrier between sherry and air, so stops it from oxidising. When maturing sherry comes into contact with air, like a slice of apple left on the chopping board, it starts to go brown.

This is where the brown sherries take their colour. They either start off with this protective film of yeast, but then it dies and leaves the sherry in contact with air (Amontillado or Palo Cortado); or the winemaker adds some high alcohol grape spirit to the freshly made base wine, which inhibits the growth of flor, and the sherry develops for its whole life in contact with air (Oloroso). Either way, they go brown in colour. Their flavour is also affected by this process of oxidation.

So flor plays a part in all sherries apart from Olorosos. It must have taken an intrepid – or desperate – winemaker who first pierced this scum to drink a glass of what lurked beneath. We should be thankful he didn’t just throw it out – surely that is what would happen today if a winemaker found that one of his wines had gone ‘mouldy’. The unexpected result, however, was extraordinary, and unlike any other wine. Sherry is a relic from another age: the wines are unique. Thanks to this ancient and peculiar method of production, nothing else tastes quite like them.

The two white sherries taste alike; as do the three brown sherries. But the difference in flavour between white and brown sherries is huge. Finos and Manzanillas are bracingly dry, fresh, and should be served cold. They have a touch of alcohol added after fermentation, which brings them up to around 15.5% alcohol, just a degree above many New World white wines. They tend to be almost colourless, and the typical flavours and aromas you’ll find are lemon peel, green apple, camomile, sea air, and a yeasty aroma akin to fresh bread. The difference between Finos and Manzanillas is that Manzanillas tend to have a tiny bit more yeastiness and some say a salty tang; Finos tend to be more neutral in flavour.

The three brown sherries all share certain characteristics. They have a more intense aroma and flavour and a fuller, heavier feel in the mouth. They are all dry, except for Olorosos, which can be sweet or dry (both of which can be delicious). With complex aromas of nuts, spices, old wood, and dried fruits, they can be very intense with highly concentrated flavours. These sherries are best served cool rather than cold, and are slightly higher in alcohol (typically between 17% and 21%) than their white cousins. Amontillados tend to be an amber colour, are medium-bodied and have a toasty, spicy, almondy flavour. Olorosos tend to be darker, have a fuller, silkier mouthfeel, and a more walnutty flavour. Palo Cortados tend to have the silky luxurious texture of an Oloroso, but the finer, more fragrant aroma of an Amontillado – the best of both worlds.

When it comes to matching with food, sherry cannot be beaten. Very few dishes can’t be matched with one kind of sherry or another. Bar snacks, salads, cold meats, and seafood all work well with white sherries. Chicken, ham, game birds and cheeses often go well with Amontillados. Richer dishes like stews or braised meats are better matched with Olorosos. Dishes high in umami like shellfish, mushrooms or smoked meats seem to go better with sherries than any other wines. Even traditionally hard-to-match foods like asparagus, artichokes and eggs tend not to clash with a good Fino. And a chilled Manzanilla can even make a tasty meal out of a plate of squid balls.

Sherries have been prized for centuries by those willing to explore the outer reaches of flavour. Try them. Now is the time. I’ll explain the urgency next week.