With critics on both coasts crowing about the newest releases from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, Spanish wine couldn’t be more au courant. But in the middle of summer, who wants a big, oaky red? Imagine instead a glass of cold fino sherry -- bracing and crisp like a dip in the pool, yet bone-dry and clean like the breeze that warms you when you get out.
Sadly, sherry has largely been forgotten, having been shelved the last couple of generations as the tipple of fuddy-duddies. That view misses the boat: Sherry is in fact one of the most complex and versatile wines in the world.
Though it works with all kinds of food, sherry is wonderful with tapas.
“I just got back from Spain a few months ago, and people there drink it all the time,” says Terry Simons, wine buyer for Cobras and Matadors, the Silver Lake tapas restaurant with an exclusively Spanish list. “Here it’s not an easy sell, but when I can get the staff excited about it, they’ll sell it out.” At the Cobras and Matadors on Hollywood, Simons offers a selection of sherries by the glass from Lustau, one of the top houses, from fino to oloroso. Its original restaurant on Beverly Boulevard doesn’t have a liquor license, though the wine shop next door has 12 sherries diners can buy and bring in. But, says Simons, customers rarely do. “People just aren’t that familiar with it. I think they’ve forgotten how good sherry really is.”
The affinity between sherry and tapas isn’t surprising, because they originated in Andalucia, the region that sits at Spain’s southern tip.
And it is from there that sherry still comes today, centered on the town of Jerez (whose name, corrupted centuries ago, gives us the word “sherry”). All sherry comes in two sweeping styles, fino and oloroso, each made from the same rather featureless grape, the palomino fino. Finos are light and crisp, while olorosos are darker, richer and full-bodied.
The difference between the two is in how they are made. In a rather unusual winemaking situation, at the beginning of the process known as the solera system, it is unknown whether the initial wine will become a fino or an oloroso until it has been fermented and put into barrel. The wines that are destined to become finos spontaneously develop a creamy surface layer of yeast called flor, which protects the wines from oxidation and affects the development with a sort of biological maturation that is unique to sherry. This wine is then fortified with grape spirit up to about 15% alcohol, a perfect environment to maintain the flor. The wines that don’t naturally develop much, or any, flor are fortified to around 17% (to kill off any flor) and left in barrel for the long, oxidative maturation that enables them to become rich olorosos.
Finos are almost always left dry, whereas some amontillados and olorosos (particularly those for export) are sweetened with sugary wine from the Moscatel or Pedro Ximenez grapes.
The complicated solera system of aging and fortification means that sherries are blended over the years for consistency. Consequently, there are no vintages to consider (or worry about). Another happy result is the progression of styles of sherries -- these can take you all the way through a dinner, from hors d’oeuvre to dessert.
Perfect for the first half of the meal are the flor-influenced finos, which can be broken down into the three sub-categories of manzanilla, fino and amontillado. The former two are always served chilled, while the latter can be served cold or at room temperature (I prefer them on the cool side).
A manzanilla is a fino made specifically in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. With cooler temperatures than those in Jerez, the flor grows more abundantly in Sanlucar, protecting the wine from oxygen and keeping it light and fresh. Thus manzanilla is the lightest of body, the tangiest and palest of all sherries, with a tart, crisp and salty flavor reminiscent of the sea -- an ideal match with anchovies, calamari or clams sauteed in olive oil with garlic.
One of the best manzanillas, with a briny tinge atop a delicately fruity base, comes from the house of Lustau and is called “Papirusa.” Another great is “La Gitana” from Hidalgo, with its breezy, faintly salty tinge. Osborne’s manzanilla is light and elegant, with hints of lemon rind and salty sea breeze.
Fino sherry is dry and nutty, straw-colored, with slightly rounder body. It’s a blowsy, easy-drinking wine meant to chase down tangy, succulent foods. Classic versions include “La Ina” from the house of Domecq and Tio Pepe from Gonzalez Byass. “La Ina” is light and dry, with appealing flinty notes; Tio Pepe is considered the gold standard of fino, tart and dry. Both wines have aromas and flavors that suggest salted almonds, which unsurprisingly make an excellent match, as do olives. Just about any Mediterranean seafood pairs well too, and gazpacho and fino make a happy marriage. The fino has the tang to support any of these and the inexorable dryness to refresh the mouth after almost any strong flavor.
A sherry family tree
Amontillado is a longer-aged fino. Over time, as the flor consumes all the nutrients that sustain it, it dies off and the biological aging process becomes an oxidative one, resulting in a wine that’s fuller-bodied, nutty and amber in color. In Spain, most amontillados are dry, but many for export have a little added sweetness. Williams and Humbert’s ubiquitous Dry Sack amontillado is one that’s a bit sweet. But much more interesting are the dry ones, such as the Lustau “Los Arcos.” This wine is savory and complex, with a burnished, nutty depth. Either way, amontillados, with their flavors of dried fruits and roasted nuts, are great matches with autumnal, earthy foods like roast duck, squab or pork with salty reductions and glazed vegetables or porcinis. But their versatility is remarkable: One of the most startlingly wonderful pairings I’ve ever had was a wonderful, long-aged amontillado, an incredibly elegant and nutty wine, with shrimp curry. During mushroom season, the Andalucians pour a glass of amontillado directly into their mushroom soup.
Oloroso sherries are even richer and higher in alcohol. Mahogany in color, the best are wonderfully complex, often with hazelnut, almond and walnut notes, along with dried fig and apricot. Again, many for export are sweetened to varying degrees. A couple that are not are the gorgeous “Don Nuno” from Lustau and “Bailen” from Osborne. Bone dry, they give an impression of sweetness and flavors suggesting walnuts and dried fruits. These are fabulous at the end of a meal with nuts or aged manchego cheese.
Outside the two main categories are a dessert sherry called Pedro Ximenez and a rare style known as Palo Cortado.
Palo Cortado is a changeling. It begins its life as an amontillado and then switches to become an oloroso, combining the finesse of the former with the depth and richness of the latter. These highly sought-after wines have the complexity and richness to be paired with a wide array of foods -- rich seared foie gras, cured hams and other charcuterie, nut tarts. The possibilities are limitless.
Unlike the other sherries, Pedro Ximenez comes from the grape of the same name; it’s dried in the sun and the wine is made from the raisins. Lustau’s “San Emilio” and Domecq’s “Venerable” are two noteworthy examples -- thick, dark-colored, raisiny and intensely rich. Sip a little with some salty manchego or pair one with bittersweet chocolate mousse. They’re also delicious drizzled over vanilla ice cream.
Finally, there are the sweet cream sherries, generally olorosos sweetened with Pedro Ximenez, but these are no longer taken seriously.
Delicious and versatile as sherry is, because it’s more alcoholic than table wine it’s best to drink it in smaller glasses. Small, narrow glasses called copitas (little cups) are traditional, but don’t fret if you don’t have them. I’ve often used Champagne flutes, filled only halfway.
Due to the higher alcohol, sherry will preserve better than will table wine, but it’s made to be opened and a bottle finished like wine. You can keep sherry at least a few days, and up to a week; after that, it gets stale, though it’s still fine for cooking if kept in the fridge.
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The top sherries:
a buyer’s guide
Bodegas Hidalgo Manzanilla “La Gitana” ($10). Available at Wine House in West Los Angeles and at Heritage Wines in Pasadena.
Osborne Manzanilla ($8). Available at Beverages and More (various locations).
Domecq Dry Fino “La Ina” ($14). At fine wine shops.
Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Palomino Fino ($15). Available at fine wine shops.
Lustau Dry Amontillado “Los Arcos” ($16). Available at Du Vin Wine and Spirits in West Hollywood and at Wally’s Wine and Spirits in West Los Angeles.
Lustau Dry Oloroso “Don Nuno” ($19). Available at Wine House.
Lustau Manzanilla “Papurisa” ($15) Available at Vicente Foods, Brentwood.
Lustau Palo Cortado “Peninsula” ($17). Available at Wine House, Wally’s and Du Vin.
Lustau Pedro Ximenez “San Emilo” ($18). Available at Wally’s.