In the minds of many, sherry is this liquor trotted out in Victorian decanters during an episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple. That mystery show is the only contact many of us have ever had with spirit. Spanish red wine might be near omnipresent, but Spanish sherry is too often a curiosity at best and very, very passé at worst.
Or so it was until a few years ago, when it became a thing to “make sherry cool again.” This budding movement hasn’t quite taken off yet, but it has managed to attract devotees who see in sherry qualities that attract hipsters and discerning drinkers alike: sherry has seriously undervalued quality and lots and lots of distinctions to get nerdy about. Sherry’s comeback is now entrenched in the UK, and making waves in the U.S. And with more mixologists around the world adding it to their repertoires, sherry won’t be thought of as a drink for PBS’s Masterpiece buffs much longer. Here is what you need to know about sherry.
Sherry wines are made with the white Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes, with that grape stock serving as just one of the distinctions that separates sherry from other Iberian fortified wines, such as Port.
More distinctions are found in the production process. The simple version is that the grapes are harvested and made into wine in the usual way, but distilled spirits are added to fortify the wine, and when these spirits are added can make a big difference in what the wine tastes like in the end. In Port, the spirits are added halfway through fermentation, stopping the process and preserving some of the sugar, sweetening the wine. For sherry, the spirits are added only at the end of fermentation, resulting in the drink’s drier character.
One more thing that sets sherry wines apart is the solera system. If you visit a sherry house, you will see three or four rows of casks stacked atop each other. The bottom row of casks are tapped and partially drained for bottling, but never entirely emptied. These are refilled with wine from the row above, which are in turn refilled with wine from above it, and so on. The uppermost row is topped off with new fortified wine.
The rolling, mixing process of the solera process ensures a stable, consistent wine over time, although some of the companies making sherry like to play up the idea that traces of 50 or even 100 year old wine may linger in the bottom row of casks.
There are several types of sherry, but the two predominant versions are Fino and Oloroso. Fino is the driest, palest, and generally the youngest of sherries. To make Fino, grape spirits are added until the alcohol level reaches a relatively modest 15%. This is low enough to allow a layer of yeast called flor to grow over the top of the liquid in the cask, sealing it off from the air.
Oloroso, on the other hand, is boosted up to 18% alcohol, high enough to kill the flor yeast. The result is plenty of contact with the air, and thus plenty of oxidation, making the wine darker, richer and stronger. Used Oloroso casks are often sent to Ireland and Scotland, where they are used to age sherried whiskeys.
Earlier I mentioned Pedro Ximenez (PX) grapes, noted for their exceptional sweetness. These grapes are dried like raisins, and then used to make PX sherry, a syrupy wine akin to a liquid bon bon. PX wine is also sometimes blended into Oloroso sherry to create a wine that isn’t as candied as PX sherry, but is still sweeter than Oloroso. This hybrid is alternately known as Sweet, Dulce or Cream sherry.
Manzanilla is a sub-type of Fino, made exclusively around the town of Saluncar de Barrameda. This town is closer to the sea than Jerez, giving the wine salty notes.
Amontillado is another sub-type of Fino, because it starts out as a Fino. Somewhere along the aging process, either the protective layer of flor dies or is deliberately snuffed out by adding more grape spirits. At this point, the wine’s maturation shifts from that of a Fino to that of an Oloroso. Thus, Amontillado is often called a “medium sherry,” being somewhere between Fino and Oloroso.
Then there’s Palo Cortado sherry. What Palo Cortado sherry actually is can be vague, but that it’s a prized type of sherry is beyond dispute. Like an Amontillado, it begins maturation as a Fino, but the collapse of the flor in the cask causes the wine to change course. The vagueness of Palo Cortado comes from the fact that it is defined solely by how it turns out from there: the wine should have the nose of the expected Amontillado, but the palate of an Oloroso. Since this outcome is more or less accidental, it is the rarest type of sherries and much sought after by aficionados.
Want a crash course in sherry at its finest? Bars dedicated to the traditional wine are popping up all over the country. Mockingbird Hill, in D.C. has become the east coast’s hub of all things sherry, pouring an extensive menu and hosting regular sherry primers and pairing classes.
On the other side of the country, Portland’s Bar Vivant serves as the city’s most legitimate tapas bar that also happens to pour one of the most extensive sherry menus in the country. Because sherry and tapas just go together.