Our region is not exactly a hot bed of Sherry connoisseurs. The stuff our grandmothers used to douse fruit cakes, lace creamy dessert sauces and proffer as an aperitif garners little enthusiasm from today’s wine enthusiast. But the cheap stuff our grandmothers offered was likely not true Sherry.
True Sherry comes only from the most southwestern tip of the Andalusian coast of Spain. This region was the jumping off point for explorers like Columbus. If Columbus brought wine to the New World, it was likely Sherry.
Sherry comes in a range of styles that roughly divide between two categories: Fino (dry) and Oloroso (sweet-style). Included in the Fino styles are Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado and Palo Cortado. Among the sweeter Sherries are Oloroso, Cream and Pedro Ximénez.
True Sherry is made exclusively from three white grapes: muscatel, palomino and Pedro Ximénez. The finished product can range from the color of pale straw to almost black.
Five major factors make Sherry unique:
1. All Sherry is fortified to some degree. Drier Fino styles receive lighter dosages of brandy and have shorter longevity. Sweeter Sherries like Pedro Ximénez receive higher dosages of brandy and therefore have greater longevity.
2. A yucky-looking layer of yeast (called “flor”) forms on the top of drier Sherries. This occurs only in the Andalusia region of Jerez, where Sherry was born. Most winemakers seeing this phenomenon would think they had made a grave error, but early winemakers discovered flor to be a blessing. The foamy yeast covering protects Fino from oxidation, resulting in a lighter, crisper wine.
3. All Sherries are aged in soleras. A solera is a stack of 600-liter used American oak barrels, called “butts.” Barrels are usually stacked three to four tiers high. Think of a cheerleader pyramid. When it comes time to bottle the wine, it is withdrawn from the bottom row of barrels, which contain the oldest Sherry. The amount withdrawn from the bottom barrels is replenished from the barrels on the second tier, which contain the second-oldest wine. The second tier is replenished from the third tier, and so it goes. The top tier contains the newest wine.
4. Sherry does not carry a vintage date because no one knows for sure how old Sherry really is. If a bottle is dated, it is the date the solera was established.
5. Barrels in a solera are filled to only ¾ capacity, which allows Sherry to oxidize. A good thing for Sherry, but not so good for other wines.
I recently assembled a panel to taste six Sherries.
Comments were generally not favorable for the two Fino Sherries: Orleans Manzanilla and Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe. These pale-straw-colored wines were not well received by those without an acquired taste for such wines. They had the familiar nutty nose common to Sherries, but for me it was like tasting a poorly made sauvignon blanc with butternut flavoring. A Sherry enthusiast on the panel found these pleasing and thought they paired well with garlic shrimp and spicy olive tapas.
Comments became more favorable as we moved into the darker-hued Sherries. The Gonzalez Byass Leonor Palo Contado and the Oloroso Faraon from Bodegas Hildalgo garnered more enthusiastic comments. Though from different categories, both were richer in hue and somewhat off-dry, pairing well with slices of prosciutto and chunks of Manchego, a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain.
The best two were saved for last. Both were made from Pedro Ximénez grapes into the sweetest category of Sherry. The first was the aptly named Nectar from Gonzalez Byass; the second was the equally delicious PX from Bodegas Toro Albala.
The latter is available at Tyson Fine Wine and Things in Golden Springs for $37.25. Pricey for a 375ML, but thisis an unctuous, sweet wine. Made from naturally sweet grapes left on racks to sundry until they become raisin-like, it is nutty caramelized goodness. A small glass is sufficient. One taster suggested pouring it over pancakes.
As cooler weather approaches, unctuously sweet Sherries make excellent after-dinner sips or holiday hostess gifts.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.