As Champagne is in France or Port is in Portugal, Sherry is Spain’s most complex and labor-intensive wine. It was also once Spain’s (maybe the world’s) most tragically forgotten wine. But in the last few years, the hauntingly delicious and complex world of Sherry has broken out into the open once again. And no wonder, for no other wine in the world lights up the senses and the brain in the same way Sherry does. Which is why so many hip bars all over the world now serve Sherry straight and in cocktails. (You’ll find three of our favorite Sherry cocktails at the end of this article).
In honor of this week’s “Wine to Know”—the phenomenal Valdespino “Viejo C.P.” Single Vineyard Dry Palo Cortado—I thought it was time for a quick Sherry primer.
First, the cultural context: Sherry is the daily drink of southern Spanish men—known for their love of bullfights and prowess at horse racing, not to mention their predilection for bars and cigars. Sherry is a fortified wine; its alcoholic strength has been raised to between 15 and 22 percent. (A standard table wine is usually 13 to 15 percent alcohol.)
Given the step up in alcohol and the machismo imagery, you might imagine Sherry to be a rugged monolithic blockbuster. Not at all. The beauty and elegance of great Sherry is nothing short of spellbinding.
Although vineyards and beaches would seem to make strange bedfellows, Sherry comes from a small wedge of land along the sea in southwest Spain in the province of Andalusia. The best vineyards are planted in a type of fluffy chalky white soil called albariza. Given the region’s glaring sunlight, the land looks like an eerie moonscape of blinding whiteness.
The most widely planted grape in Jerez is the white grape Palomino; 95 percent of Sherry is made from it. But there’s a second white grape you should know—Pedro Ximénez (PEY-dro he-MEN-yez). It’s often simply called “PX,” and it’s used to make the style of sweet Sherry called, eponymously, Pedro Ximénez. This is a wine that any card-carrying wine lover must try, for it is one of the most sensual wine experiences to be had. A glass of PX looks, for all the world, like a glass of molasses, and the wine—dense, syrupy, and (after aging) dark mahogany in color—is the very epitome of artisanal creativity, opulence, and refined sweetness.
Before a few words on how Sherry is made, it’s important to know that Sherry is not a single entity, but rather seven distinct styles of wine. At one end of the spectrum are the manzanillas and finos, with their tangy, crisp, green earthiness. In the middle are the amontillados, palo cortados, and olorosos, with their lusty, roasted, nutty flavors. And finally come the creams and PXs with their sweet, lush, toffee, and fig flavors. None of these Sherry flavors, textures, and aromas is quite like white or red wine. The flavor of Sherry is a world unto itself.
And part of the reason for that is the unique way in which Sherry is made. In short, it is progressively blended and aged in a complex network of old barrels, called a solera. Some soleras are more than 100 years old. Depending on three issues, a different style of Sherry can be made. Those are:
- How the wine moves through the solera
- The oxygen that the wine is or is not exposed to
- The presence or absence of certain yeasts
Explaining a solera and its various permutations can take several minutes, so I won’t do that here. (For a good detailed explanation, see The Wine Bible). But what is important to know is that as a result of the solera, each bottle of Sherry is a complex molecular kaleidoscope with what can only be an estimated age. As a result of the constant fractional blending of younger wines into older wines, Sherry is not the product of any one year. By law, it never carries a vintage date, although it is not uncommon for a Sherry label to designate the year the solera was formed.
One consideration however: although no style of Sherry is ever given a specific vintage date, new optional designations adopted in 2000 can provide a general estimate of the Sherry’s age. The designations are: “VOS” and “VORS.” To achieve either of these designations, the wine must go through extensive sensory analysis and be carbon 14-dated!
- VOS–Latin for Vinum Optimum Signatum or Very Old Sherry—Can be used on the label of a Sherry that went through a solera that’s at least 20 years old.
- VORS–Latin for Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum or Very Old Rare Sherry—Can be used on the label of a Sherry that went through a solera that’s at least 30 years old.
Finally, Andalusia’s pulsating drama of bullfights, flamenco, fiestas, and plenty of Sherry portends a wealth of good things to eat. Spaniards accompany Sherry with the most exquisite jamón on the planet, plus a huge, sensual, moveable feast of seafood. Not the sort that is neat and tidy, either. No, this is the roll-up-your-sleeves, peel-crack-and-pull-apart, eat-the-heads, eat-the-tails, slurp-the-juice, lick-your-fingers sort of seafood eating.
Having a love affair with seafood just might be the perfect reason for drinking great Sherry in 2019.
And if Sherry cocktails are more your speed, try these:
A “Sherry Mojito” from Duende in Perth, Australia
½ oz sugar syrup or 2 – 3 tsp of brown sugar
1 oz Dark Rum
1 ½ oz Fino Sherry
3 lime wedges
6 – 8 mint leaves
Squeeze the lime wedges into a tumbler, add sugar syrup, and then the rum and sherry. Muddle with a spoon, clap the mint leaves to release essence, and then drop them into the glass. Add some crushed ice, stir until some of the ice has melted.
The “La Joya” cocktail from Standby in Detroit, Michigan
1 ½ oz Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
¾ oz Pedro Ximenez Sherry
¾ oz Green Chartreuse
5 dashes grapefruit bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Serve in a Nick and Nora glass. Enjoy.
“A Night in Jerez” available by request at Michael Mina San Francisco in San Francisco, California
2 oz Oloroso Sherry
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes of orange bitters
2 dashes of cherry bark vanilla bitters
Stir all ingredients and serve straight up in a coupe glass with an orange peel.