By Paula MacLean of Drinkmonger
Sherry is produced in the province of Cadiz in south west Spain (and nowhere else!) It is a fortified white wine made from mainly the Palomino grape and some Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. The soils are very chalky and the area is subject to an Atlantic climate. The wine is unique in that many examples are aged biologically with wild yeast covering the wine’s surface, protecting it from the air. Oxidation is another key element, giving that familiar amber colour. This colour does NOT necessarily mean the wine is sweet, however.
Of all the world’s fine wines, surely none is as misunderstood as Sherry. In Britain, one of its oldest and biggest markets – which by now ought to know better – people see wines blended specifically for British tastes and to a (low) price, and thus get the impression that that is what Sherry is like. Equally, since Britain imports so much Rioja (for example) that is oak aged, the Brits think that is what it is like. Actually less than a third ever sees oak. With Sherry, it is by no means all brown or all sweet; in fact the vast majority of Sherries are dry.
Sherry can be categorised into two forms: firstly, the natural wines, and secondly the blended wines. The natural wines are:
A pale dry wine aged under yeast film (biological ageing) in barrels for about 3-10 years. A fine example of this would be Fino Inocente by bodegas Valdespino:
Pale strawy gold, intense aromas of yeast – almond, bread dough, slightly saline bitterness, similar on the palate, a touch of fruit, dry complex and tangy, the perfect aperitif – makes you hungry!
A pale dry wine exactly the same as Fino, but aged and grown near the coast. La Gitana is a good example.
Amontillado: Proper Amontillado is an older Fino/Manzanilla where the yeast film has gone and air has been allowed to oxidise the wine. It is supremely complex, and can be anywhere between about 8 to 50 years old. It is dry, and will usually say so. It is amber in colour. NPU from bodegas Sanchez Romate is an excellent example:
Amber, with strong aromas of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, full on the palate, nutty, amazing depth of flavour, well rounded and long.
This is a fairly rare style, dry, with the aroma of Amontillado but with a little more body on the palate like an Oloroso. It started out, like Amontillado, with a yeast film. As delicious and complex as Amontillado. Bodegas Lustau make a great example, the Vides:
Amber colour, intense but refined aromas of toasted almond and hazelnut, on the palate super-smooth, nutty but also walnuts, full bodied and very long.
An important wine for blending, in its natural state it never grows the yeast film and so it is oxidising from the start. Olorosos are amber to walnut brown in colour, aromatic and dry. They too, can be very old and complex. Bodegas Osborne’s Sibarita, aged over 30 years is a superb example:
Deep amber to mahogany, intense aromas of walnut, polished antique furniture and oak barrels, on the palate similar, full bodied, intense – concentrated by age, beautifully rounded and long. Lovely!
This is a sweet wine, made by fortifying very ripe grape juice, either as it comes in from the vineyard, or after drying the grapes in the sun to raisins. The former is pale, light and sweet, and the latter is amber, rich and sweet, quite raisiny, sometimes aged. A fine example of the latter style is bodegas Gutierrez Colosia’s Moscatel Soleado:
Amber, lovely grapey raisiny aromas, smooth, tangy and sweet on the palate with real depth. Perfect with fruit cake – or lightly chilled by itself.
Pedro Ximenez (PX)
This is the other sweet wine. PX grapes are also dried in the sun making them intensely sweet, and the juice is fortified, then aged for anywhere from about 5 years to 50. The wine is usually almost black in colour with intense raisin and toffee aromas. Try Romate’s Cardenal Cisneros…delicious!
The blended wines are:
Cream: Good examples are usually blends of Oloroso and PX, sometimes with some Moscatel, but cheaper ones have colouring and sweetening wines which dull the overall flavour.
Pale Cream: Is Fino blended mainly with concentrated grape juice, and can be fairly bland. It came about in the 1970s so people could appear to be drinking dry, but were really drinking sweet.
Medium Dry Amontillado: Contains very little genuine Amontillado, just a blend of various wines to have an amber colour and a bit of sweetness.
Unfortunately in Britain people think of Sherry as to how dry or sweet it is. The more interesting question is what STYLE it is, eg Fino or Oloroso. Each style matches very well with food, for example Fino or Manzanilla with olives or a wide range of aperitifs, Amontillado or Palo Cortado with game birds or Oloroso with beef, pork, soups… Moscatel and PX are wonderful with desserts and cheeses. So much remains to be discovered! Blended Sherry, however, is not much good with food.
In Spain, huge amounts of pale, fresh Fino and Manzanilla are consumed at the annual town fairs and also with seafood. In Britain the pubs and sometimes restaurants don’t even have them in the fridge, such is the ignorance. Sherry is a white wine, after all.
Luckily – finally – things look as if they are changing. Connoisseurs – ever younger ones – are rediscovering the virtues of fine, natural Sherry, and the word is slowly spreading. After 3,000 years of Sherry production, the producers know what they are doing. Now it is our turn.
If you want to know more about Sherry check out Paula’s blog