With a host of styles to choose from and many different drinking occasions, sherry is a winning wine choice for foodies. Chris Losh gives you a handy guide to this star of the Spanish wine scene
WHERE IT’S FROM
Although there are several different styles of sherry, they all come from just one region in southern Spain: a triangular area between the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de
Santa María. (Jerez was called Sherish by the Moors, giving the wine its English name.) This region is a sun-parched landscape that’s
as barren and dusty as the moon, apart from the vibrant green vineyards of Palomino grapes that are used to make sherry. The hardy vines survive because they’re grown on chalky soils that store winter rain and keep them hydrated
during the baking, dry summers.
Palomino grapes have a fairly neutral taste and in fact, sherry’s distinctive flavours develop after it has been made into wine. All sherry starts life as a soft, gentle, floral wine, which is fortified with brandy after it has fermented. It is then stored in barrels, where it develops a frothy yeast coating, called flor, that floats on its surface (except for oloroso-style sherry – see below). This yeast is the key to understanding sherry’s flavour and it does three things. First it devours the sugar in the wine (making it dry); second it keeps the wine fresh by protecting it from the air; and finally it gives the wine its distinctive character of nuts, freshly baked bread, lemons and slight saltiness. Different styles of sherry are created by varying the amount of time that the flor comes into contact with the wine.
Fino is aged entirely under flor to produce
a pale, dry, light style of sherry that should be drunk chilled and fresh.
Manzanilla is a type of fino that comes from Sanlúcar or El Puerto de Santa María. It tends to be slightly softer and lighter than regular fino, but both are always dry because of the covering of flor.
Amontillado is darker in colour, medium-bodied and can be dry, medium or sweet. The flor dies off during the first year of ageing, so the wine gradually
comes into contact with the air and begins to age as
an ordinary wine would.
Oloroso is produced when the flor dies off even earlier – if it forms at all. It has no yeasty flavours and more richness because it spends time in contact with the air. Again, it can be dry, medium or sweet.
Pedro Ximénez is made from sun-dried grapes. Known as PX, it is tar-black in colour and is the sweetest style of wine in the world.
HOW TO SERVE
More than any other wine, sherry has suffered from being served incorrectly – but it’s not hard to get it right. The first thing is: choose the right glass. Forget tiny schooners; sherry should be served in a decent-sized glass so you can slosh it around and savour the flavours – just like any other wine. All sherry should be served chilled, though in winter you can drink amontillado and oloroso at room temperature. Fino and manzanilla need to be served as young and fresh as possible. Once opened they should be refrigerated, or vacuum-sealed, and consumed within a week.
WHEN TO DRINK
Sherry is a classic aperitif and many agree that a chilled glass of fino or manzanilla is the perfect pre-dinner drink. There are no bubbles to cause bloating; the alcohol is not much higher than most white wines; and its nutty, tangy flavours are a perfect match for most nibbles. Amontillado is also a good pre-dinner drink, but rich oloroso is best as a mid-afternoon tipple – almost a snack in itself. Sherry is also an incredibly food-friendly wine. Fino and manzanilla go well with seafood and fish, while amontillado is a simply inspired match for ham or smoked charcuterie (think traditional tapas) and works well with game. A dry or medium oloroso works brilliantly with darker meats (especially oxtail), offal and stews. Finally the super-sweet PX is delicious tipped over ice-cream or served with a salty blue cheese at the end of a meal.
Forget tiny schooners; sherry should be served in a decent-sized glass so you can slosh it around and savour the flavours – just like any other wine wine
SHERRIES TO TRY BY GONZALES BYASS
Sherry producer González Byass is a family-run company with a lengthy pedigree and a genuine reputation for putting quality first. The company was founded in 1835 by Manuel Maria González, who went on to team up with his UK importer, Robert Blake Byass, as the business took off. The family’s headquarters are still in Jerez, in a rambling bodega full of dusty old barrels that have been signed in chalk by a plethora of famous names from Margaret Thatcher to Jean Cocteau. González Byass makes a range of sherries, but the selection below is a great introduction to some different styles. For more information log on to: www.gonzalezbyass.es
Is perhaps one of the world’s best-known drinks brands, yet surprisingly it was never intended for wider consumption. In the mid-19th century, Manuel Maria González put aside one particular barrel of sherry for his mentor, Uncle Joe, and scribbled on it ‘Solera de Tio Pepe’ (translated as Uncle Joe’s barrel). The old man and his friends would gather in the cellar to drink and chat – and before long the group of people coming to sample this excellent sherry was so large that González finally decided to bow to the inevitable and make it available on the open market. He kept the name and ‘Uncle Joe’ is now the best-selling fino in the world. It is an exceptional pre-dinner drink, with a full-on fino character: bone dry, with pungent lemon-flower and almond flavours. It also goes extremely well with prawns, crab and smoked fish.
Is an oloroso made in a solera system, which means that when you draw some wine from an old barrel to bottle it, you top that barrel up with some younger wine. It’s essentially a way of mixing sherries of different ages together and it guarantees reliability and quality. It also means that, if a solera was started a long time ago, a tiny fraction of every bottle that comes from it will also be very old. Solera 1847 comes from a set of barrels that were first started (as you might guess) nearly 160 years ago. It’s a sweet wine (a little PX is also added to the blend) and tastes rather like a liquid Christmas pudding, with rich, dark, slightly bitter flavours of walnuts, vanilla and oranges. It makes a great match for mince pies and chocolate desserts.
Is part of a range of rare sherries produced by González Byass. These are simply some of the finest examples of the drink you’ll find anywhere. Apostoles is a very rare style of sherry called palo cortado, that’s somewhere between amontillado and oloroso. Palo Cortados are usually dry and rich, with a good deal of complexity – particularly in this case, where the average age of the wines in the blend is 30 years old. Savour Apostles on its own or try matching it with rich foods such as paté.
Is a sweet oloroso made up of very old, complex sherries. Most of them are aged for 10 years in barrel before being blended with PX to add sweetness. The new wine then spends a further 20 years in the solera system so that you end up with a wine that has real depth and character. Although it’s far from dry, it carries its sweetness effortlessly, with a bit of balancing bitterness and acidity. This is a wine with real attitude, which you can sip on its own, though it’s also fantastic with ham, olives, nuts and particularly cheese. Just one thing: its flavour is intense, so serve it chilled and in smallish quantities!
Editorial feature from Square Meal Restaurants & Bars 2008