The most underrated of the world’s fine wines is sherry. It is also arguably the best value, being ridiculously inexpensive considering its quality. Like port and Madeira, sherry is a fortified wine, but it is made in a totally unique way.
In the past, it was the British who showed most appreciation for sherry. However, even there the success of the brand was spoilt by abuse of the name. There was something called British Sherry, which was neither British nor a sherry. It was made from a concentrate. Then there were sherries made from elsewhere. One of the best of these came from Cyprus. In its time, Emva Cream Sherry was extremely popular.
Now the name is protected, in the same way as champagne and port, but the wine drinking public have fallen out of love with sherry.
Perhaps the Sherry brand became too commercialized. In the same way that the Beaujolais Nouveau gimmick harmed the image of Beaujolais as a quality wine-producing area, all the sweetened commercial sherries that flooded the market succeeded in destroying the authenticity and originality of the core product.
Today it is probably only drunk by blue-rinse grannies in Bournemouth and Brighton on the south coast of England.
The old brands like Croft Original, Williams & Humbart’s Dry Sack and Harvey’s Bristol Cream are remembered and may still be on the sideboard, but the image is of a drink that has passed its time. The reality is different. Visit a modern tapas bar to see sherry as it should be enjoyed.
Sherry is an extremely versatile wine, ranging from bone dry to sweet. As an aperitif, it is unbeatable. It can cope with all those mezze or tapas dishes that are spicy, garlicky or salty. No table wine can cope quite in the same way with the extremities of flavor like a sherry.
It comes from southwestern Spain, near the town of Jerez in Andalusia. The word sherry comes from an Anglicized version of Jerez. The grapes used in the making of sherry are mainly the Palomino and Moscatel, which we know in Israel as Muscat of Alexandria. Pedro Ximinez is the variety primarily used for the sweeter versions. The climate there is intensely hot, very dry, and the soil of the region is an incredibly bright white from all the chalk and limestone, which is considered uniquely suitable for a unique product.
The winemaking process starts like that of any wine. The grapes are harvested, and the must (juice) is fermented so that it becomes wine. Only afterwards is it fortified with grape spirit to reach a minimum alcohol content of 15.5 percent. This differs from port, which has the spirit added during fermentation.
The wine is then left in less than full barrels, which allows flor to develop. This is a yeast-like growth that covers the surface of the wine, and it is this that gives Fino sherry its distinctive taste and flavor. An Oloroso is a sherry in which the flor is not allowed to develop. It is fortified to a higher level of alcohol.
There are no vintage sherries. Instead, they are matured in a solera system. Rows of barrels of differing ages are stacked one on top of the other. Older barrels of wine are constantly topped up with barrels of fresher, younger wine. Using a systematic approach, the very old, old, young and new are blended together to ensure a balance of depth, complexity and freshness.
Sherry is an acquired taste. Sipping it will remind you of what spoiled or oxidized wine tastes like. You either love it or hate it. The different names you may come across are as follows: Fino is the driest and palest of all sherries.
It is bone dry, crisp, very aromatic, slightly yeasty, tangy, salty, with a refreshing bite.
Manzanilla is a slightly lighter style and also dry. It is usually produced near the town of Sanlucar and has a more pronounced salty, sea-air character.
Amontillado is first aged under flor like a fino and then allowed to oxidize so it becomes darker. It is richer than fino, nuttier (think of walnuts) and more concentrated but still dry. However, in export markets you will find medium dry Amontillados that are sweetened to offset the starkness of the dry version.
Palo Cortado is a well-balanced sherry that lies between an Amontillado and an Oloroso.
Pale Cream Sherry is a fino that has been slightly sweetened to make it palatable. It appeals to the mass market rather than the connoisseur.
Oloroso is dark colored, richer and more raisiny. It may be 18-20% alcohol.
It can be in a dry or sweet style. The sweet Olorosos make an excellent afterdinner drink.
Cream Sherry is the sweetened, rather sickly version that used to be so popular in the drawing rooms of the British.
Pedro Ximinez is named after the grape variety, and it is the sweetest of all. It is an almost viscous, treacly wine that is best poured over vanilla ice cream.
A fino and Manzanilla should be served fresh and chilled. You should only use a glass called a copita, which is shaped like a tulip, similar to a smaller official tasting glass. Avoid the schooner glass popular in old-fashioned bars, and don’t take a fino sherry that has obviously been left open for too long. It will lose all its tangy freshness and instead become stale. So it should be open and drunk immediately or at least served from the fridge.
Enjoy sherry as an aperitif and with any first course, particular hors d’oeuvres, tapas or mezze. It will also go well with anything from the sea. It is the perfect accompaniment to some soups.
Sometimes a splash of sherry in the soup can work wonders.
The Gonzales Byass company owns the world’s most successful fino brand, which is called Tio Pepe. Manuel Maria Gonzalez was only 23 years old when he started producing wines in Jerez in the mid-19th century.
His favorite uncle, affectionately known as Tio Pepe, was one of those who advised him on how to manage the flor. In 1844, Manuel Maria sent the first shipment of pale sherry to be exported, which he named Tio Pepe after his uncle. He then persuaded his agent Robert Blake Byass to market it. They became partners, and Gonzales Byass was born.
Gonzales Byass also produces a kosher sherry called Tio Pepe Palomino Fino, which is described as a “light extra dry” sherry.
No one’s wine experience is complete without sampling sherry. A wonderful wine and an absolute original, it should be given a chance. Spain is not just Rioja and the Barcelona Football Club. Tapas bars seem to be springing up everywhere in Israel. Let us hope the more authentic ones will insist on giving sherry its rightful place and that they will serve it correctly.
Remember, you don’t have to be British and over 60 years old to enjoy and appreciate sherry!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.