Sherry Feature

Have a Sherry Party

I love sherry, and my passion became an obsession in preparation for a trip to Spain a few years back.  The Jerez region in the south of Spain is the only place you’ll find legit sherry made.  If you don’t know about sherry, ready on.  If you already know sherry, go back to my Food & Wine Section and take a look at the two seminars I attended as well as the food and sherry pairing dinner at Trou Normand under the restaurants section.  So, ready on and then have a sherry party!

I attended a CIA (Culinary Institute of America) class on Spanish wines taught by Karen MacNeil, author of ‘The Wine Bible’.  I thought that the article below that I wrote would be my entree to the food- and wine- writing world.  Ms. MacNeil felt differently – that I needed to find my own voice.  This is my voice, Ms. MacNeil, but I hereby give you full credit for this article and a fantastic learning experience about sherry.

“Tapas are all the rage in San Francisco.  Meaning ‘top’, Tapas were invented in the Spanish region of Jerez.  Tapas are small plates of food, meant to ‘top’ a glass of sherry.  So, how is it so that Tapas are so popular, and no one really knows about Sherry?

Spanish Sherry is probably one of the most under-rated and unknown wines in the United States.  Having just come back from a two-day ‘Spain Intensive’ wine class offered by The Culinary Institute of America’s Rudd Professional Wine Study Center in St. Helena, I can’t wait to head to The Spanish Table (locally in Berkeley and Mill Valley – to pick up a few Sherries and Spanish appetizers to host a sherry party at my home.  With Karen MacNeil at the helm of the class, author of ‘The Wine Bible’, TV host, and wine aficionado, our days were packed with history, culture, geography and great sherry tastings.  Most Sherries are quite reasonably priced.  Here’s what I learned.  I hope it will inspire you to try sherry and share it with friends.

Most Americans know of cream sherry, a special concoction made by the Spanish for the British.  That is NOT the Sherry reviewed here.  Sherry is produced exclusively in the far southern part of Spain where the weather is warm and constant, and humidity is relatively high.  The soil is white and fluffy, almost like a cake mix, and is called albariza.  There are three growing regions – Jerez (pronounced Hair-eth), El Puerto de Santa Maria (from which Columbus departed and one of his ships was named), and Sanlucàr de Barremeda.  Some of the bodegas (wine cellars) are literally on the beach.  

Amazingly, there are over 600 types of grapes grown in Spain.  Two main types of grapes are grown for sherry – Palomino and Pedro Ximenez.  Both grapes are neutral in taste and produce high yields, from 10 to 14 tons per acre.  It is the 5-10 degree variance in humidity (75-85%) in each of the three growing areas that permits seven different styles of Sherry to be produced.

Sherry is made by a complex process called Solera.  It is so intricate and time-consuming that, if Sherry had not been invented when it was in the 15th century, it would probably not exist today.  Palomino grapes are picked and crushed and allowed to ferment in stainless steel or concrete barrels.  The juice is then fortified to varying alcohol levels.  The añada, wine of the year, is then poured into the top butt (barrel) of a complex pyramid, normally 14 criadera (levels) high.  Each butt holds about 600 liters and weighs 600 pounds when full.  For the finer sherry, Fino, part of the liquid is moved down into the next level criadera about two or three times a year as determined by the winemaker.  The wine from the second criadera is moved into the third and so on until the final criadera, called the solera, receives its final batch.  Never more than 1/3 of each barrel is allowed to be moved by law.  Some of these intricate soleras, like the one at Tio Pepe, can have as many as 30,000 butts in one row!  Most soleras are NEVER taken down and are 100-200 years old.  They are never stirred, and therefore there is no way of knowing the actual age of the Sherry being produced.  The Spanish consider the date of the building of the solera the most important in declaring their wine’s nobility.  In 2000, however, the Jerez D.O. authorized the designation VOS (Very Old Sherry) for 20+ year wines and VORS (Very Old Rare Sherry) for 30+ year wines.

Back to the añada and fortification.  After two weeks of fortification, the butt begins to form a yellow, cottage-cheese-like crust on the surface of the wine.  This is called flor.  Three native yeasts cause this phenomenon – crayarius, capensis, and fermentati.   The by-product of this process is acetaldehyde, unique to Sherry.  The role of flor is to curtail oxidation.  Fino Sherry is given 15% fortification, minimizing the oxidation.  With higher fortification percentages, the flor is unable to live which gives way to more oxidation, bringing about a dark, nutty Olorosa Sherry.  

Pedro Ximenez (PX) is the second grape grown in this region for Sherry.  It is also a white, neutral grape, grown in the dry mountains of Montilla-Moriles, thus making it the only place where Palomino and Pedro Ximenez grapes can be combined.  PX grapes are picked and then laid on straw mats to ‘raisinate’ in the sun.  They are then pressed into a syrupy, molasses-like wine in their own solera.  PX wine is added to sweeten some Sherries.

There are two types of Sherries,  Fino and Oloroso, which bring about seven different varieties of Sherry.  Here they are with some recommendations.



(1) Fino – Bone-dry with a pale straw hue, this Sherry is medium-bodied with apple, almond and yeast flavors.  Try Fino with Spanish olives, almonds, cheese, anchovies, sardines, grilled shrimp or sausages.  Fino should be served cold, and once opened, lasts only a few days in the refrigerator.

a.Emilio Lustau Puerto Fino (Puerto de Santa Maria)

b.Domecq Fino ‘La Ina’ (Jerez de la Frontera)

c.Tio Pepe Fino en Rama

(2)Manzanilla – The most delicate of Sherries is brought about by the thickest coat of flor, making it the least oxidized.  Manzanilla comes only from Sanlucàr de Barremeda and can be difficult to find in the United States.  Almond in color and medium-bodied, Manzanilla is lighter and crisper with a nice salty, olive nose and taste along with the traditional almond notes.  Finos are aged a minimum of five years.  Try Manzanilla cold with olives, vinegar-based salads, raw oysters and even sushi.  Note that Manzanilla is extremely fragile and won’t last much past the initial pouring which should be chilled.

a.Hidalgo ‘La Gitana’ Manzanilla, the most popular in Spain (Jerez)

b.Hijos de Rainera Perez Marín Manzanilla ‘La Guita’ Sanlucàr de Barremeda (375 ml)

c.Barbadillo Mansanilla en Rama

(3)Amontillado – This Sherry is fortified to 18% which eliminates the flor covering.  The result is a deeper color and slightly more significant oxidation.  Also medium-bodied, it has a fine nutty nose with hints of pecans, honey, caramel, nuts and dried fruit.  Amontillado is generally dry, but varying levels of PX are added to sweeten this Sherry.  Amontillado is aged a minimum of 8 years.  Serve slightly chilled.  Try it with roasted chicken, jamon or with nuts and cheese at the end of a meal.

a.Patricia Amontillado ‘Aragón y Cía’ (Montilla-Moriles)

b.Bodegas Dios Baco Amontillado (Jerez de la Frontera)

c.Barbadillo Amontillado Principe

Palo Cortado(4)Palo Cortado – Quite difficult to find in the United States, Palo Cortado  is a hybrid of the Amontillado and Oloroso Sherries.  Palo Cortado is aged a minimum of 8 years and should be served cold.  This Sherry is deeper in aroma and golden tones.  Try it with cheese and nuts after dinner.

a.Pedro Domecq Palo Cortado ‘Sibarita’ V.O.R.S. 30 years (Jerez)

b.Lustau Almacenista Palo Cortado (Jerez de la Frontera)

c.Barbadillo Palo Cortado VORS

Oloroso(5)Oloroso – Oloroso is a more full-bodied Sherry with a mahogany color.  It has varying levels from dry to sweet based on the addition of PX before bottling after 8 years of aging.  The aromas of roasted nuts, toffee, prunes and spice make this a great combination with foie gras, duck, or even with desserts like nut-based cakes and cookies or creamy desserts.   Oloroso is served at room temperature.

a.Emilio Lustau Oloroso ‘Emperatriz Eugenia’ (Jerez)

b.Lustau Dry Oloroso ‘Don Nuño’ (Jerez de la Frontera)

Sherry Color(6)Pedro Ximinez (PX) – PX is a sweetened sherry made from PX and, sometimes, Moscatel grapes.  One can find PX that is not blended.  PX is full-bodied and molasses-syrup in color with huge, complex dried fruits.  Try PX over ice cream, with biscotti or even served with a blue cheese or other dry, salty cheese.  It’s a classic with cigars.

a.Toro Albalà PX Gran Reserva 1971 (Montilla-Moriles)

b.Sandeman PX ‘Royal Ambrosante’ (Jerez)

(7)Cream – Sir Francis Drake created the British frenzy of Cream Sherry in the late 16th century.  Varying in sweetness levels, Cream Sherries are full-bodied with aromas of chocolate, figs and roasted nuts.

a.Bodegas Hidalgo Cream Sherry (Sanlucàr de Barremeda)”

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