Monday, 5 August 2013

Wine for Beginners: Sherry

Important Sherry Fact Number One:
No, sherry is not just that godawful sickly stuff your Gran drinks too much of at Christmas.

Important Sherry Fact Number Two:
Sherry is bloody brilliant.

Some of you (I certainly didn't at first) might not even think of sherry as a wine, but it is. It's one of those delicious, slightly-more-boozy cousins to the average vino: a fortified wine.

Like port and madeira, (two of its fortified pals) it is wine that achieves its extra sauce by having grape spirit added to it, as opposed to spirits which are distilled instead (that's a whole other kettle of fish entirely, and one I'll explain another time).

Sherry is produced in incredibly varied styles, that are super food-friendly and great value for money.
I cook with sherry, I drink Fino as an aperitif, I drink various styles during a meal, with dessert, and afterwards. You just have to familiarise yourself with the different types, all of which have a charming character of their own just waiting to be enjoyed.

Mini Sherry Fact Guide
Origin: Spain, more specifically the southern Jerez region (which, when pronounced correctly, sounds an awful lot like... wait for it... 'sherry'.)
Grape: Palomino Fino, but also one called pedro ximinez for the sweeter styles
Alcohol: 15% for lighter styles like Fino, but up to 18% for heavier types like Oloroso
Sweetness: From bone dry Fino to unctuously, treacly sweet Pedro Ximinez


Oh boy, this is the bit that usually sends people to sleep/running for the hills. So I'll simplify it:
Step one: Normal winemaking - crushing the grapes, fermenting them, yada yada
Step Two: Add grape spirit after fermentation
Step Three: Ageing in oak casks - not dissimilar to much normal wine production -  except they use the solera system.

The Solera System
Is long and boring to explain, so let me be quick because I want to get to the good bit.

Think of it as lots of barrels stacked up in a kick-arse barrel-pyramid. There top layer is the youngest, moving down to the oldest at the bottom, which can be several years older. They're only 5/6 full, leaving a gap big enough for oxygen to get in, so that a layer of 'flor' develops, which is a layer of yeasty goodness that gives sherry its distinctive taste.

Over the months, they blend portions of this yeasty wine from the top level to the second level beneath it, and the second level to the third, and so on. It's called 'running the scales'.

This ageing process takes a minimum of 3 years, but then the bottom level of barrels (which now contains sherry from of all the levels) can have a portion of the wine removed to be bottled and sold. There's no such thing as a vintage with sherry: a bottle of sherry always contains some wine that is several years old (from the bottom layer of barrels) - you just don't know it. That's why it's so complex despite its peasant-friendly price.

Different styles of sherry depend on where they are made, how the flor develops, and what the winemaker does to intervene.


Fino: The lightest and driest. Best served chilled, and brilliant with tapas dishes, olives, and almonds.

Manzanilla: Like Fino, but grown in more coastal areas where the layer of yeasty flor is thicker, so it's nuttier and more appley. If it says 'passada' on the label, it's been aged for longer. Good with Spanish seafood.

Amontillado: The flor is allowed to die, so the wine has more contact with oxygen. This makes it darker, more robust, and nuttier still, plus they can be anything from dry to medium-sweet. They match more meaty dishes and hard, nutty cheeses.

Oloroso: means 'aromatic' in Spanish, and is named that for a reason. Richer and fuller still, these can sometimes have pedro ximinez wines added to them so they become sweeter, with mocha-caramel character. These sweeter ones are sometimes called cream sherry, but cream sherry can also be a mixture of oloroso and pedro ximinez (see below) .
Dry ones are good for cheese, sweeter ones are blue cheese and fruit cake's friend, not to mention Christmas pud.

Palo Cortado: A very rare sherry. It lives live like an amontillado but ends up with the body of an Oloroso.

Pedro Ximinez: Made from grapes of the same name, which are dried after picking so their flavour is much more concentrated, as is their sugar levels. They can be one of the sweetest wines in the world, with a thick texture and powerful flavour. Just pour it over vanilla ice cream and go nuts.

Where To Buy

Most supermarkets tend to favour the popular cream varieties (which I personally think have a special place in hell) but if you look carefully you should be able to find Fino and Amontillado as well - Tio Pepe Fino is on offer at £7.70 at Tesco (and £7.87 at Waitrose) down from its usual £10.50ish.

ASDA very boldly have launched their range of own-brand sherries in varying styles (they have Amontillado, Fino, and Manzanillo among others).

For a better range, I highly recommend The Wine Society: they have a huge range of sherries in all the styles mentioned above - they start from just £5.95 a bottle and a good example of most of the styles can be picked up for under £15.

First two images taken from Jonathan Rubio and Michal Osmenda's photostreams respectively under the Creative Commons License.

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