Sherry has long been a staple in Europe. But in this country, the fortified wine always seems to be the next big trend only never to establish a foothold. Sherry is not for everyone. The alcohol tends to be higher than table wine, and the aromas and flavors can be intense and off-putting to some, yet exhilarating to others.
Some regard sherry as nothing more than a cooking wine most have buried in the back of the cupboard or something so sweet, it could peel the enamel off your teeth. But it might surprise you to know sherry is made in a variety of styles — from bone dry to sticky sweet — and can be ideal before, during or after a meal, or as a star cocktail ingredient, depending on the style.
Sherry is made predominantly from white Palomino grapes and fortified with neutral grape spirits to boost the alcohol and stop the fermentation process. Sherries are aged in barrels using the solera system, where older wine is blended with newer wine. This method grew out of necessity when sailors needed a way to prevent their wine from spoiling during long oceanic voyages, thus sherry’s enduring popularity in European seafaring countries, such as Portgual, Spain, France and England.
Some of the more popular styles are Fino sherry, which is light in color and dry on the palate; Amontillado, which starts as a Fino but is darker due to exposure to oxygen; Oloroso, which has complex characteristics and is darker than Amontillado; and Pedro Ximenez, a sweet, dessert wine made from dried grapes.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I shared three samples of sherry from the esteemed Gonzalez Byass Familia de Vino in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, founded in 1835, with Paul Marsh’s Sommelier Bootcamp class at his wine bar and restaurant, Mile Wine Company in Stockton. Seven of us took part in the tasting, and those who hadn’t tried sherry seemed to gain an appreciation for one of the world’s classic styles of wine.
Here is what we tried:
• Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry ($25): Pale gold color with pronounced aromas of green apple, caramel and felt-tip marker. The palate is dry with flavors of green apple peel, salted caramel, almonds and a hint of asparagus. The wine spends a minimum of four years in American oak barrels following traditional solera system. The acid (pH 3) is high and the alcohol (15 percent) is medium-high with pronounced flavor intensity, light body and medium finish. Finos are aged under a protective, yeast-like layer of flor, which inhibits exposure to oxygen, making for a lighter, drier style. Serve chilled (40-50 degrees) with olives, Spanish tapas, sushi or salty cheeses, such as manchego or parmigiano-reggiano. Finos also are great in cocktails. Try mixing orange juice, vodka and Fino for a refreshing, spring-summer or brunch time refresher.
• Gonzalez Byass “Leonor” Palo Cortado Sherry ($25): Beautiful amber color at the core with an orange rim. Spectacular, pronounced, complex nose of roasted pecans, toffee, hazelnuts, French toast, brown sugar, vanilla and butter. One taster said it smelled like “the inside of Tootsie Pop.” A lot going on with this wine, which is similar in its flavor profile to Oloroso. High acid (pH 3.1) and high alcohol (20 percent), medium body, long finish. Spent 12 years in oak barrels following traditional solera system. Serve lightly chilled (50 degrees) with game, red meats or pecan pie.
• Gonzales Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Sherry ($25): Made from 100 percent Pedro Ximenez grapes that are dried to evaporate the water and intensify the sugar. Deep-mahogany color with aromas of raisins, stewed prunes, Fig Newtons, hazelnuts, toffee, smoke and wood. The flavors match the aromas in intensity and complexity. The acid is medium (pH 4.6) and the alcohol is medium-high (15 percent). Aged nine years following the traditional solera system. Best served chilled as an after-dinner drink, or with dark chocolate or ice cream.
Sherry is one of the world’s most enduring styles of wine. It’s different than Port. It’s different than most table wines. And different can be good.