A bold statement I know, but it’s 100% true, and I’ll prove it.
“But…only my Nan drinks it!” is a pretty standard response when we mention Sherry, and yeah, quite often it’s a fair point. Every UK household has at least one crusty, 3/4 full bottle of Cream Sherry hanging around at the back of a cupboard somewhere, but trust me, there’s a load of different styles of Sherry and each one has it’s own taste, level of ageing, and food match – and Sherry is all about the food match. Just like normal wines certain styles match better with certain foods, so as we go through each Sherry I’ll suggest a knock-out Tapas food pairing that’ll really get the taste-buds going.
First off though, we better have a look at the way Sherry is made. Sherries for the most part come from either Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda or Montilla-Moriles, and are generally only made from either Palomino or Pedro Ximénez (PX) grapes and then fortified with grape spirit. They have a pretty unique and sometimes complex way of going about the production of Sherry, which is called the Solera System. This system is designed to give consistency, depth and to some extent a house style to each Sherry, this is why pretty much every Sherry is non-vintage (think house Champagne). It’s a relatively long winded system to explain, so lets start with a picture:
It’s easiest to start at the bottom with the oldest of the wine, also confusingly named the Solera. At this point in it’s life the Sherry is delicious and complex, this is the really good stuff, ready to be bottled and drunk. They only take a little bit out for each bottling, usually around 15% of the barrel, so there is plenty left for the next bottling. This process is called ‘Saca’. Now they have to fill the bottom layer back up again, so they top it up with the wine from the 1st Criadera (or nursery), then they top up the 1st Criadera with wine from the 2nd, and so on until they reach the top Criadera (this can be as many layers as the wine-maker likes, but a 10+ Criadera Solera system isn’t unusual). They call the process of topping up ‘Rociar’. So here we are, at the top of the system where new wine, called ‘Sobretabla’, is put into the Solera. This new wine contains the natural yeasts needed to keep the fermentation process going. These yeasts also act to create a barrier so the wine doesn’t oxidise, this barrier is called the ‘Flor’, and it becomes very important to define the final style of Sherry we ultimately end up with.
So without further adieu, lets get on the stars themselves:
First up is Fino: Along with Manzanilla this is the lightest and driest Sherry. Made from Palomino grapes in the Jerez region of Spain, Fino is usually aged for around 4-7 years in barrel before bottling. Aged entirely under a cap of flor, the wine has minimal air contact and so develops lovely yeasty, herby flavours and subtle notes of almond. This is the one to kick of your Spanish evening with, serve it well chilled (in Spain they often pull the serving glasses straight out the freezer) alongside fresh olives splashed with lemon juice and salted almonds. Here’s a top Fino to get stuck into: Valdespino Fino Inocente NV
Manzanilla: I’m not ashamed to say, it’s my favourite style of Sherry. It’s probably the lightest style for the most part, and comes from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a more coastal region than Jerez. Being by the coast means it develops a delicious saltyness, rich with lemon and lime and retaining all those yeasty flavours. Again serve it as chilled as you like, and match with fish dishes like anchovies marinated in lemon or vinegar, or Bacalao (salt baked cod). Here’s a cracking one to get you going: Barbadillo Manzanilla Extra Dry
Amontillado: This is a Fino or Manzanilla that has been allowed to mature further (usually at least 8+ years) and eventually oxidise without a covering of flor. Sometimes this process happens by mistake, though usually it is intentional and more grape spirit is added to kill off the flor. Occasionally a bit of PX is mixed in to add complexity and a touch of sweetness, but even without this Amontillado Sherries are fanatically nutty and rich. Treat it almost like a red wine and serve a bit cooler than room temperature, try it with Chorizo with sweet peppers and paprika, and Jamón Ibérico. This is a great example to kick on with: Williams & Humbert ‘Winter’s Tale’ Amontillado Sherry
Oloroso: This Sherry is matured without flor, instead it’s fortified much like a Port would be. Oloroso wines experience a phenomenon known as ‘merma’, which is a common evaporation process that’s often called ‘the Angel’s Share’ to Whiskey distillers. Thanks to this, Oloroso wines get more and more complex, deeper in colour, richer and rounded as time goes by (usually aged for 12+ years). Still naturally dry, but with a hint of sweetness these Sherries taste of walnuts, dried orange peel and spices. They should be treated like a great Bordeaux, match it with a delicious Andalucian lamb stew or a juicy steak. This is a great one to explore Oloroso: Fernando de Castilla Antique Oloroso NV – 50cl
Finally lets look at Pedro Ximénez (PX): This is a dessert wine through and through. Primarily made in Montilla-Moriles, the PX grapes are essentially left out in the sun to dry out and virtually turn to raisins, before being fermented and fortified. PX Sherries are lovely and velvety, with sticky sweet fruit that taste almost Christmas pudding like (those aged for 30+ years develop rich, savoury flavours). It’s a cracking dessert wine for any time of year, serve it just below room temperature and have it at the end of your Spanish feast with Churros dipped in chocolate, drizzled over ice cream, or with a cheese board. It’s hard to go wrong with PX, but this one is a great place to start: Sandeman Royal Ambrosante Old Solera PX Sherry (50cl)
I hope all of this changes your mind about Sherry, though the proof is in the drinking. At least I hope this provides a good guide if your looking to explore this amazing style of wine. There is no-where else in the wine-making world that you can get a wine with as much TLC, ageing, and ridiculous complexity and depth of flavour without paying a fortune, and that’s why Sherry rocks!