If, like most Americans, your experience with Sherry—or sack, as it was known in Shakespeare’s day—is limited and your image of the wine is tainted by visions of little old ladies sipping sweet Sherry from thimble-sized glasses, it’s prime time for a crash course in the intricacies of this historic Spanish wine.
Sherry is a fortified wine made in the southwestern corner of Spain, in the towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The region is hot and dry; the only grapes that thrive in the area’s chalky albariza soil are a trio of white grapes known as Palomino Fino, Pedro Ximénez (PX) and Moscatel. The lean, acidic Palomino is the exclusive grape for dry Sherries, while PX is used to make sweet Sherries. Moscatel isn’t used much anymore.
There are five main styles of Sherry, ranging from the bracingly dry and nearly salty to the nutty and sweet. Though most often thought of as an apéritif or after-dinner wine, Sherry in fact works wonderfully throughout a meal. Its radically different styles make this possible.
Fino and manzanilla are very pale yellow in color and are the sharpest and driest of all Sherries. Manzanilla is similar in style to a fino in all ways but one—it is made solely in the town of Sanlúcar. Each should be served well chilled (about 45Â°F). Both work wonderfully with nuts, tapas, soups and seafood. Amontillado is amber in color, fairly tangy, with nutty nuances. It’s a dry wine that sings with soups, white meats and salty, zingy dishes such as charcuterie and vinaigrettes. Serve amontillado at about 57Â°F.
Oloroso is naturally dry and mahogany in color, but it can be sweetened if some PX is added to the blend. An oloroso goes best with game, red meats and other hearty dishes; the proper serving temperature is about 60Â°F. Palo cortado is more or less a hybrid of amontillado and oloroso; it pairs with the same foods and should be served at between 57Â°F and 60Â°F. Finally, sweet Sherries, commonly referred to as dessert Sherries, contain large amounts of PX, while some are made entirely of PX; they are rich, raisiny and borderline unctuous. Serve a sweet Sherry alone or with desserts at about 65°F, or just below room temperature.
All Sherry is made using the ingenious solera system, whereby wines of different ages that have been fortified with raw brandy are stored in neutral oak barrels, allowing the cellar master to blend old and young wines to achieve a desired final product. Fino and manzanilla are generally younger, and live their entire lives in barrel under a protective yeast-based covering called flor. The flor prevents oxidization, which is why a fino stays so light in color. Amontillados begin as finos, but when the flor dies off the wine starts to oxidize, taking on a brownish cast. Olorosos, palo cortados and dessert Sherries never live under flor, which is why they are significantly richer and darker than finos and amontillados.
Ideally, Sherry should be drunk from a special type of glass called a copita, which falls somewhere between a white wine glass and a Port glass. Not everyone has copitas on hand, but this special glass allows the aromas to waft upward and the wine to stay cool.
Sherry, as idiosyncratic a wine as there is, deserves to be served with gutsy, flavorful foods. Fortunately, a number of top chefs around the world are big Sherry fans; many have a variety of dishes that go stunningly well with an array of Sherries. We have selected five recipes, each of which is tailor-made to go with a different style of Sherry.
Among the renowned chefs that have provided recipes for this five-course meal is Bobby Flay, executive chef and co-owner of Bolo Restaurant and Mesa Grill in New York. Flay is also a program host on the Food Network and has participated in the competitive cooking show, “Iron Chef.” We also plundered the recipe chest of one of the U.K.’s top chefs, Gordon Ramsay, a former Glasgow Rangers footballer who runs two of London’s top restaurants, the three-star Gordon Ramsay and also Gordon Ramsay at Claridges. In addition, Ramsay, who trained under modern French masters Guy Savoy and Joël Robuchon, has in recent years opened cutting-edge eateries in Scotland and Dubai.
Lesser known, but top chefs in their own right, are Spaniards José Valdespino, head chef at his family’s La Mesa Redonda, one of Jerez’s finest restaurants, and José Carlos García of the Café de Paris in the beachside city of Málaga. Valdespino not only has the perfect surname to cook with Sherry—his father is part of the family that owns the Valdespino Sherry bodega—his mother, Margarita, was born a Domecq. And García is as Andalucian as they come. Hence, Sherry is a wine he was raised on, while gazpacho in its many forms is right up his alley.
Vale, as they say in Spain. You are now ready to enter the rarefied world of fine food and Sherry.
Duck Confit Salad with Tangerine Vinaigrette and Spicy Almonds
Courtesy Bobby Flay, executive chef and co-owner, Bolo, New York
Flamboyant New York chef Bobby Flay likes to prepare Spanish-influenced nouvelle dishes with big flavors. This snazzy salad gets its spine from crispy confit of duck, and its zing from a zesty tangerine vinaigrette made with Sherry vinegar. Some spicy, crunchy almond brittle is the final tie-in between the salad and a tangy amontillado. Making your own duck confit is an option, but it’s a laborious process that requires curing the duck for up to two days, followed by cooking in loads of duck fat. For most home cooks, ordering pre-made preserved duck is the preferable option.
6 preserved duck legs, crisped in the oven and set aside*
For the vinaigrette:
4 cups fresh tangerine juice
2 tablespoons high-quality, aged
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons honey
¼ teaspoon chili de árbol powder
¾ cup extra virgin Spanish olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
For the spicy almond brittle:
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
¾ cup lightly salted almonds
1 teaspoon chili de árbol powder
For the garnish:
4 cups watercress
*To purchase preserved duck legs, contact d’Artagnan, the reputable purveyor of game and other specialty food products. Six legs are $36.50 plus shipping through their Web site, www.dartagnan.com, or call 800/327-8246.
To make the vinaigrette:
Cook tangerine juice in a saucepan over high heat until it is reduced to Â½ cup and becomes syrupy.
Add tangerine syrup, vinegar, mustard, honey and chili powder to blender; blend for 30 seconds. With motor running, slowly add olive oil until dressing emulsifies. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into a plastic squeeze bottle. (May be prepared up to one day in advance and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before using.)
To make the almond brittle:
Grease a baking sheet with olive oil or nonstick spray, and set aside. Combine sugar and water in a medium saucepan and cook over high heat, stirring until it becomes a dark amber color. Remove from heat and stir in the almonds and chili powder. Carefully pour mixture onto baking sheet and let harden at room temperature. When hard and cool, coarsely chop.
To assemble the salad:
In a large bowl, dress watercress lightly with some of the tangerine vinaigrette and arrange onto six plates. Place a duck leg on top of greens and garnish with tangerine segments, almond brittle and chives. Drizzle with remaining vinaigrette and serve. Serves 6.
A number of amontillado Sherries would marry well with this dish. Domecq’s 51-1a is a stylish, copper-colored amontillado from the bodega’s aged series; Sandeman Royal Esmeralda Fine Dry Amontillado stresses briny flavors and citrus, while Lustau’s Almacenista series, which includes private-stock amontillados from José Luis González Obregón and Manuel Cuevas Jurado, represents the highest echelon in amontillado.
Wild Mushroom and Tomato Risotto
Courtesy Gordon Ramsay, chef/owner, Gordon Ramsay and Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, both in London
3 medium-sized, ripe plum tomatoes
¾ pound wild seasonal mushrooms, such as cèpes, girolles, morels or shiitakes
¾ cup extra virgin Spanish olive oil, divided
6 cups fresh, clear vegetable stock
3 shallots, finely chopped
¾ pound risotto rice (Carnaroli or Arborio)
¾ cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil and chives
Fresh chervil sprigs for garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste
Score tomatoes and blanch in a pot of boiling water for about 10 seconds. Remove from water, peel, quarter and scoop out seeds. Chop flesh into small dice and set aside.
Trim stems from mushrooms then wash quickly in cold water. Pat dry, then slice into small pieces.
Heat half the oil in a sauté or frying pan and sauté mushrooms over high heat until caramelized (about 5 minutes). Remove mushrooms from heat.
In large saucepan, bring vegetable stock to a boil. Blanch rice in boiling stock for 5 minutes. Drain, reserving stock. Cool rice by spreading on a baking tray.
Prior to serving, sauté shallots in a large, shallow pan in more of the olive oil, about 3 minutes or until softened. Add white wine and cook until reduced. Return blanched rice to pan and heat. Gradually stir in reserved stock, adding just enough to make consistency creamy. Cook until grains are just al dente, which is soft but still a bit crunchy.
Mix in mushrooms, mascarpone and half the Parmesan cheese. Stir in tomatoes and chopped basil and chives. Check seasonings for taste; add salt and pepper if desired. Top with remaining Parmesan, garnish with chervil and serve. Serves 6.
Wine recommendations: A nutty, hearty, palo cortado matches the strong, confident flavors of this risotto. González Byass’s Apostoles, which incorporates a touch of sweet Pedro Ximénez, and Lustau’s Península, which is 100 percent Palomino, and thus drier, are excellent choices. For the best in palo cortado, try Domecq’s rare Sibarita. With an average age of 60 years, and hailing from a solera begun in 1792, it is a sensational but pricey option (about $65).
Stewed Oxtails with Dry Oloroso Sherry
Courtesy Chef José Valdespino, Restaurante La Mesa Redonda, Jerez, Spain
Oxtail stew is a classic fall and winter dish in Spain and many Latin American countries. In this traditional preparation from one of Jerez’s top restaurants, the richness and flavor of the slow-cooked oxtails is enhanced by the nutty, deep notes inherent to an aged, dry oloroso Sherry.
You should call your favorite butcher shop in advance to make sure they have oxtails in stock. If not, your butcher should easily be able to order them. Fresh oxtails are the best option, but frozen is acceptable. Have your butcher cut the oxtails into rings or small pieces for you.
1¼ cups extra virgin
Spanish olive oil
4 Spanish onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
5 dried red sweet chilis, seeded and chopped (or 2 tablespoons paprika)
3 whole oxtails, chopped into rings or small pieces
2¼ cups aged dry oloroso Sherry
4¼ cups water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pour the olive oil into a deep saucepan and heat to medium-high. Add the onions, chilis and garlic cloves to the hot oil and sauté for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the oxtail pieces, salt and pepper, and stir for five more minutes. Add the oloroso Sherry and allow time for the alcohol to evaporate (about 3 minutes). Cover with water. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to a simmer and stew lightly for about 3Â½ hours, until the meat falls off the bone. Before serving, skim excess fat off the top. Serve with French fries, sautéed carrots and green peas. Serves 6.
An excellent accompaniment to oxtail stew is Dios Baco’s aged, largely dry oloroso. Also good is Lustau’s Don Nuño Solera Reserva Oloroso Seco, a rich, concentrated wine with hints of sweetness, bitter chocolate and chestnuts. A third choice is Oloroso Romate from Sanchez Romate, a bodega probably best known for its Cardenal Mendoza brandy de Jerez.
Bittersweet Chocolate Cake with Almonds and Dried Fruit
Courtesy Vicki Wells, pastry chef, Bolo, New York
Sweet Sherries are often overshadowed by Port and other dessert wines, but a Pedro Ximénez, with its toffee, hazelnut and raisin flavors, can be a better match with many desserts than even the best Port. A case in point is Vicki Wells’s bittersweet chocolate cake with almonds and dried fruits. The density of the cake will bring out all the sweetness in a PX, while the nuts and fruits stem any runaway sweetness in the wine. This is a perfect meal-ender.
For the cake:
9 ounces (or 1Â¼ cups) bittersweet
9 ounces (or 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) butter
6 eggs, separated (keep both whites and yolks)
8 ounces or 1¼ cups sugar, divided
2/3 cup toasted almonds, chopped
1½ cups chopped dried fruits (cherries, raisins, apricots, figs, or all four)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cake flour
For the ganache:
1¼ cups heavy cream
2½ cups bittersweet choco- late, chopped
To make the cake:
Put chocolate and butter in a bowl and place bowl over a pot of simmering water, until the chocolate and butter are melted. Whisk together egg yolks and half the sugar. Combine yolk/sugar mix with melted chocolate and butter. Stir in almonds and dried fruits.
Make a soft peak of meringue with egg whites and remaining sugar, then place meringue on top of cake mixture. Sift flour onto top of meringue and fold together until homogenous. Fill a buttered and floured 10-inch cake pan Â¾ full with batter. Bake at 325Â°F until cake is set all the way through, about 40 minutes. (The middle of the cake will remain soft.) Let cool in cake pan, then invert and cover with ganache glaze.
To make the ganache:
Bring heavy cream to a boil. Meanwhile, put chopped chocolate in a mixing bowl. When cream has come to a boil, pour over chocolate, wait about a minute, then stir gently with a whisk to combine. Let sit a few minutes before topping cake.
Wine recommendations: A sweet but lively dessert Sherry such as Osborne’s 1827 Pedro Ximénez, which boasts pure raisin, toffee and chocolate flavors prior to a mile- long finish, is perfect for this cake. Additional choices might include Domecq’s Venerable 30-year-old PX, Lustau’s sturdy Old East India or González Byass’s Noe PX.
This article has been edited for length. For more recipes, find the October issue of Wine Enthusiast at your local newsstand.