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Discovering Sherry

Think beyond dessert—sherry can be a perfect aperitif or an ideal match for dinner

Fine Cooking Issue 89
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If the word sherry makes you think of cheap cooking wine or granny’s ultra-sweet after-dinner libation, you might want to reconsider. While most people associate sherry with sweetness, many high-quality sherries are anything but sweet. In fact, they’re excellent dry wines that are perfectly suitable for a variety of foods, not just dessert. The name sherry derives from Jerez de la Frontera, the town and region in the southern part of Spain where the wine is made. Sherry is a product of the region’s hot, arid climate. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to climb above 100°F in Jerez during the growing season, and hot winds keep the climate bone dry. If it weren’t for the chalk-laden soil, called albariza, it would be impossible to grow wine grapes. Albariza soil, however, dries to a hard protective shell during the hot summer months, trapping moisture beneath the surface and allowing vine roots access to water.

How do you store sherry?

Like other fine wines, sherry should be stored in a dark place at a temperature between 55° and 60° F. Fino and manzanilla sherries are very delicate. Once opened, they lose their freshness within a day or two. That’s why I highly recommend purchasing these sherries in half-bottles and only from wine shops that stock them regularly. The richer sherries, such as olorosos and sweet sherries, will keep for several days when opened. In general, it’s always best to use a clamp-on bottle stopper in place of the original cork to prevent air from seeping into the bottle.

A fortified wine

Made primarily from Palomino grapes, sherry is a fortified wine, which means that a neutral spirit is added during production. In the case of sherry, that spirit is a colorless, odorless brandy called aguardiente. Unlike port and sweet Madeira, other major fortified wines, in which fortification takes place during fermentation and leaves residual sugar in the wine, sherry is fortified fermentation, when the wine is completely Dessert sherries are then sweetened with boiled, reduced grape juice or sweetened wine.

Aged with an unusual system

Sherries are aged a minimum of two years in barrels, called butts, using the traditional solera system, a technique of blending in which older wine is refreshed by younger wine of the same type to maintain consistency of style. A solera a series of barrels in which each successive vintage is held separately. Wine is bottled from oldest barrels, which are then topped with wine from the next-oldest barrels, and so forth. law, the barrels can never be emptied by more than one third at a time. Some soleras are over a hundred years old and contain thousands of barrels of wine. Wines from an older solera indicate the year of its founding on the label, even though each bottle contains only a few scant drops of the oldest wine in the solera.

Sherry Styles

There are several styles of sherry, based on how strongly they’re fortified and on whether and how long they’ve been exposed to air.

Fino

One of the driest and most elegant styles of sherry, fino is fortified to about 15% alcohol, allowing a frothy layer of yeast called “flor” to develop on the surface after fermentation. Flor is a vital component of fino, protecting it from contact with air and giving it a characteristic tangy quality. A deep straw color, fino sherries have a nutty, minerally flavor with suggestions of pressed flowers and preserved citrus.
What to pair it with: Enjoy it chilled with fresh shell fish, any kind of tapas, and lighter appetizers.
Bottles to try: NV Lustau Solera Reserva Puerto Fino, $14 (750 ml); NV González Byass Tio Pepe Fino, $9 (375 ml).

Manzanilla

This is a special fino produced in and around the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The region’s higher humidity results in a thicker layer of flor that gives manzanilla remarkable delicacy, elegance, and a slightly briny flavor.
What to pair it with: Enjoy it chilled with fish and shell fish, chicken, or tapas like olives, marcona almonds (a type of Spanish almonds), and jamón serrano (Spanish prosciutto).
Bottles to try: NV Hidalgo Manzanilla “La Gitana,” $10 (500 ml); NV Lustau Manzanilla “Papirusa,” $12 (750 ml).

Amontillado

This is a type of sherry whose flor layer dies after a certain period of time, allowing the wine to oxidize, that is, to come in contact with air and develop raisiny, caramel-like flavors. Stylistically, amontillados fall between finos and dry olorosos, displaying a medium-golden amber color and a smooth, dry character, with flavors of bitter chocolate, coffee, raisins, and a distinctive nuttiness.
What to pair it with: Serve it slightly chilled as an aperitif with olives, almonds, and hard cheeses. Amontillado is also a classic accompaniment to rich soups.
Bottles to try: NV Lustau Solera Reserva Dry Amontillado “Los Arcos,” $14 (750 ml); NV Hartley & Gibson Amontillado, $12 (750 ml).

Oloroso

Oloroso, which means scented, is a rich, deeply colored wine that’s fortified to a higher alcohol level (about 18%) to prevent flor from developing. It’s aged and oxidized longer than amontillados (three years or longer), so it develops rich flavors of raisins, dates, prunes, roasted nuts, and caramel. Traditional olorosos are dry, but sweet olorosos are produced as well.
What to pair it with: Serve dry olorosos at cellar temperature (55° to 60°F) as an apéritif with nuts, olives, and dried figs, or with roasted or braised meats, hearty sides, and rich cheeses.
Bottles to try: Osborne Dry Oloroso “Bailén,” $18 (750 ml); NV Lustau Solera Reserva Dry Oloroso “Don Nuño,” $18 (750 ml).

Palo Cortado

This is a rare style of sherry that loses its layer of flor, as does an amontillado, but develops more of an oloroso richness while maintaining some of fino’s delicate nuance.
What to pair it with: Serve it slightly chilled as an aperitif or with roast beef or lamb.
Bottle to try: NV Lustau Solera Reserva Palo Cortado “Peninsula,” $22 (750 ml)

Sweet Sherries

There are several kinds of sweet sherry, including medium-sweet cream sherry, the dessert-sweet East India sherry (both sweet olorosos), and the Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel varietal sherries. Sweet sherries usually display caramel and dried fruit flavors.
What to pair them with: Enjoy cream sherries as an aperitif, chilled or over ice. The sweeter East India and varietal sherries are good with chocolate desserts or sipped solo in place of dessert.
Bottles to try: NV Harveys Bristol Cream, $12 (750 ml); NV Lustau East India Sherry, $21 (750 ml); NV Osborne Pedro Ximenez 1827, $14 (750 ml); NV Lustau Solera Reserva Moscatel Superior “Emilín,” $22 (750 ml) .

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