During my recent trip to Jerez in Spain, sherry was the only drink on the table. Whether it was to accompany an afternoon snack of tiny fried fish, a pre-dinner nibble of ham and dried sausage, or a hearty entrée of braised mushrooms and beef cheeks, it was sherry or nothing.
Now, hold on: No doubt your thoughts immediately turn to cheap cooking sherry or sickly, syrupy apéritifs, and you can’t imagine serving these by themselves, let alone with good food. Believe me, those imposters aren’t real sherry. True sherry is a vibrant, versatile wine that partners seamlessly with food, savory and sweet. It’s full of zest and acidity, which gives it a refreshing quality, and its slightly saline note acts like a dash of sea salt on anything you’re eating. Plus, the real virtue of sherry as a great food wine is the range of styles available, from light and bone-dry to richly sweet, with deep brown-sugar flavor (yes, there are even delicious sweet sherries that are well worth savoring with dessert). All of which points to there being a sherry for just about everything on the table.
This fortified wine (meaning that it’s had extra alcohol added to it) comes from a swath of coast-line in southern Spain around the town of Jerez, where cool sea breezes, ample sun, humid warmth, and chalky soils are responsible for the wine’s mouthwatering vibrancy. The differences between one style and another all lie in how the wine is made. Once the local white Palomino grapes are crushed and the juice fermented, the winemaker takes his cues entirely from his brew to determine what style of sherry each barrel will become. In this way, sherry production is more an intuitive art form than it is a precise science.
All sherries start out the same, but in some barrels, a blanket of fluffy white yeast called “flor” blooms across the surface of the wine. This wine is destined to become fino, the driest and palest of sherries. This variety of flor, which doesn’t develop anywhere else in the world and is unique to sherry, protects the wine from air, preventing it from oxidizing and taking on color. To keep the yeast healthy, the cellar master fortifies the sherry by adding some alcohol (about 15 percent, meaning that every 100 ml of wine will contain 15 ml of alcohol). All this yields a delicate wine with a refreshing green apple crispness and a nutty, yeasty tang.
Salty snacks like roasted nuts and chips—or for that matter, anything fried—are a perfect match for fino’s sprightly acidity. Its delicacy also makes it the choice for light foods like white fish, salads, and green vegetables.
Sometimes a sherry that begins its life as a fino deviates from this path. This happens when the flor dies unexpectedly during aging, exposing the wine to oxygen and turning it darker and deeper in flavor. The winemaker will then add a more substantial dose of alcohol to discourage unwanted yeasts from colonizing and to slow the oxidation process. These partially oxidized wines become amontillado. They meld fino’s freshness and acidity with notes of toasted nuts and caramel, a combination that gives this sherry the perfect heft to carry a whole meal.
Being neither too delicate nor too rich, amontillado is the most versatile sherry. It partners remarkably well with a variety of ingredients and favors everything from smoked fish and roast chicken to notoriously hard-to-match foods like eggs, artichokes, and asparagus.
Another variety of dry sherry, oloroso seco, is produced when the flor never really catches on. This wine is fortified to 17 or 18 percent at the outset, keeping rogue yeasts at bay. Without a layer of flor, the sherry matures to a deep mahogany brown. This intensely rich sherry is heavy with roasted fruit overtones and sometimes with dark maple and burnt orange notes, too.
Bring out oloroso for the dishes with the deepest flavors, such as grilled steaks, braised beef cheeks, gamey meats, roasted mushrooms, and rich, funky cheeses. It can work well with rich, briny shellfish, too, such as scallops and lobster.
Not to neglect the best part of a meal, there are sweet sherries to accompany dessert. The dulce, or cream, variety is usually made by adding a hefty dose of grape syrup or sweet wine made from the heady Muscatellike Pedro Ximénez grape to a dry sherry. The most reliable choice is oloroso dulce, which combines the best attributes of a dry oloroso with a toffee-like sweetness, and is delicious with cheeses, nut pies, and chocolate desserts.
For a seriously hedonistic experience, opt for a type of sweet sherry made exclusively from Pedro Ximénez grapes and labeled simply P.X. As thick as molasses, with intensely sweet notes of burnt orange, caramel, spice, and nuts, P.X. is perfect for drizzling over ice cream or sipping with a dessert. You can even enjoy it on its own, as I did in Jerez—dessert in a glass. Indeed, with sherry as the singular liquid accompaniment to dish after dish, and meal after meal, it seemed only fair to savor it by itself at least once.