Wednesday, December 26, 2012

During Holidays Present a Bottle of Sherry, yes Sherry

Dry Sherries come in a range of browns. Photo by Ryan Opaz.


get tired of drinking white wines that are so light, so fruity, so … well … summery? Ever hanker after a white wine that somehow has more heft and a heartier, richer taste?

Generally, people will opt for a mineral-edged Sauvignon Blanc or a white Bordeaux blend, completely forgetting the wonders of a truly fine dry Jerez.

Jerez (pronounced hair-EZ, with a slightly raspy ‘H’ and a lightly rolled ‘R’) sounds like the latest new drink fad, but actually, it’s as old as the hills. Straw to amber to cinnamon and sometimes a rich raisin color, Jerez is redolent of rich nutty flavors, almonds and sometimes a dash of nutmeg. It pairs perfectly with Virginia ham, roast goose, Peking duck and adventurous turkey.

In fact, if impressing the boss or the relatives at dinner ranks high on the end-of-the-year to-do list, then break out a bottle of fine, dry Jerez. Tell them what it is. See if it registers. If it does, watch their eyes want to roll back in their heads, and watch them try to recover from that impolite impulse with grace, for:

Jerez = Xérès = Sherry.
Sherry: the same afternoon nip that gives little old white-haired ladies-who-lunch a bad reputation.
Sherry: the same super sweet drink that laid on the world’s worst put-me-down-now-PUH-LEEZE hangover.
Sherry: the same quaff no self-respecting (non-Spanish) hipster would ever sip.
Sherry: the same aperitif most people probably never had, properly.

Like Port, Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that spirits (neutral booze) have been added to increase its alcohol content. Made exclusively from grapes produced in the Jerez region of Spain, many Sherries are light white wines, both in color and taste, and can be served as such. However: the older the Sherry, the longer its fermentation, the more extensive the oxidation, the darker its color, and typically, the sweeter the taste. Sherry comes in a wide range of expressions.

Soleras take on Scotch after they've had their fill of Sherry. Photo by Ryan Opaz.

Solera: Specialty Wine Casks for Sherry (and Scotch)
Sherry’s range of flavor comes from centuries-old crafting techniques. Producers place the Palomino juice into a series of wooden casks called solera, one after another for years at a time as part of the fermentation process.

Each subsequent solera is older than the one before it and, except for the very oldest casks, contains its own yeast (flora) that imparts a distinctive taste. In fact, producers deliberately leave part of the liquid behind, so that as the content of one solera is transferred to the next, some of the precious fine Sherry long since tapped (fractional blending) blends in.

Think about this for a moment: While most winemakers would love to make an excellent vintage – capturing certain regional grapes of one spectacular year in a bottle – every excellent Sherry should have a nano or two of its centuries-old predecessor. Consequently, there is no such thing as a vintage Sherry, but there is such a thing as a fine 30-year-old one, provided that the bending goes well.

The task for fine Sherry producers is knowing how to control the temperature so that the proper flora grows, when and how much fortification (booze) to add, when to stop the fermentation process, and if need be, when and how much sweetener to sprinkle.

Like beer, Sherry comes in many forms. Photo by Dave Dyet.

And what happens to old solera when they retire? They move to the United Kingdom and become casks for aging Scotch. Truly.

Sherry: Discover a Sublime White Wine for Dinner
Dismissing Sherry categorically is like dismissing beer. Some people genuinely hate all forms of beer, and that’s fine. Other people would rather not drink Stout but find Lager quite appealing, yet both are beers. Similarly, the question is not whether one likes or dislikes Sherry in general, but rather, which type of Sherry.

Which Sherry is right for a dinner wine? For right now, let’s skip the Sweet Sherries, Cream Sherries, and other dessert Sherries, typically made from Pedro Ximenex (PX), Muscatel grapes, or a blend thereof, and go directly to those made from Palomino grapes.

For dry Sherrys, imagine sipping a white wine that is not very sweet at all. Strip out all the fruity flavors, leaving just the barest hint of citrus. And now imagine sipping that wine after having just eaten an almond-stuffed olive. Sherrys have a certain earthy quality at their core. The various regional floras then infuse them with hints of spice. Food allows their flavors to open up and sing. Serve well chilled.

Jerez is the official wine-producing region of Spain's Andalusia. Photo from Wikicommons.

Fino / Manzanilla
Typically not sweet at all (dry), as light in color as chamomile tea (manzanilla, in Spanish) and light in taste. Great with fish, tapas and as an aperitif (before-dinner drink).

Aged longer than a Fino; tends toward an amber color, and a warm, rich taste. Perfect with pork and all poultry.

Aged even longer than Amontillado but since Oloroso solera contain no flora, the fermentation has stopped. Tends to be a light-to-deep brown. Beware: while Oloroso is typically a dry wine, many producers sweeten them. Look at the label closely. Pairs nicely with any cheese.

My advice: try a fine Amontillado. There’s a reason that Edgar Allen Poe wrote about them; they can be truly memorable. (Just never offer it as a gift in brick-printed paper. It will be a declaration of war instead of a holiday message of peace.) Between the Fino’s full dryness and the range of Oloroso’s richness and sweetness, an Amontillado is a perfect balance between the two.

Start here, and then follow wherever the tastebuds lead. Is Amontillado too astringent, too dry? Then try an Oloroso. Is it a little too full, too much fruit on the palate? Then try a Fino. Just like in the “Three Little Bears,” there is a Sherry that’s just right.

Emilio Lustau Dry Amontillado will get along well with pork roast and roast turkey. Image from Emilio Lustau Web site.

Hands down, Emilio Lustau produces the best consistently high quality wide range of Sherries, perfect for creating for a tasting flight:

Emilio Lustau ‘Solera Reserva’
Light Manzanilla Papirusa Sherry

$10; on sale for $9, Solano Cellars, CA

Dry Amontillado Los Arcos Sherry
$16; on sale for $9, Solano Cellars, CA

Don Nuño Dry Oloroso
$28, on sale for $19,

Note: Serve well chilled. Like most white wines, Sherry does not store well once it has been opened. Cork it, pop it in the refrigerator and drink within a few days, or else use as a marinade.

Next up: Champagne Tip 101: Warm up the Bubbly!

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