Sherry wine decoded
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. A new generation of wine drinkers is embracing this idiosyncratic, fortified product from Spain’s deep south. If this sounds like a story you’ve heard before, I hear you.
As long as I’ve been covering Sherry, the message out of Andalucía has been that Sherry is being rediscovered en masse. Or, that Sherry producers, believing that their wines are about to take off, are mounting yet another global marketing campaign. Or, simply, that Sherry is the most underappreciated, yet perfect wine to pair with food.
But according to tastemakers—i.e., the sommeliers who sell Sherry daily—there’s something different this time around, adding traction to the latest movement.
Young wine devotees—millennials—are enthralled with discovering Sherry’s myriad styles and flavors, especially if the wines are made in tiny batches by small bodegas.
“There’s been renewed interest in Sherry, that’s for sure,” says Gil Avital, wine director at Tertulia, a Spanish restaurant in New York City. Avital says he’s been “blowing through” artisan Sherries lately.
“We’re seeing an openness to try different Sherries, especially among customers in their 20s and 30s, and that’s refreshing,” says Avital. “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,” he says.
But trying they are, at least those who are hip to the nuances 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 removed from the oldest barrels for bottling, with new stocks added to keep the solera going.
“World Sherry Day took place in May, and it seemed like a big hit,” says John Mitchell, wine director with Stella! in New Orleans. “I am definitely seeing more interest from our guests.
“If someone even mentions Sherry, I pop open bottles in order to educate as much as possible,” he says. “Whether someone is trying Sherry for the first or 100th time, it is always fun to watch their facial expression and then explain what is in the glass or why it is so different than the other wines they’re used to drinking.
The driest, most saline style of Sherry, it’s generally made from high-acid Palomino grapes grown in chalky white soils called albariza. Finos are tank-fermented white wines that spend their entire fortified existence under a blanket of yeast called flor, which protects the product 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.
This flinty style is, in essence, fino made in the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Manzanillas, like finos, incorporate 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.
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, perfect pairings include medium-bodied soups or flavorfully sauced white meats like pork, pheasant or rabbit.
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.
The wildcard of Sherry, palo cortado begins its existence under flor, 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 on the barrel’s exterior to note that it’s doing its own thing and isn’t amontillado or oloroso, per sé. Palo cortado is an elegant style of Sherry best enjoyed on its own.
Source: Wine Enthusiast.