Everything You Need To Know About Sherry
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.
Over the past few years, a new generation of wine drinkers has embraced this idiosyncratic, fortified product from Spain’s deep south.
If this sounds like a story you’ve heard before, we hear you. It seems as though the word on Sherry, at least out of Jerez, the capital of Sherry production, has long been that it’s on the rebound, making headway and/or on the cusp of being the next big thing.
But according to tastemakers—i.e., the sommeliers who sell Sherry daily—there’s something different this time around. Millennials have become enthralled with discovering Sherry’s myriad styles, flavors and nuances, especially if the wines are made in tiny batches by small bodegas.
“We’re seeing an openness to trying different Sherries, especially among customers in their 20s and 30s, and that’s refreshing,” says Gil Avital, wine director at Tertulia and El Colmado, a pair of Spanish restaurants in New York City. “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.”
But many people now are trying Sherry, at least those hip to the charms and particularities 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 periodically removed from the oldest barrels for bottling, with new stocks added to keep the solera going.
The driest, most saline style of Sherry, finos are generally made from high-acid Palomino grapes grown in chalky white soils called albariza. These tank-fermented white wines spend their entire fortified existence under a blanket of yeast called flor, which protects the wine 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.
González Byass NV Tio Pepe Fino en Rama; $25. This specialty fino is made from a selection of top barrels from the bodega’s two oldest fino soleras. The current release is the sixth edition of en Rama, which is Jerezano slang for a wine in its most unrefined, delicate state. Vin Divino.
This flinty style is, in essence, fino made in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Like finos, manzanillas incor-porate 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.
Equipo Navazos NV La Bota de Manzanilla 55; $50. This is the eighth release in a limited series of almacenista manzanillas (one barrel of specially selected Sherry purchased from a small producer; in this case, Miguel Sánchez Ayala). Taken from its solera in November 2014, it’s ideal with foods like 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, they pair perfectly with medium-bodied soups or flavorfully sauced pork, pheasant or rabbit.
A blast of walnut and caramel aromas precedes a racy, nervy palate. Flavors of dried apricot, salted peanuts and toffee are offset by firm acidity, making this amontillado versatile with many foods. Colección Internacional del Vino.
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.
Gutiérrez-Colosía NV Sangre y Trabajadero; $21/375 ml. Complex and full bodied, this oloroso is aged roughly 12 years in a solera prior to bottling. The bodega, which dates back to 1838, is located in El Puerto de Santa María, 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 wide range of foods as an amontillado. Coeur Wine Co.
The wildcard of Sherry, palo cortado begins its existence under flor, and 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 in white chalk on the barrel’s exterior to note that it’s doing its own thing and isn’t amontillado or oloroso. Palo cortado is an elegant style of Sherry best enjoyed on its own.
Bodegas César Florido NV Peña del Aguila Chipiona; $65/375 ml. A palo cortado from a 40-year-old solera, this delivers intricate flavors of roasted nuts, fine wood and vanilla. It’s potent at 21.5% abv, and a wine for connoisseurs. De Maison Selections.
Sweet Sherries come in a multitude of forms and quality levels. A basic Cream Sherry is more or less an oloroso with sweet grapes like Pedro Ximénez (PX) or Moscatel blended in. In complex varietal PX and Moscatel-based Sherries, freshly picked grapes are sun-dried to concentrate sugars and flavors. These can be dark, unctuous wines with viscosity akin to motor oil.
Valdespino NV El Candado Pedro Ximénez; $32. This 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. Polaner Selections.
Working side by side with one of the world’s
Within the walls of the González Byass winery, founded in 1835, orange trees and vine-adorned cobblestone pathways connect one enormous barrel-filled solera to another, each containing thousands of black casks filled with all types of highly aromatic Sherry wines.
From the company’s early days through the latter half of the 20th century, the sprawling winery was a community unto itself. Workers lived in the bodega with their families, and employees ate meals in groups. Children of some González Byass winemakers and bodegueros (winery workers) were born and raised there.
One such person is Antonio Flores (pictured), born in 1955 in a room above a barrel vault.
“The original Tio Pepe solera is called Rebollo,” says Flores, González Byass’s chief winemaker and master blender since 1980. “I was born directly upstairs.”
The son of a González Byass winemaker, Flores invited me to Jerez to help select the barrels that would comprise the 2015 production of Tio Pepe’s Las Palmas series. I was told to prepare for an education in Sherry blending that I’d never before experienced.
“To make great Sherry, you must have two things. One is a lot of chalk. […] Two, you need shoes with soft soles…” —Antonio Flores
“To make great Sherry, you must have two things,” Flores said at the beginning of our day. “One is a lot of chalk. Every barrel we will try has markings indicating quality and to what wine it will go into, be it Tio Pepe or Las Palmas. Two, you need shoes with soft soles, because we will be on our feet for hours.”
Walking from the González Byass library, where I read the original partnership proposal letter that founder Manuel María González Ángel wrote in 1836 to his British agent, Robert Blake Byass, Flores described the Palmas wines. In essence, they are longer-aged, higher-quality versions of Tio Pepe, the winery’s signature fino.
He noted that only 6,000 bottles of Una, Dos, Tres or Cuatro Palmas are made each year.
*Editor’s Note: Tio Pepe Las Palmas, the 5th Edition, was released in the United States in December 2015.
Courtesy Jon Santer, co-owner, Prizefighter, Emeryville, California
This muscular cocktail relies on a hit of rich, nutty amontillado to add complexity to rye whiskey.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- ¾ ounce amontillado Sherry
- ¼ ounce orange liqueur, like Cointreau
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- 1 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. Use the peel to garnish.
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-Aged Bitters
- Mint sprig, for garnish
Fill a highball glass to 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 more pellet or crushed 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.
- 1Styles of Sherry
- 2A Master Class in Sherry Blending
- 3Butchertown Cocktail
- 4Fino Swizzle