Talking About Sherry

By / Magazine / August 20th, 2010 / 2

Every year I keep my fingers crossed and predict that the ‘Next Big Thing’ will be sherry. And every year you prove me wrong. I’m not blaming you personally but I can tell that wine-istas in North America are ignoring one of the world’s best beverages.

What would it take to shine the spotlight on sherry? My friend Barry Brown, founder and president of the Spanish Wine Society in Toronto, suggested an answer. In the next James Bond movie, have 007 ask for a Fino sherry rather than a vodka martini — chilled not iced. If only James Bond were to speak these words, the folks in Jerez would be laughing all the way to the bank. But it won’t happen. The problem is that sherry is not only one of the world’s greatest wines but it’s also the world’s most complicated drink.

When was the last time you offered someone a glass of sherry only to hear the response: ‘I don’t like sweet wine’? I have to tell you, when it comes to sherry, there is no wine drier than a Fino or a Mazanilla and none sweeter than a Pedro Ximenez. And in between there are grades of dryness, off-dryness and semi-sweetness. Think of sherry as you would Riesling in the range of its possible tastes sensations.

Let me try to demystify the drink. The Palomino grape grown around Jerez and Sanlucar in southern Spain is fermented into wine, which is left in barrel to develop a blanket of yeast cells on the surface called flor. The resulting wine at 12% alcohol is lightly fortified with grape spirits to bring it up to about 15.5%. The wine is then transferred to American oak barrels, which are filled to about five sixths of their capacity. The headspace allows oxygen to develop this blanket of yeast cells, which protects the wine from oxidation.

These yeast cells eventually die and drop into the wine, so in order to keep that blanket for two or more years, the winemakers refresh the barrel with small amounts of young wine. Wines that the producers consider delicate enough are bottled young as Fino. If they are grown around the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barremeda, influenced by the salt sea breezes, they will have a special saline tang. Richer, fuller wines are left to age further to become Amontillado and as a result will be deeper in colour and will have a higher alcohol value. If the wine is fortified to 18 per cent to kill off the yeast cells and therefore doesn’t develop flor, it will become Oloroso, which can be dry or sweet depending on whether they have sweetening wine added. The next designation is Cream sherry, which is sweet because of the addition of Pedro Ximenez (affectionately known as PX). A sherry made exclusively from this grape will taste of dates and molasses.
There is one anomaly in a category of anomalies and that is my favourite sherry, Palo Cortado. This is a wine that somehow, and God knows why, loses its flor blanket and begins to oxidize like an Oloroso. The flavour is nutty and dry, somewhere between Amontillado and Oloroso in style.

Because it is an oxidized wine, sherry has a fridge life of a month or so once opened. And I’m here to tell you that the best, simply the best aperitif to set you salivating for food is a chilled glass of Fino or Manzanilla sherry. Try Amontillado with white meat dishes, Dry Oloroso with red meat dishes or game and Palo Cortado, if you can find it, with a person you love. And the sweet sherries, Cream or Pedro Ximenez, with foie gras, blue cheeses or chocolate desserts.
So here’s a new prediction: When the Music of the Spheres turns to rap, sherry will rule. Until then it’s a beverage that can be appreciated by a secret band of cognoscenti. Do yourself a favour and join them. And if you want to be part of the inner circle, go for Almanecista single cask sherries from producers like Lustau.


Tony Aspler has been writing about wine for over 30 years. He was the wine columnist for The Toronto Star for 21 years and has authored sixteen books on wine and food, including The Wine Atlas of Canada, Vintage Canada, The Wine Lover's Companion, The Wine Lover Cooks and Travels With My Corkscrew. Tony's latest book is Tony Aspler's Cellar Book.

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