Wine Lovers' Spain, a Guide to Sherry Wines
Everyone has heard of sherry, but did you know that it can be pale gold and dry or mahogony and sweet? Or that its name comes from the Spanish "Xeres" (Jerez), a town in Andalusia? Most would simply call sherry a fortified wine, but having travelled to Andalusia, I can tell you, it is so much more! From its taste to its production techniques, sherry is certainly unique.
Normally during wine production, young wines set to age are kept from exposure to the air by sealing them in airtight barrels (this protects them from the bacteria and yeasts that can ruin them). Sherry bucks this rule of thumb, and the barrels are deliberately left partially unfilled, leaving space for the "flor" (yeast) to form. The yeast is what gives sherries their distinctive flavors. Some sherries, Fino and Manzanilla, for example, are aged entirely "under flor," (or under the level of the yeast, which floats on the top), while others are fortified or filtered to limit the growth of the flor and exposed to oxidative aging.
Sherry wines are incredibly versatile: they can be dry and light (such as Fino and Manzanilla, usually made from Palomino grapes), or darker and heavier (such as Amontillado and Oloroso). There are also sweet varieties, made from Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes. Once fermentation is complete, the base wines are often fortified to increase their alcohol content. Here is a breakdown of the most common types of Spanish sherry wines.
Fino - The driest of the sherries, as well as the palest, this straw-colored sherry is usually described as almond-y. It is also the least alcoholic of the sherries, ranging from 15-17%. It pairs well with olives, ham, and of course almonds. When visiting our best-selling culinary vacation in Spain, the fabulous Cooking in Andalusian Olive Country, I had the opportunity to enjoy more than one glass of this unique wine. My hosts, Clive and Maki, explained that the locals claim that when you drink Fino you do not get a hangover, as it is a natural wine, and not a fortified sherry!
Amontillado - An off-dry Sherry that has a deeper color and nuttier flavor than Fino and Manzanilla, it is associated with hazelnuts. It is a bit more alcoholic (16-18%), and goes well with oily fish and chicken. It is first aged "under flor" but then exposed to oxidative aging. Readers of Edgar Allan Poe might find the name Amontillado familiar: it was used in the story "The Cask of Amontillado," in which the murdering protagonist lures his victim to his death with the promise of tasting a rare vintage of Amontillado!
Oloroso - The name means "scented," and this variety is a richer wine with a dark golden color. It is also the most alcoholic, between 18 and 20%. Oloroso sherries are described as walnut-y and sometimes with a hint of caramel, and they pair well with rich meats and flavorful cheeses. They are naturally dry, but can be made into a sweetened version called Cream Sherry.
Palo Cortado - This rare type of sherry begins as a Fino ("under flor") and becomes an Amontillado (when the flor dies off inexplicably or is killed off by fortification or filtration). It ends up more similar to an Oloroso, also 18 to 20% alcohol by volume, and is reddish-brown in color.
Cream Sherry - A blended sherry, they are usually Oloroso or Amontillado sherries that have been sweetened with Pedro Ximénez grapes. They are rich and dark, smooth in texture, and pair well with rich desserts.
Pedro Ximénez - A very sweet, almost syrupy dessert sherry, it is made from sweet, sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes. Its alcohol content is lower than that of the dry sherries, and its flavors are more akin to toffee and molasses. It is also called Sweet Sherry (although Sweet Sherry can also be made from dried Moscatel grapes, particularly in Malaga).
Drinking and Storing Sherry - All varieties of Sherry should be stored upright in a cool, dark place. Finos and Manzanillas are usually served chilled and should be consumed fairly quickly after bottling. Amontillados are a little more tolerant of aging, but not as much so as the Olorosos, Sweet and Cream Sherries, which can be stored for many years. Sherry is traditionally served in a "copita", a special, tulip-shaped sherry glass.
Learn more about Spanish sherry wines first-hand during a cooking vacation to Spain! Want to visit Jerez? Try Secrets of the Mediterranean or Taste of Seville. Is your time (or budget) limited? Then take a one-day cooking class in Spain, and enjoy a wonderful meal with a tasting of sherry wines.
By Peg Kern