Of all the wines in the world, the one that may cause the most confusion is a fortified quaff from Spain named after its home city.
Sherry hails from a region just west of Gibraltar around the city of Jerez. Known in England since the time of Shakespeare, it long has been a part of American culture, too. This wine was the subject of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “A Cask of Amontillado,” as well as the go-to tipple for Frasier and Niles Crane after a rough day.
The secret of this misunderstood and under-appreciated libation is the aging process called solera.
In this system, wine for bottling is removed, and the barrels are topped with younger juice in a progressive fashion to ensure continuity of character and type. In the solera-aging process, wine is not fermented but is protected by a coating of flor (a film of yeast) that floats on top of the liquid in the barrels, which contain the drier styles. Older quaffs that become dark are actually oxidized before bottling.
Sherry comes in a plethora of types and labels, which only add to the problem of choosing a variety of wine that will suit the food or occasion.
The main grapes in sherry are palomino, muscat and Pedro Ximénez, which are all white varieties.
Palomino is fermented into a dry wine but not in the sense of, say, a dry tannic cabernet. Instead, it is allowed to use all available sugar in the fruit, much like a brut naturel champagne. The juice has zero residual sugar due to complete fermentation and is then fortified with neutral grape brandy, unlike its cousin port, which uses brandy to stop fermenting and ensure the wine’s sweetness.
Muscat is mostly used for blending with dry palomino and is one of the reasons for all the different sherry labels. Pedro Ximénez is a white grape that is dried and then crushed. It has a reputation as the sweetest wine in the world and is recommended as a drizzle for ice cream.
Sherry comes in many styles that need exploring before any oenophile can make an educated choice.
Manzanilla is a fashionable and good-value, dry white wine with an austere, salty flavor. It’s a great choice with crustaceans.
Amontillado is a fino that has increased complexity and a fruitier note and is one of the better wines I have tasted.
Palo cortado fits nicely between amontillado and oloroso—rich and complex with a bitter butter note that stands up to meats and cheeses.
Oloroso is oxidized and fiercely dry, maturing into clean, nut flavors. It is called cream when blended with Pedro Ximénez or muscat to produce a medium-sweet style. Moscatel is sweet, but with only half the residual sugar of p.x., it can be used in a wide range of desserts.
Indeed, sherry is a style for anyone. Just ask Frasier and Niles.
4666 Williams and Humbert Sherry Dry Sack Jerez 750ML $16.99
An amber-coloured wine of intense aromas suggesting dried nuts. Full-bodied and balanced, with little acid and slightly sweet. It can be drunk neat or with ice. It is recommended as an aperitif or to accompany pasta.
4788 Christian Brothers Cream Sherry California 1.5 L $10.99
The Christian Brothers Cream Sherry has been a popular alternative to aperitifs and after dinner wines. With its full-bodied caramelized character, Cream Sherry makes a wonderful complement to chocolate and sweet desserts, or it can be enjoyed as a smooth and mellow sipping wine throughout the evening.
44664 Orleans Borbon Manzanilla Sherry Non Vintage 375ML $11.99
Straw in color with tangy aromas of the sea rounded out by fruity lemon curd, almond skin, toasted bread and yeasty notes on the palate, this Manzanilla has a complexity fit for a king.