Why sherry is the best wine you’ve never tried.

Outside of Spain there seems to be two main camps when it comes to sherry: those who have been scarred by an early life experience of overly sweet alcohol from Grandma’s tumbler, and those who have never heard of it.  Either way it is a tragedy, as sherry remains one of the truly great wines of the world and – like saké – partners wonderfully with food (see my recommendations at the end).

Like many highly prized products true sherry hails exclusively from a small part of the world – in this case, Andalusia, Southern Spain.  Favoured by Christopher Columbus and Shakespeare and with a colourful and tumultuous history, sherry has had its share of time in the limelight over the centuries.  However, it suffered a sharp decline in sales last century in part due to a glut of sweet and cheap products from other countries marketed under the sherry label.  This is not to say genuine sherry producers don’t make sweet wines.  Indeed, the majority of sherry produced today is of the sweet variety.  However, the best sherry is crisp, dry and wonderfully complex.

Many people don’t realise that sherry is in fact a wine and begins its life in the same way – with primary fermentation converting sugars into alcohol.  At that point the wine is turned over to the alchemy of sherry-making and something truly magical transpires.

Sherry production is highly complex – more akin to an art than a science – and results in a vast array of styles that can improve with age for many years.

Sherry can be broadly divided into two categories: Those that are biologically aged (exposed to a yeast known as ‘flor’ that lives on the surface of the wine in barrel and protects the wine from oxidation whilst imparting a distinctive salty, apple almond note); and those that have been oxidatively aged (free from flor influence.)

All wine destined for sherry is fortified with alcoholic spirit just after primary fermentation.  The level of fortification is the first step in determining the final style of the wine that will end up in bottle.  If the wine is fortified above 15.5%, the flor doesn’t get a chance to grow and the resulting sherry will be end up in the more oxidative, Oloroso style.  Wines fortified to levels of 15.5% or less will start their lives off as a Fino style, but can morph into other intermediary styles such as Amontillado and Palo Cortado that can have the classic salty mineral notes as well as the nutty, dried fruit qualities we see in Oloroso.

Another important and certainly unique aspect of the sherry production process is the aging process called the Solera system where older wines (aged in barrels – or ‘butts’ – as they are known) are constantly freshened up from younger wines in the barrel hierarchy. This system allows for a more uniform, consistent product, free from the variation we tend to see in single vintage wines. The Solera system also provides the fantastic complexity and longevity that is so important in defining sherry’s status as one of the great wines of the world. In the case of the flor styles, the Solera system is vital in defining the extent of the flor character: The more topping of the base wine, the saltier the character of the finished wine.

As I have said in earlier opinions, great wine needs time to develop. Sherry is one of the rare exceptions in the wine world where the producer takes on the cost and control of pre-aging the sherry before release to the market.  Because of the fractional blending of the Solera system, winemakers will only ever know a sherry’s average age. By law the wine needs to have been stored for an average of 2 years if it is to carry the Sherry marque. That said, the best Amontillado’s, Palo Cortado’s and Oloroso’s are truly ancient on release, and have the capacity to continue improving in bottle for many decades.

Considering its quality and longevity, I believe sherry offers exceptional value for money and should be on the radar of anyone who considers themselves a serious wine lover or foodie – not least to erase any lingering memories of Nana’s cloying cream sherry!

Some sherry styles worth a try:

Fino: is the driest and palest of the traditional varieties of sherry and is recognisable by its lighter colour, and fresher more delicate floral aromas.  It is aged for a minimum of 2 years in barrel and should be drunk comparatively young.  Serve chilled and consume within a couple of days after the bottle is opened.  In my opinion, nothing pairs more perfectly with olives and cured meats than a good Fino sherry. And don’t get me started on its compatibility with oysters…

Manzanilla: is a variety of Fino made around the port of Sanlúcar de Barremeda. It has an intense saline quality as a result of the thicker flor yeast that thrives in the humid coastal conditions. Fantastic with garlicky king prawns or Manchego.

Amontillado: begins as a Fino, but undergoes additional fortification and time in oak casks to give it darker colouring and richer flavouring.  Amontillados should be dry and salty like Fino, but have more complexity and richness of flavour – more like that found in the Oloroso style. I love to drink bone dry Amontillado with Indian food, or the best bread if you buy the best bread maker online.

Palo Cortado: Like Amontillado, Palo Cortado is an intermediate type of sherry. The best examples are like Amontillado on the nose and Oloroso on the palate. Generally speaking, when compared to Amontillado, it is more delicate in style. In addition, it must spend less time with flor and thus generally has less of the salty zing Amontillado’s are prized for. It is a rare style of sherry and one of my favourites. Think Middle Eastern cuisine.

Oloroso: Like all styles Oloroso comes in differing levels of sweetness, but the best are bone dry. It is produced by oxidative aging, is usually darker and smoother than an Amontillado and has a rich, spicy, nutty flavour.  It can be aged for decades in cask to improve the flavour and depth of colour.  Oloroso works well with big hearty flavours like rich meaty stews and mature cheeses.

Pedro Ximenez: the ultimate dessert wine made from fortified air-dried PX grapes.  If you’re a sweet-tooth or fan of Christmas pudding this is the sherry for you.