For many people, sherry is a sticky and unappealing liquid that sits in a decanter toward the back of their bar, which is brought out occasionally for the benefit of elderly relatives. But there is so much more to sherry than that. Personally, I think that it is a wonderful drink and severely underrated.
“Sherry” is a blanket term that covers a multitude of varieties. All sherries are produced in an officially designated area that includes the towns of Jerez (“sherry” is thought to be an English bastardization of “Jerez”), El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Its cornerstone is most often a white wine grape, Palomino, which is best grown in a chalky, limestone-rich soil called albariza.
After the juice from the grapes is fermented in stainless steel tanks, the wine is transferred to barrels and fortified with neutral grain spirits. Space is left at the top of the barrels to allow a layer of yeast called flor to develop on top. This protects the wine from further oxidation. The flor also imparts aromas of nuts and salt to the wine. Almost all sherries are nonvintage, as they are blends of older and newer wines.
The amount of fortifying spirits determines the ultimate characteristics of a sherry. Finos and Manzanillas are fortified to bring the level of alcohol to between 15 and 15.5 percent. Because the flor stops oxidation, these sherries do not age further and are light, dry and pale in color. Manzanillas are essentially the same as Finos but come only from Sanlúcar, whose close proximity to the sea gives them a lighter character due to higher humidity.
Amontillados are also fortified to 15 to 15.5 percent, but after having been aged for three to eight years under flor, they then receive an additional dose of alcohol to bring the level to 17 to 20 percent. This kills the flor, thereby allowing additional aging. Amontillados are darker and fuller bodied than Finos and Manzanillas, with notes of caramel and an underlying earthiness. Olorosos are made in a similar fashion but are allowed to age longer after the flor is killed off. This allows them to develop a much deeper hue, plus a more pronounced caramel note and a savory umami character.
Palo Cortados are fortified to 17 or 18 percent, so they begin oxidizing right away. They are deep in color and rich in flavor but still on the dry side. Cream sherries are sweet and made from Oloroso wines to which must (juice, stems and skins) from sun-dried grapes is added.
Finos and Manzanillas pair well with nuts, cured meats and some fish. Manzanillas go especially well with shellfish. Amontillados and Olorosos match well with chicken and less assertively flavored meat dishes and patés. Cream sherries make for a fine companion to chocolate desserts.
Most sherry bodegas offer tours and tastings to visitors. In Jerez I recommend Bodegas Lustau, which was founded in 1896 and is home to the highly regarded Fino La Ina (Calle Arcos 53). Also in Jerez, Bodegas Tradición specializes in aged sherries; it also has a remarkable collection of Spanish paintings, including works by Picasso, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and Zurbarán (Plaza Cordobeses 3). And in Sanlúcar, Barbadillo is famous for its Manzanilla Solear. The atmospheric old cellars are conveniently located close to the main square (Luis de Eguilaz 11).