Sherry = Wine in 3D

Simply put, we are in the midst of a Sherry Golden Age.  But you wouldn’t know it if you asked most casual drinkers with an opinion on the matter.  More than likely they would say, “Gross…you mean that stuff my grandma likes to drink before bed?  That’s granny juice.” Or, “Sherry? You mean the stuff that’s like Port? No thanks. Too sweet for me.”  But those kinds of one-dimensional misconceptions are outdated impressions of a beverage that has long been misunderstood.  So what exactly is the Sherry of today?  What has changed to make people start paying attention?

A Blessing and a Curse.
In the past decades the Sherry industry has gone through a sustained period of economic dormancy when demand for the wines has fallen short of the pace of production. Because of this many cellars have not sold as much wine as intended and have maintained stocks of sherry that are a culmination of wine that is of a much older minimum age.  This is a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it.  Because of the poor image of this highly misunderstood wine from the south of Spain, the wines of Jerez have quietly been sitting in their forgotten tombs awaiting the moment when their day would come.  And although there is something in the air, such a day stubbornly remains just out of reach.

A blessing: To taste some of the rare gems of the region is to experience the pinnacle of winemaking and aging at a level of amazingly high quality.  These are wines that have been blended and aged over 50 to 100 years in some cases.  Imagine Bordeaux or Burgundy going through a 30-40 year dip in sales forcing the wines to sit around quietly aging until the occasional curious thirsty traveler came knocking.  What a revelation that would be to the lucky adventurer.

Well, Sherry is having that moment now.  Although the wines are not all 50 years old, the average age of the wines is increasing concurrently with every year marked by negative growth in sales.  Because of this the wines maintain a level of complexity and beauty that most wines produced and aged more traditionally can never achieve.  They are the wines that pair with foods that no other wines can match – everything from seafood and sausage, to artichokes and popcorn.  They come in categories that range from the driest Fino (see 2 sections below) to the sweetest PX (a dessert Sherry made from dried grapes).  Also of note, similar to some Champagne, all Sherries are a culmination of multiple vintages of wine that has been painstakingly blended together in the cellar.  This makes them more consistent from bottle to bottle and from year to year than most other types of wine.

And did I mention this stuff is cheap?  Buying a bottle of sherry will run you around $7 and up.  Most of it is under $25 and almost all of it is under $50 unless you’re getting to the really rare stuff.  But even the top wines are fractions of the price of Burgundy, Barolo, or California Cabernet.

Plus, on top of it all, this gets you a wine that’s already aged properly for you because the aging happens mostly in the barrel (although you can age many of them in bottle too, if you like).  This is not like buying a young wine and being unsure when it will be ready to be opened.  This stuff is ready to drink at the time you purchase it and take it home.

A curse: The Sherry industry is barely holding on by a shoestring.  As I mentioned above, each year Sherry sales are unmistakably on the decline.  Every year there are less people who are willing to tend to the grapes nor who will come to work the harvest.  Vineyards are being sold off, vines ripped up and replanted with different grapes or more profitable crops, and smaller Bodegas (sherry production/aging cellars) are going out of business and selling off their stocks of wine to other larger producers.  Where there used to be hundreds of houses making Sherry, the number of bodegas in Jerez has dwindled to well under 100.  And this number will likely shrink further before it begins to grow again.

Furthermore the image of this wine is akin to the LEAST popular kid in school.  If Champagne is considered the prom king/queen, then Sherry for sure is thought of as the weird kid who smells funny and eats his/her own boogers in plain sight.  But this disconnect between image and wine couldn’t be more confused.  The only way this image will change is by understanding the wines and helping people see the other side of them.  Let’s turn the weird kid in school into the helmut-wearing, über-successful, eccentric Daft Punk of the future.  You know, “cool weird” not “gross weird”.

Why does it seem like Sherry is only sweet?
In Spain, Sherry has a different image than the one that it has abroad.  Historically, the English controlled the Sherry trade and made a serious business out of selling the blended semi-sweet and sweet style Sherries – Cream Sherry, Pale Cream Sherry, East India, etc.  These are blends of dry sherries and sweet sherries intended to create a more pleasing, easier to drink, after-dinner, semi-sweet wine; perhaps as an alternative to Port.  But these wines did not necessarily undergo long aging.  In fact, they could be relatively young and simple.  These are the wines that have provided most people’s exposure to Sherry outside of Spain and have especially dominated the category in the USA.  If you go to a bar or liquor store in any corner of the US and ask for a “sherry”, more than likely they would hand you one of these styles of dark colored, semi-sweet sherries (this is the “Grandma juice”, by the way).

However, in Spain the vast majority of Sherry sales are in the Generoso category.  These are the savory dry Sherries that come in categories named Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, & Palo Cortado.  This is the range of Sherry that has people so excited and have absolutely nothing to do stylistically with the sweeter ones listed above.  These wines are all slightly distinct from each other, but they share a few things in common:
1.They are not sweet
2.They are quite complex in aroma and flavor
3. They are wines for the dinner table, not the dessert cart

So if they’re not dessert wines, what do THESE dry Sherries taste like?
Manzanilla & Fino
are the fresh “white wines” of sherry that are light, a touch nutty, briny, sea-salty and refreshing when served cold.  They receive much of their character from a blanket of yeast, called flor, that lives on top of the wine. This blanket consumes all the remaining sugar and creates a very dry style wine.
Most bottles will last about a week after opening them.
Amontillado, Palo Cortado, & Oloroso are the more “robust” dry sherries that have all been allowed to age without protection from air and have turned varying shades of brown.  The wines smell of dried fruits, sweet spices, are richly nutty, savory, and quite complex.  It is this complexity that demands the drinker’s attention as well as the proper food to eat with it.
Once opened, bottles can live for a month or more depending on quality.

So I shouldn’t only drink Sherry after dinner?
It turns out that during dinner, the classes of dry Sherry listed above are some of the great wines of the world to accompany your meal.  To use a Dr. Seuss-like mnemonic device for pairing Sherry with food, “If it swims, drink Fino.  If it flies, drink Amontillado.  If it runs, drink Oloroso.”  I know, I know…this is silly and rather oversimplified to the people already on a Sherry kick.  The reality is that each category of Sherry is so dynamic in flavor that it goes with all kinds of foods – not just the pairings mentioned above.  But we have to start somewhere.  My hope is that this will help get sherry on the dinner table – where it belongs.

The ONLY thing all Sherry and dessert wine have in common is that due to higher alcohol levels (between 15% – 23% depending on style) Sherry should be consumed in smaller amounts: around 2 -3 oz per glass.  This is about half the amount compared to how much is poured on average for a glass of wine (5 – 6 oz).  But it should still be served in large wine glasses so you can get the full experience.  Screw the little thimble-sized dessert wine glasses.  They’re no help at all.

Ok, you’ve convinced me there is great intrinsic & historical value in these wines.  But to put it bluntly, Sherry tastes funny to me. I still think it’s weird.
There is no denying that the range of flavors that define Sherry are unfamiliar compared to other wine.  I think the best way to attempt to understand the unique character of Sherry is to talk about the so-called “5th flavor” – UMAMI.  Umami is the Japanese word used to describe the taste that literally translates to “yummy” or, more useful to our conversation, refers to a “pleasant savory taste”.  It provides other flavors with dimensions like lift and roundness. With that in mind it is no surprise that sherry is often used as a secret ingredient to make Teriyaki sauce to help provide that umami quality.

A while ago in a brief conversation with Peter Liem, co-auther of the most recent book on Sherry called “Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla” (shameless plug), we spoke of what he called “sapidity” in Sherry.  Sapidity is perhaps a term that can be applied specifically to Sherry in tandem with umami.  It is a somewhat foreign sensation that gives freshness, tension, and energy to Sherry in place of low levels of acidity (acidity is usually what gives freshness to most wine).  Obviously, I don’t expect it to be a trend to hear people to start commenting on the sapidity in dry sherry.  But I suppose stranger things have happened.

If we talk in those terms of savoriness, lift, and volume, then perhaps Sherry flavors becomes less foreign.  Without question Sherries by definition include the oxidative, briny, doughy, salty, tangy flavors.  These are the flavors that tug at your taste buds telling you something is a little off.  But those flavors/sensations do not necessarily have to be negative.  After familiarizing yourself with them, it will be those same qualities that will open the door to experiencing flavor in three dimensions instead of one or two dimensions.  It’s like learning to appreciate the fermented qualities of Kimchi in Korean cuisine, or any other accquired taste for that matter.  Admittedly Sherry’s greatest weakness is that it takes some time to get used to.

I realize that I sound like a crazy person talking about something called “multi-dimensional flavor.”  It’s like you’re having a conversation with a Sci-Fi nerd (which is exactly what’s happening to you right now).  You’re probably thinking, “isn’t this just booze”?  Well…yes.  No argument there.  But imagine you’ve listened to music with the bass turned off on your stereo for your whole life, and then one day someone turned it on for you and you started hearing the music you’ve always listened to in a very new way.  To say the least, it would be a completely different experience.  Sherry has a dynamic flavor/texture/sensation that is not present in almost all other wine.  It provides added “bass” to the wine.  It’s wine in 3D!

This isn’t the answer to the meaning of life, an explanation to the origins of the universe, nor the cure for cancer…but Sherry IS one more tremendous way to experience wine in a unique and interesting manner.  Check the method.

Your Assignment: Give this stuff a try with dinner
Go to your favorite wine store – or you can try finding Sherry online & have it shipped – and find one of each of the following:

1 bottle of Manzanilla or Fino 
Store it in the refrigerator and drink it cold like white wine.  It should last about a week once you open it.
1 bottle of dry Amontillado or dry Palo Cortado
Store like you would a red wine and drink it room temperature or with a light chill.  It should last about a month or more once you open it.
1 bottle of dry Oloroso
Store like you would a red wine and drink it room temperature or with a light chill.  It should last about a month or more once you open it.
Important producers: La Guita, Valdespino, Hidalgo-La Gitana, Emilio Hidalgo, Lustau, Gonzalez Byass, El Maestro Sierra, Gutierrez Colosia, Barbadillo, Equipo Navazos, Fernando de Castilla, Bodegas Tradicion.
Note: Many of these wines will also be available in half-bottles so you don’t have to buy full bottles of them.  Which is great for your bank account.

Now go to your favorite Chinese restaurant that’s BYOB, or order take-out/delivery, and get some egg rolls, some noodles, especially any seafood dishes for the Manzanilla/Fino, something with pork or duck for the Amontillado/Palo Cortado, and maybe a rich dish with beef for the Oloroso.  And then have at it.  We’ve all got a Chinese restaurant somewhere near us and the dishes are built for Sherry.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

And feel free to send me stories of great moments in Sherry in the comment section.  I want to hear all about it.  And if you still don’t dig it, I want to hear about that, too.  Maybe I can help, or maybe it’s just not your kind of juice.  I respect any and all opinions on the subject.  Most importantly I just want people to give it a shot and try what they have been missing.

And I hope that you do.


2 thoughts on “Sherry = Wine in 3D

  1. One of the best Sherry primers I’ve ever read in terms of why it is so fantastically strange, and how to use the stuff. Congratulations, babe!

  2. Great breakdown of Sherry’s complexity. The only way to appreciate is understanding. People are too quick to judge the smelly kid who eats his/her own boogers 😉 Salud!

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