We need to talk about sherry

Sherry butts. Wrong answer.

Last year you wouldn’t be seen dead ordering a sherry. It was drunk exclusively by nuns. And they would only touch it at Christmas, by the thimbleful. Even they were faintly embarrassed.

All of a sudden sherry is fashionable. How did that happen? Well the important thing is that it turns out that sherry is an amazing drink, incredibly good value and in all likelihood being served in bars and restaurants near you right now. Trouble is, it’s a diverse style of wine, from water-clear to midnight black, sweeter than sugar to dry as a bleached desert bone. So how do you know which one to order? This is your crash course.

Common misconceptions

1) Sherry is sweet.

Most of it, including the best stuff, is dry.

2) Sherry is a liqueur.

It’s a wine. It’s made of grapes, without any flavourings.

3) Sherry is drunk before a meal, or after it.

It certainly can be, but it works brilliantly with food as well.

4) Sherry should be drunk out of little sherry schooners.

You need a big enough glass to swirl the wine to release the aromas, with enough space at the top to retain the scent so you can sniff it up.

5) Sherry is a nice name to call my daughter.

Maybe go for something else.

Sherry is an uncompromising drink. It is not for the weak or the easily scared. Sherry doesn’t try to make friends; it doesn’t entice you with attractive, easy flavours of ripe fruits, or flatter with a cheeky dash of sweetness. Unlike the carefully designed, manufactured and marketed wines from the big brands with cute animals on the labels, sherry doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t reach out to you: you have to discover it yourself. And for that, sherry deserves respect.

Since sherry comes in so many different styles, it’s hard to generalise. What they all have in common is that they are made in the south-west corner of Spain, near the sea. There are three small towns that produce it: Jerez de la Frontera; El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlúcar di Barrameda. Jerez de la Frontera is a lovely town with a great tapas scene and some lively flamenco bars. The other two are a bit more run down and shabby, but not without their own brand of rakish seaside-town charm.

The most important grape here is Palomino. It’s a pretty plain variety, and doesn’t taste of much when made into a normal white wine, but it’s transformed into something wonderful by the alchemist almacenistas (sherry cellar masters). The best is grown on brilliant white chalky soils; if you’re going to visit take some shades as it gets pretty sunny down there; it is just over the water from Africa after all.

The best way to approach sherry is to think of it in three very different categories: white, brown and sweet. The quickest way to understand it is to go to your nearest tapas bar and ask for a glass of each of the different styles. The following is what you can expect.


White sherries: Fino and Manzanilla

If you just order ‘a sherry’ in Spain, this is what you’ll get. White sherries are the most versatile of the three types; they are always bone dry which makes them a refreshing aperitif and means they work well with savoury foods. They are also the least challenging in flavour and the lowest in alcohol (typically around 15%, so not far off a normal white wine).

The typical flavours and aromas you can expect are apple, camomile, lemon and fresh bread. The base wines are aged in old wooden barrels that are only part full, which allows for the growth of the flor (Spanish for ‘flower’) on top of the wine. It is this unusual phenomenon that gives white sherries their distinctive flavour. ‘Flower’ may sound attractive, but flor is actually a layer of yeast that looks like grey mould. It’s not pretty, but this benevolent film protects the wine from oxidation, and also adds a subtle yeasty flavour.

The difference between the two styles is that Manzanillas tend to have more of a salty, yeasty tang. They are made the same way, but they can only be called Manzanilla if they are made in the town of Sanlúcar; Fino tends to be a touch more neutral. They go brilliantly with seafood, salads, salami and olives.

These sherries are best drunk straight out of the fridge. Once the bottle is open, you should store it there too as it will last longer – but try to drink it within a week or two. It won’t taste as bad as a normal white wine when that goes off, but it will gradually lose freshness.

Try these Finos: Lustau Puerto Fino; Sanchez Romate ‘Marismeño’ Fino; Equipo Navazos ‘La Bota 35 Machanurdo Alto’ Fino.

Try these Manzanillas: Pedro Romero ‘Aurora’ Manzanilla; Hidalgo ‘Pastrana’ Manzanilla Pasada; Antonio Barbadillo Mateos ‘Sacristia AB’ Manzanilla Primera Saca 2012 En Rama.


Brown sherries: Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado

This is where things start to get intense; flavours concentrate and deepen, aromas multiply and the experience gets altogether more gripping. Amontillados and Palo Cortados start as white sherries, but during their maturation in barrel a splash of grape spirit is added, which kills the flor. This leaves the wines open to gradual oxidation, which creates complexity of flavour. An Oloroso is fortified with spirit as soon as it enters the barrel, so it never grows any flor. This makes for a fuller-bodied, nuttier wine.

True Amontillados are always dry (avoid the ones called ‘Amontillado Medium’, these tend to be inferior sweetened versions). True Olorosos and Palo Cortados are also always dry. They are all slightly higher in alcohol (typically between 17% and 21%) than their white cousins.

The intense yet subtle aromas centre around dried fruits (figs, dates, sultanas, raisins), nuts, spices and sometimes mushrooms, Marmite or spices. Good examples will have amazing combinations of flavours that remain lucid long after swallowing. Amontillados tend to be slightly lighter brown, spicy, toasty and fragrant; Olorosos are dark, nutty, with a more luxurious feeling in the mouth. Palo Cortados offer the best of both worlds.

When matching with foods, Amontillados and Palo Cortados go well with a wide variety of savoury dishes, particularly pâté, mushrooms, white meats and game birds. Olorosos can handle these types of foods but also more powerfully flavoured dishes like hare, boar and venison. They all go well with hard cheeses and also foods rich in umami, which can often be hard to pair with normal dry wines.

The best temperature to serve them is somewhere between room temperature and cold. Which, let’s face it, is slightly awkward; but it does make a difference. I tend to store the bottles in the fridge (they stay fresher for longer that way) then take them out a while before it’s time to pour (if I remember) or just warm the wine up with my hand through the wine glass (if I forget). You can keep them for at least a month with the cork in once opened, but they will gradually degrade in flavour after this.

Try these Amontillados: Lustau ‘Los Arcos’ Amontillado; Fernando de Castilla ‘Antique’ Amontillado; Lustau ‘Almacenista’ Amontillado de Puerto (Gonzalez Obregón)

Try these Olorosos: Maestro Sierra Oloroso; Barbadillo ‘Cuco’ Oloroso.

Try these Palo Cortados: Gonzalez Byass ‘Leonor’ Palo Cortado; Valdespino Palo Cortado Viejo CP; Equipo Navazos ‘La Bota 34’ Palo Cortado (most of the wines produced by Equipo Navazos are not cheap but I can’t recommend them highly enough).


Sweet sherries: Cream, Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez

This is the most diverse group out of the three, and although referred to as sherries, they have little in common with the classic white and brown ones described above. Neither do they have much in common with each other apart from their high sugar content.

A Cream sherry is a sweetened Oloroso. Many of the biggest selling brands are pretty uninspiring, but those with ‘Oloroso Dulce/Abocado/Rich’ on the label tend to denote a higher quality example, some of which are very good. A Pale Cream is a sweetened Fino; they tend to be insipid and best avoided.

Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherries are made from totally different grapes and taste nothing like any of the others. The Moscatel grape is what the French refer to as Muscat, and makes a very sweet, grapey, orange/peach flavoured wine that works well with fruity desserts.

PX is a thick, heavy, black syrup that is intensely sweet, often more akin to a sauce than a drink. It tastes of liquidised dried fruits – figs, dates, prunes, sultanas and raisins, sometimes with a hint of liquorice or sweet spice. It’s a good match for desserts that contain similar flavours, or poured over ice cream.

Sweet sherries are also best served somewhere between fully chilled and room temperature, but err on the side of fridge rather than drinks cabinet. Similar to brown sherries, you can keep them for at least a month in the fridge after opening without much trouble; PX even longer.

Try these Creams: Valdespino ‘Isabela’ Cream; Hidalgo ‘Alameda’ Oloroso Abocado; Barbadillo Oloroso Dulce VORS (30+ Year Old).

Try these Moscatels: Gutierrez Colosia ‘Soleado’ Moscatel; Lustau ‘Emilin’ Moscatel.

Try these Pedro Ximénez: Gonzalez Byass ‘Noe’ Pedro Ximénez VORS (30+ Year Old); Hidalgo ‘Triana’ Pedro Ximénez; Bodegas Tradición Pedro Ximénez VOS (20+ Year Old).

First published by www.toniquemagazine.com but this is longer.