For baby boomers like me, Sherry wine was something my mother used in cooking, or occasionally drank around the Christmas holidays. One bottle seemingly lasted for years, gathering dust at the bar until another Christmas came along or she found the need to use a tablespoon or two in a recipe.
I snuck a taste from my mother’s stash once around the age of 16 from an old bottle that had been there for years. It was awful. I couldn’t understand how any food dish could be improved by including Sherry, let alone why anyone would drink the stuff. The only explanation I could muster at the time was that the people who drank Sherry were old (meaning over 30 to a teenager) and old people had peculiar tastes.
Now that I’m old myself, I thought I’d give Sherry another try at a tasting held at Jacques Scott in December. Despite all the knowledge I’ve gained writing about wine the past eight years – and drinking it for the past 30 – I admittedly knew next to nothing about Sherry other than it came from Spain and was used to make a pretty good vinegar.
But like many fashions, old is new, and Sherry is making a strong comeback. It is so versatile that depending on the type of Sherry, you might see it as a cocktail ingredient, an aperitif, a digestif, or even as a dinner wine.
Sherry basics in 300 words or less
Sherry, which has been around for more than 1,300 years, is named after a town called Jerez de la Frontera, usually simply called Jerez. However, during the 500-plus years that the Moors occupied the city, it was called, by translation from Arabic, Sherish, from which both the words Jerez and Sherry derive. Jerez is in the province of Cadiz in southern Spain, in a region known as Andalusia. Although Jerez is recognized as the center of the Sherry world, Sherry is also produced in the Cadiz cities Sanlúcar de Barrameda (often just called Sanlúcar) and El Puerto de Santa María.
At its core, Sherry is a fortified wine, similar to Port made in neighboring Portugal, but made with white grapes instead of red grapes.
Only three grapes can be used to make Sherry: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel, with Palomino being the most widely used by far. Sherry is fortified by adding distilled Spanish wine to increase its strength to somewhere between 15 percent and 21 percent alcohol by volume, depending on the type of Sherry being produced.
The fortified wine is then aged in oak casks using the solera system, which blends different ages of Sherry together by moving it from cask to cask.
There are three different styles of Sherry created after fermentation. Fino and Manzanilla Sherries are fortified to only around 15 percent alcohol by volume and then put in oak casks that aren’t filled all the way, allowing for a thick film of yeast – known as “flor” – to develop on the surface of the wine, protecting it from oxidation and creating light, fresh wines.
Oloroso sherries are fortified to at least 17 percent alcohol by volume, which is too high for flor to develop. As a result, these Sherries oxidize during aging, darkening their color and intensifying the flavor. These wines are only slightly sweet. However, Oloroso is also used as the base for very sweet cream Sherries, the third distinctive style.
Probably the most surprising thing I learned about Sherry is that it can have many different taste profiles. Fino and Manzanilla are light, dry and – dare I say – refreshing, with a distinctive yeasty flavor. Because it is strong and the flavor is so different from other wines, it’s probably an acquired taste to a certain extent; sipping on Manzanilla Sherry by the pool bar doesn’t seem like a good time to me, but it’s different if served with food. Put a glass of that same Sherry down in a bar with some tapas like olives, nuts and smoked meats, and it’s going work well as an aperitif.
Sherry producers will say that Finos, Manzanillas and Olorosos can also pair well with main course dishes, but I’m skeptical – especially since there are so many regular still wines that can do the trick.
However, there’s a reason why moms, grandmothers and chefs for centuries have used Sherry in cooking: It complements food. Paul Sharp, the representative of Lustau’s distributor Europvin, says Sherry pairs fantastically well with spicy Asian food, and who am I to argue, since I’ve never actually tried it. What I can say is that when I tried Sherry alone it tasted one way, and when I tried it with tapas, it tasted different and so did the food compared to eating that alone. More importantly, both the Sherry and the food tasted better, so I guess you could say there’s definitely a synergy between the two.
Personally, I enjoyed the richer, silkier Oloroso to the Finos and Manzanillas, but to me, Oloroso is more of an after-dinner digestif to be served with a cheese plate with nuts and dried fruit.
The sweet Sherries like Lustau’s East India Solera and Pedro Ximénez are definitely dessert wines. The East India Solera, which is made in a style unique to Lustau, sells for under $20 for a 500ml bottle and I liked it more than I like many other dessert wines that sell for triple the price or more. It was amazingly versatile, pairing as well with dark chocolate as it did with blue cheese.
Maybe my mom was on to something after all; if she’d only realized that sherry has a shelf life – Fino and Manzanilla should be consumed within a day or two of opening; Oloroso within two or three months; and sweet Sherries within six months.
With these shelf lives, it’s no wonder that the years-old Sherry I tried as a teen tasted so bad. Maybe that’s exactly what my mother wanted me to experience to act as a detriment to liking alcoholic beverages, while she hid the good stuff for herself, away from my sneaky teenage hands.