Sherry – it’s not just for the over-75s

Look at that lovely thick flor, the mysterious yeasty veil, gazillions of flavour-bestowing bacteria quietly going about their alchemical business of turning grape juice into that most under-appreciated of booze drinks: sherry.

Sherry suffers from an image problem in this country, scorned by many as the excessively sweet tipple of bibulous aristocrats or the over-75s. In its country of origin, however (where its generally drunk completely dry, by the way), its appeal is universal, from the ‘ancianos’ sipping fino while they graze on Iberico ham in their local tasca to the kidz at music festivals twerking to the latest chart banger (whatever one of those is) on a high-octane fuel of sherry and Sprite.

There are signs of an awakening on this isle though. As younger generations become more fastidious as consumers, and as food and drink culture becomes more sophisticated, sherry is coming to be recognised for the complex and versatile drink it is.

We thought we would help that process along with guide to the whats, whys and wherefores of sherry, the basic processes and definitions that will help you understand and appreciate this uniquely brilliant product.

The sherry-making process is a bit convoluted, and made more complicated by modern commercial production and marketing, which have adopted certain basic terms to mean something else entirely. They really shouldn’t have done that, but we will not be discouraged. Let’s stick to the traditional processes and terminology, which is the locus of the best-quality sherry anyway.

Here we go…

Sherry made simple (or as simple as it can be made)…

‘Sherry’, then, is a fortified wine (meaning grape spirit is added after fermentation to bump up the alcohol level) made from three types of white grapes: palomino (the main one), pedro ximenex (PX) and muscat of Alexandria. To qualify as sherry the wine has to be made within the so-called ‘sherry triangle’ – Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria – on Spain’s sunny yet (crucially) breezy Atlantic coast.

Sherry is initially made in two basic styles: the pale, delicate, bone-dry ‘fino’ and the richer, more full-bodied but still, initially, dry ‘oloroso’. Fino is made using the free-run juice of the best-quality grapes from the best sherry-making soils (‘fino’ means ‘refined’); the rest, basically, becomes oloroso (meaning ‘scented’).

The style of sherry being made depends on the formation, or not, of that lovely film of yeast, or flor. The winemaker controls this by careful measuring of the fortification of the wine.

The flor will only develop if the alcohol content of the wine in the barrel is less than 16%; any higher and it won’t survive. Wine destined to become fino is fortified to 15-15.5%; wine destined to become oloroso is fortified to 17-18%.

The barrels, as you’ll notice in the image above, are only partially filled, so there is oxygen in there. Ordinarily, this would lead to the oxidisation of the wine, as indeed it does with the oloroso, which over time grows darker and nuttier. In the case of fino, though, the wine is sealed in by the flor, which feeds on the nutrients from the wine while using the oxygen for biosynthesis, which we really needn’t get into here.

Fino, oloroso, amontillado and more-o…

So, we have wines intended to be aged as fino and some intended to be aged as oloroso, depending on the presence of the flor. Sometimes with finos, though, the flor is lost, and the wine begins to change character, becoming richer.

The winemaker tastes the wine regularly and when this change in character is identified, the wine is set apart from the fino to develop as an ‘amontillado’. In Sanlucar, it’s called ‘manzanilla’, which will be subtly different owing it different temperatures, yeast environments and other things.

All sherry types that you encounter derive from these two main types, with the exception of ‘palo cortado’, which is an intermediate style between an amontillado and an oloroso, combining the elegance of the former and the fuller body of the latter.

There is one other important step in the process: the ‘solera’ system. As we’ve established, the flor plays a crucial role in sherry production. Now, left to its own devices in the barrel, the flor would feed off the wine and die in a short time – certainly before it could have much influence on the character of the wine. When making fino sherry, the winemaker keeps the flor alive for years at a time through the solera system, a sort of topping-up method where older wines are reinvigorated by adding small quantities of wine from later vintages.

Enough of that – what’s good about it?

Now this is the basics (already complicated enough, I know. Sorry about that), but it should help you appreciate just how the different types of sherry achieve their wonderfully complex and varied flavours and aromas, which can open up a world of food pairing possibilities, as well as adding a couple of new colours to the cocktail-maker’s palette. Let’s have a quick look at the possibilities of each style…

Fino that remains under the flor until fully mature produces a pale-gold, bone-dry sherry that is full of nutty/umami/mineral flavours and aromas of apple peel and chamomile. Its salty minerality make it gorgeous pairing with loads of seafood dishes, from oysters to garlic prawns, while its combination of high alcohol and fine structure (that’s the absence of glycerine, which the flor has eaten up while it’s been ageing) help it to cut through sweet or oily stuff – such as Iberico ham. You could even try it with sushi. It should be chilled and, once opened, it should be consumed in one session – it’s delicate and won’t keep.

Manzanillas tend to have been aged a little longer and have a richer, fuller-bodied but are still dry, with intense nuttiness and hints of dried fruits. Their fuller body makes them a match for rich fish stews, cheeses and plenty more besides. You could even give Indian curries and some South-East Asian foods a go.

When it comes to oloroso, whether or not it stays dry depends on it quality as it matures. The best-quality oloroso remains dry, and matures with body and richness. This stuff will easily hold up to rich, earthy foods such as roasted game birds, mushrooms and strong cheeses.

The rest of the oloroso is sweetened to a greater or lesser degree, giving us cream sherries or, when the colour has been removed by filtration, pale cream. The sweetened olorosos may also be blended with other sweet wines made from sundried pedro ximenex grapes, for example, giving an intensely sweet, almost syrupy sherry that can lead to involuntary moans of pleasure when combined with rich vanilla ice cream as a dessert, or paired with creamy blue cheese.

Oloroso, with its higher concentration and alcohol level than fino, will keep for a while – three or four weeks – without spoiling.

I want some – let me have some…

The confusion about sherry is basically fuelled by the way it’s been marketed over the years. It can be avoided though. Stick to the dry stuff in the main and find a supplier that can tell you a little bit about the product you’re about to buy.

We’re fortunate at Borough Wines to have built a relationship with one of Spain’s very best sherry makers: Delgado Zuleta, which has been honing its craft since the reign of the Bourbons – as far back as 1744. We sell a range of Delgado sherries – from the pale yellow, bone dry aperitif styles to the syrupy, mahogany-hued dessert ones. They’re all outstanding.

If you love wine but are unsure about sherry, we urge you to put aside your doubts and give one of these bottles a whirl. On their own, with mixers, but particularly with food, they really are in a class of their own.