Sherry Decoded: Top Styles + Cocktail Recipes
Led by a wave of artisanal wines, Sherry is winning a new generation of fans. Here’s the 411.
Ready for a vinous oxymoron? Sherry, for ages one of the most tradition-bound, staid and ignored wines in the world, is surging in popularity.
A new generation of wine drinkers is embracing this idiosyncratic, fortified product from Spain’s deep south.
If this sounds like a story you’ve heard before, I hear you.
As long as I’ve been covering Sherry, the message out of Andalucía has been that Sherry is being rediscovered en masse. Or, that Sherry producers, believing that their wines are about to take off, are mounting yet another global marketing campaign. Or, simply, that Sherry is the most underappreciated, yet perfect wine to pair with food.
But according to tastemakers—i.e., the sommeliers who sell Sherry daily—there’s something different this time around, adding traction to the latest movement.
Young wine devotees—millennials—are enthralled with discovering Sherry’s myriad styles and flavors, especially if the wines are made in tiny batches by small bodegas.
“There’s been renewed interest in Sherry, that’s for sure,” says Gil Avital, wine director at Tertulia, a Spanish restaurant in New York City. Avital says he’s been “blowing through” artisan Sherries lately.
“We’re seeing an openness to try different Sherries, especially among customers in their 20s and 30s, and that’s refreshing,” says Avital. “Still, the majority of our guests need guidance when selecting a Sherry to go with what they’re eating.
“To really know Sherry, one needs to spend a lot of time tasting the many different styles from the different subregions and producers,” he says.
But trying they are, at least those who are hip to the nuances of this centuries-old style of wine.
Sherries are aged in a unique system called the solera, where barrels of fortified wines sit for years at ambient temperatures. Portions of the wine are removed from the oldest barrels for bottling, with new stocks added to keep the solera going.
“World Sherry Day took place in May, and it seemed like a big hit,” says John Mitchell, wine director with Stella! in New Orleans. “I am definitely seeing more interest from our guests.
“If someone even mentions Sherry, I pop open bottles in order to educate as much as possible,” he says. “Whether someone is trying Sherry for the first or 100th time, it is always fun to watch their facial expression and then explain what is in the glass or why it is so different than the other wines they’re used to drinking.”
The driest, most saline style of Sherry, it’s generally made from high-acid Palomino grapes grown in chalky white soils called albariza. Finos are tank-fermented white wines that spend their entire fortified existence under a blanket of yeast called flor, which protects the product from oxidation. Finos usually contain 15–16% alcohol, are best served well chilled, and are dynamite when paired with salty snacks like peanuts, potato chips, cured olives and fried seafood.
Recommendation: González Byass NV Tio Pepe en Rama (San Francisco Wine Exchange; $25) is a specialty fino made from a selection of top barrels from the bodega’s two oldest fino soleras. The current release is the fourth edition of en Rama, slang for a wine in its most unrefined, delicate state.
This flinty style is, in essence, fino made in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanillas, like finos, incorporate the same winemaking and aging-under-flor techniques, which preserve freshness and promote salinity. Because manzanillas are the lightest of Sherries, they pair exceptionally well with raw seafood.
Recommendation: Equipo Navazos NV La Bota de Manzanilla 42 (European Cellars; $50) is the sixth release in a limited series of almacenista manzanillas (basically one barrel of specially selected Sherry purchased from a small producer; in this case, Miguel Sánchez Alaya). Taken from its solera this past February, it’s ideal with mackerel sashimi and Southeast Asian dishes.
There’s no guarantee that a flor blanket will hold, and in cases where it doesn’t, amontillado is the result. Amontillados take on a brown hue, due to extended contact with air inside the solera barrels. And rather than the crisp, saline flavors of finos and manzanillas, amontillados deliver oxidized notes of nuttiness, sautéed mushrooms and a richness best described as umami. Usually about 18% abv, perfect pairings include medium-bodied soups or flavorfully sauced white meats like pork, pheasant or rabbit.
Recommendation: Bodegas Dios Baco S.L. NV 20 Yr. Baco Imperial Amontillado (Colección Internacional del Vino; $80) delivers a blast of walnut and caramel aromas in front of a racy, nervy palate. Flavors of dried apricot, salted peanuts and toffee are offset by firm acidity, making this amontillado versatile with many foods.
Whereas amontillado is a Sherry in which the flor breaks up naturally, an oloroso sees the cellar master intentionally destroy the flor to promote oxidation. Olorosos can be sweet or dry in style, depending on whether the wine includes Moscatel (sweet), or is made strictly from Palomino grapes (dry). Like with amontillado, where the abv is usually around 18–19%, olorosos can withstand decades in barrel, which creates extra richness and complexity.
Recommendation: Gutiérrez-Colosía NV Sangre y Trabajadero (De Maison Selections; $30/375 ml) is a complex, full-bodied oloroso aged at least seven years in a solera prior to bottling. The bodega, which dates back to 1838, is located in El Puerto de Santa Maria, the third town in the “Sherry Triangle,” along with Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Pair this and other fine olorosos with the same foods as an amontillado.
The wildcard of Sherry, palo cortado begins its existence under flor, then loses that cover while tracking toward amontillado. Along the way, however, something mysterious happens, and the wine grows richer and more regal, like oloroso. The name, palo cortado, is derived from a cross traditionally drawn on the barrel’s exterior to note that it’s doing its own thing and isn’t amontillado or oloroso, per sé. Palo cortado is an elegant style of Sherry best enjoyed on its own.
Recommendation: Bodegas César Florido’s Peña del Aguila Chipiona (De Maison Selections; $65/375 ml). According to Mitchell, the wine director at Stella! in New Orleans, Peña del Aguila is a “breathtaking” palo cortado from a 38-year-old solera that delivers a level of quality that “isn’t possessed by any other house I’ve tasted.” With intricate flavors of roasted nuts, fine wood and vanilla, this potent Sherry (21.5% abv) is a wine for connoisseurs.
Sweet Sherries come in a multitude of forms and quality levels, from your basic Cream Sherry, more or less an oloroso with sweet grapes like Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel blended in, to complex varietal PX and Moscatel-based Sherries, in which freshly picked grapes are sun-dried to concentrate sugars and flavors. These can be dark, unctuous wines with viscosity akin to motor oil.
Recommendation: Valdespino NV El Candado Pedro Ximénez (Polaner Selections; $28) is a delicious dessert wine to sip alone or pour on top of vanilla ice cream or rice pudding. It’s a viscous sweetie with a molasses-like color and flavors of brown sugar, raisin and chocolate. A beam of vital acidity keeps it from feeling too heavy or tasting too syrupy.
Sherry Cocktails Get in the Mix
Take a closer look at the cocktail menu: Bartenders are embracing Sherry as a key cocktail ingredient.
“Historically, Sherry has had a huge place in the evolution of cocktails,” says Dan Greenbaum, co-owner and bar manager of The Beagle, a Sherry-centric bar in New York City. In particular, the late 1800s saw the rise of the Sherry cobbler, made with sugar, Sherry and “cobblestone ice,” hence the drink name.
Now, Sherry is making a comeback among the mixology set—driven in part by the revival of historic libations. But Sherry also offers unique flavors, says Greenbaum, “the nuttiness that comes from oxidization, the brininess in fino and manzanilla,” as well as the sweet, rich notes of Pedro Ximénez.
“You can make very tasty, interesting cocktails where Sherry is the base ingredient, not just a modifier,” Greenbaum says.
Here’s a sampling of some of those cocktails to try at home.
Recipe courtesy Dan Greenbaum, co-owner and bar manager, The Beagle, New York City
A riff on the classic Bamboo cocktail (equal parts Sherry and dry vermouth), this drink features the light, mineral-like flavor of fino Sherry. “I like La Ina, because it’s a young, sharp fino that can withstand a good amount of vermouth without being overpowered,” Greenbaum says. “A manzanilla like La Guita also works well.”
1½ ounces La Ina Fino Sherry
1½ ounces Perruchi sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Stir all ingredients (except garnish) with ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Recipe courtesy Jon Santer, co-owner, Prizefighter, Emeryville, California
This downright muscular cocktail uses a hit of rich, nutty amontillado to add complexity to rye whiskey.
2 ounces rye whiskey
¾ ounce amontillado Sherry
¼ ounce orange liqueur, such as Cointreau
2 dashes orange bitters
Fat strip of orange peel, for garnish
Combine ingredients (except garnish) over a large chunk of ice in a rocks glass and stir. Twist orange peel over the top of the drink to release oils from the skin, then use the peel to garnish.
Recipe courtesy Jackson Cannon, owner, The Hawthorne, Boston
This drink gives crisp, dry fino Sherry a bit of fruity flavor and tiki flair.
¾ ounce grenadine
½ ounce ruby Port
½ ounce Cognac
¼ ounce fresh lemon juice
2 ounces fino Sherry
5 dashes Fee Brothers
Whiskey Barrel bitters
Mint sprig, for garnish
Fill a highball glass one-third with pellet or crushed ice. Add the grenadine, Port, Cognac and lemon juice, and mix the ingredients with a swizzle stick (or long spoon). Pack the remainder of the glass with ice, then add the Sherry. Swizzle again. Pack the glass with ice until full, then top with the bitters. Garnish with mint sprig and serve with a straw.
5 Sherries Top Restaurants and Bars Love Right Now
Here’s a shortlist of some of the labels spotted on the shelves and menus at Sherry-loving bars and restaurants. Score a bottle or two for your tasting room at home.
La Ina Fino: At The Beagle in New York, co-owner and bar manager Dan Greenbaum frequently mixes La Ina into cocktails—young, bone-dry and crisp, it stands up to vermouth, amaros and other spirits, he says. It’s also a fine sipper alongside light nibbles such as Marcona almonds.
La Guita Manzanilla: Spanish resto Manzanilla in New York City (recently named a Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurant) showcases the mouthwatering saline and bright apple notes of this Sherry in its signature Manzanilla Martini.
Pedro Romero Amontillado: Crowned with fruit and plenty of crushed ice, Bellocq’s signature Sherry cobbler utilizes this amontillado. Off-dry and featuring notes of hazelnut and spice, it’s a natural companion to cheeses and savory appetizers, too.
Toro Albala ‘Don PX’ Pedro Ximenez: “PX,” as Pedro Ximenez is often shorthanded, is noted as the sweeter side of the Sherry spectrum. This bottling is served by the glass at Vera, a tapas restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop area, usually as a dessert pairing—but on the savory side, keep an eye out for the PX syrup drizzled over Vera’s cocoa-dusted foie gras, too.
Lustau East India Solera: With its tawny hue and appealing mix of rich fig, raisin and cocoa, consider pairing this bottling with a traditional Spanish flan. Yountville, California’s famous French Laundry includes this bottling on its extensive wine list.