Travelling to Spain this summer and wondering what to drink when you are there? Forget sangria and give Sherry a go! There are several varieties of Sherry so it will give you something to explore each time you’re there. Visit the wine cellars or enjoy a glass of dry Sherry in one of the beautiful plazas.
Sherry has an image of only being drunk by old people and many mistakenly think that all Sherry is sweet. The truth is that many of the finest Sherries are actually dry. Sherry can be as complex as whisky and is a great-value drink. Making Sherry takes a lot of time and concentration, and it deserves a little more attention!
Sherry is not actually a spirit, but as it is fortified wine, the alcohol levels can get as high as 20% ABV. Many would put it in the same category as wine, yet pretty much the only thing it has in common with wine is that both are made from grapes, Sherry from white grapes to be precise. Fortified wine has Brandy or other distilled spirit added to it close to the end of the fermentation to preserve it. Sherry only uses Brandy. For more on the fermentation process, check technical stuff.
Sherry can only be called Sherry when it is from the specific region in southern Spain, also known as the Sherry triangle: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria. The area has a predictable climate and the Sherry makers say it is the balance between three elements that makes their product so special – el viento, el sol y la tierra (the wind, the sun and the soil).
The Sherry triangle gets almost 300 days of sun each year and around 70 days of rain. During the dry, hot summers, the wind from the ocean brings enough moisture to the vineyards and the clay in the soil keeps the water under the surface. Each area within the Sherry triangle has its own microclimate, which adds to the characteristics of the Sherry produced and stored there; the sea wind in Sanlúcar, for example, can add fresh salty notes on the final product stored there.
Unlike most wine producers, the sherry makers have separate wine cellars, bodegas, within the city boundaries. These are used only for storing the barrels rather than producing wine. Some bodegas also offer guided tours around the premises, with tasting and tapas served at the end of the tour. The emphasis of the Sherry production is on the blending and maturation that takes place in these bodegas. They blend different ageing levels together and it is very important to follow the same steps each time to keep the quality consistent. They use 600 litre barrels so there’s no room for mistakes as the wastage would be high.
This specific blending method is called solera. The barrels are arranged in groups on top of each other. The tiers are called criaderas. Each criadera contains wine of the same age. They take a small amount from the bottom barrel to be bottled – this is the oldest liquid – and then the same amount is replaced with wine from the next oldest barrel. That one is then replaced from the next criadera and that is replaced from the youngest one. The youngest criadera contains the new wine which is called sobretabla.
Fino – very dry, fresh, nutty, aged two to ten years, pale colour
Manzanilla – dry, light, fresh, fruity, slightly salty, similar to Fino
Amontillado – dry, darker in colour, nutty, rich taste
Oloroso – dry, spicy, dark in colour, rich taste, raisins, aged from five up to 25 years
Pedro Ximenez – sweetest Sherry, dried fruit (raisin, fig, date) flavours – think Christmas; grapes are partially dried in the sun before pressing
Cream – sweet but fruity, blended Sherry (Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez), brown colour
As you can see, there are several types of Sherry, some with only small differences between them. To make it even more interesting, there can be more categories under each type, such as Oloroso del Puerto or Manzanilla Olorosa. The Sherry is always aged in new American oak barrels, which are later sold to whisky distilleries. The ageing can take anything from two years to a few decades, with the Sherry changing from dry to sweet. There are three ageing methods: flor (yeast), oxidation (air) or both. Amontillado, for example. uses both methods. You might think airing ruins the wine but when it is left for years and years the outcome is full bodied and beautifully balanced. I have explained more about the production methods under technical stuff.
How to drink it
People tend to avoid Sherry as they don’t really know when or how to drink it, but in fact it is a very versatile drink and can be served any time of the day. It can be paired with foods or enjoyed on its own as a refreshing aperitif . Oloroso, for example, has a lot to give and should be appreciated with the same hype as a good single malt.
Ideally, Sherry should be served in a special Sherry glass or in a white wine glass, but keep the measure smaller when a bigger glass is used – I recommend somewhere between 60ml and 90ml. It should not be stored on its side as the high alcohol content may break the cork. The temperature Sherry is served at makes a huge difference to the flavours, although some types can be served both cool or at room temperature, in which case, you can decide according to the time of the year, e.g. a hot summer day or cold autumn evening.
I recommend serving Fino and Manzanilla cool or well chilled, around 6–9°C. If possible, keep an ice bucket handy to cool the bottle when needed. Cream Sherries should also be served cool, somewhere between 9°C and 12°C, or serve it on the rocks with a slice of lemon. Amontillado and Oloroso should also be slightly chilled, 12–13°C, and Pedro Ximenez around 13–14°C.
Unlike many liquors or other fortified wines, Sherry doesn’t actually last very long once opened. Lighter Sherries can be stored for 12–18 months unopened and should be consumed within a week of opening. Amontillado can last up to three years but only two to three weeks when open. Oloroso and Creams will keep well for two to three years and four to six weeks after opening. Pedro Ximenez is the only type that will last up to four years, and once opened, it lasts up to two months.
It might be a good idea, especially with the lighter Sherries, to check how long the bottle has been stored in the shop before buying. Some stores may not sell much Sherry and if the bottle has been standing on the shelves for months this may have an effect on the taste. Ideally, the light Sherries should be consumed as fresh as possible and stored in the refrigerator once open.
It is no surprise Sherry is much appreciated in Spain as it goes so well with a selection of tapas. Below are some guidelines on how to pair, but there’s nothing to stop you from finding combinations that work for you – everyone’s taste buds are different.
Fino and Manzanilla
Olives, nuts (especially almonds), cured meats, oysters, hard cheese, sushi
Seafood and fish, creamy soups, cheeses, chicken and other white meats
Oloroso, Cream and Pedro Ximenez
Dark chocolate, beef (mainly with dry Oloroso), blue cheese, fresh fruit, most desserts
Your grandmother clearly knows how to enjoy a proper drink, but you should stop dissing Sherry as an old person’s drink. You can have much fun comparing different types of Sherry with friends. Why not organise a tapas and Sherry night (or lunch) and explore the possibilities? I am sure your friends would appreciate the effort and the opportunity to try something new. If you’re on a tight budget, why not ask everyone to bring a dish so you save time cooking.
There’s no need to feel intimidated by Sherry. With this article you should have the basic understanding of what to expect from different types and how to get the best tasting experience.
When you are in a restaurant, remember it may be safer to go for something richer and sweeter, as the lighter Sherries may been stored for too long. Like spirits, you need to find the ones you like, so you might have to go through some unpleasant options (unpleasant in inverted commas, one might say they are all pleasant) to find what you’re looking for. Perhaps some Spanish music in the background might help you to get in the mood!
Have you been to the Sherry triangle? Do you have a favourite Sherry?