By Annie B. Copps
To talk about sherry, especially for you naysayers, I think it’s important to remember that sherry is really the birth mother of tapas and deserves a little respect and understanding—the reward for some patience is big. And you do like tapas, right? Well, the tapas tradition, no culture, was born from the tradition of Spaniards leaving the house for a little tipple of, you guessed it: sherry. Because in Andalucía, sherry was what they had to drink. A bar guest would be served a small glass of sherry and a few things happened. One they enjoyed it. Two the bartenders got smart and realized that their guests could and would drink more if they had a little something in their bellies and if it was something a little salty, their guests would be thirstier still. They created little plates of pre-made, easy-to-slice-and-plate dishes. The customers used those little plates to cover their glasses of sherry because of the flies and dust. Thus, quite likely, the birth of tapas, from the Spanish verb “tapar,” to cover. So even after reading this you are not keen on exploring the wonderful world of sherry, I hope at the least, you are grateful to the makers of sherry for bringing you tapas.
Sherry, as mentioned before, originates from Jerez (“sherry” is a bastardization of Jerez or Xeres) in the Spanish region of Andalucía, the Southwest coast. This is an area close to Africa (you can see Morocco from the coastline) and one that Arabs ruled for centuries. The coastline is a stunning playground of long , sandy beaches, and golf courses and the interior, equally beautiful but very hot and dry. Many of the iconic Spanish traditions come from this area—the testosterone dripping matadors in their intricately embroidered costumes, flamenco dancing and the guitar music that goes with it, Arabic tiles and architecture and white-washed buildings with tile roofs.
Sherry is a fortified wine crafted in the solera system and is from three varietals of white grapes: palamino fino is used the most, followed by moscatel and Pedro Ximenez; and it is made in seven styles: fino, amontillado, manzanilla, oloroso, cream, palo cortado, and Pedro Ximenez.
Perhaps a lot of new words for you.
First, fortified wines. A bit of neutral alcohol, usually brandy, is added to some wines, such as Port, Marsala, Madiera, and sherry, during or after fermentation. Port wine is fortified at the beginning of fermentation to keep it sweet. Sherry is fortified at the end of the fermentation process to stabilize the wine against bacteria and oxidation—for years it was shipped in sailboats sloshing along for months at sea and it didn’t always arrive as delicious as when it started.
Now, about that solera system--it was invented by sherry makers. Several rows of small wooden barrels with sherry are stacked on top of each other according to vintage (oldest on the bottom) and style. About one quarter of the sherry from a barrel in the row above is used to fill the barrel below and so on, top to bottom. No oak barrel is ever completely emptied, there is less and less over time, but there is always a bit from its older sibling or grandparent (some sherries will have traces of wine more than 100 years old). When the wine reaches the bottom row of barrels, it is bottled.
Sherry is definitely a “food” wine meant to be served with savory dishes. Do be careful though, because of its high alcohol, it’s content meant to be sipped, so while it’s nice to serve it in a proper wine glass, chilled, pour one quarter the amount. Of the seven styles of sherry, fino, manzanilla, and amontillado are lighter, crisp, and dry wines perfect with tapas, of course, particularly jamon and olives, but as a New Englander I think they pair really well with most shellfish—particularly oysters, scallops, and clams. I love a drizzle on top of lobster bisque.
Moving on to oloroso and palo cortado, these sherries can dry and sweet or somewhere in the middle, depending on how much muscatel or Pedro Ximenez has been added. They often spend many years in the pig pile of wine barrels and this lends to some deep richness and all sorts of varieties in flavor (all those generations of juice blending together in the hot sun). They go well with many foods, but to be honest, I like a sip of palo cortado on its own—they can be so expressive.
Now for the sweet sherries. So called “stickies” or PX (for Pedro Ximenez). These are delicious gems, as well and made with more muscatel and Pedro Ximenez. The grapes are often sun-dried before crushing to concentrate the sugars. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so a little of these wines go a long way for me. I think they are terrific with ginger-laced desserts to balance them out
There is gobs more to know about sherry and I’m happy to blather on about this special wine—feel free to tell me what you think about sherry and ask any questions by clicking the contact button.