Not Your Grandma’s Sherry

Like port, Sherry sometimes carries some pretty low-brow connotations, a drink your grandmother would nip at before bedtime. Its also easily confused with the $5 bottle of cooking Sherry from the grocery store. I aim to show that true Spanish Sherry from Jerez, however, can be a nectar worthy of the Gods.

My understanding of Sherry, however, was limited to just that style, the Muy Seco (very dry) Fino.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I bought a bottle of 20-year-aged Pedro Ximenez that I realized there was more to Sherry then I first thought. Mistakenly, I also kept that bottle in the fridge and pulled it out as an aperatif with friends before heading out for New Years.  What came out of that bottle was not the straw-colored crisp, dry fino I was expecting, but instead was a syrupy liquid, deep black, raisiny, complex and clearly meant to be served warmer than straight out of the fridge.  How could two liquids, nearly polar opposites on the booze spectrum both be called Sherry?  In the months that followed, I aimed to clear up my ignorance and became well-schooled in the many facets, shades and tastes of the liquids all known as Sherry.

Like port, Sherry sometimes carries some pretty low-brow connotations, a drink your grandmother would nip at before bedtime. Its also easily confused with the $5 bottle of cooking Sherry from the grocery store.  Cooking Sherry, so you know, is super-cheap swill that is loaded with salt so that it can stay on the shelf for a long time after opening.  The salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms that turn wine to vinegar. I aim to show that true Spanish Sherry from Jerez, however, can be a nectar worthy of the Gods.

Sherry is one of the oldest wines in the world.  The Phoenecians brought winemaking to the Sherry region of Spain as early as 1100 BC.  The Romans took the baton and continued fermenting when they siezed power in 200 BC.  And when the Moors conqured in 711 AD, they provided not just the name of the beverage (named after the town of Sheresh or Jerez, later bastardized by the British to Sherry) but also the all-important fortification process.  The Iranians invented distillation and brought the process with them to Spain. Again like Port, the introduction of distilled spirits to wine (fortification) was used to extend the shelf life of Sherry and make it possible to ship to other countries.  For the record, the Arabs also brought the concept of the three course meal with dessert to Spain.  Too bad they were all brutally massacred or exiled by 1492.  Who knows what other tasty treats they would have devised.

Flash forward about a century, when Sir Francis Drake seized the port of Cadiz near Jerez in 1587. He burned the burgeoning Spanish Armada and plundered the cellars, bringing back thousands of barrels of Sherry to England.  Drake’s massive Sherry theft is credited for fully popularizing the drink in England.  Just a few years after Drake’s raid, Shakespeare’s Falstaff proclaims his devotion to Sherry in Henry IV Part 2, “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to Sherry.”  To this day the vast majority of Sherry is consumed by the Spanish, followed closely by the British.  Two other fun Sherry facts: Christopher Columbus loaded the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria with larders full of sherry, making it the very first wine to be drunk in America.  And when Magellan set out to circumnavigate the globe in 1519, he spent more on Sherry than on weapons.

So enough with the history, Sherry’s truly important virtue is taste.  There are four basic types of sherries:  Fino and Manzanilla (those count as one), Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez. I’ll start at the top with the Fino and Manzanilla.

All Sherries other than Pedro Ximenez are made from Palamino grapes which are neutral and dry, perhaps the blandest, most milquetoast grapes on the planet.  After the first fermentation, brandy is added to the wine to bring the alcohol content up to 15%.  The magic and complexity of Sherry begins at this point during the aging process.  The secret is the unique yeasts of the region.  They are high in saturated fats and therefore are light enough to float to the top of the liquid.  The wine is filled to only about 5/6 to the top of the barrel to allow for a layer of yeast (called the flor, which means flower, but it looks more like cottage cheese in reality) to form on the top. The flor cap not only protects against oxidation, but somehow magically and slowly works on the wine for another five years.  The yeast and the dead sunken yeast hulls impart the unique earthy complexity of sherry, both from the slow chemical reactions of the yeast and from the steeping of the dead yeast hulls that drop to the bottom of the barrel, soaking in the wine.

The next unique process to the manufacture of Sherry is the “solera” aging process.  A solera is composed of a series of tiered barrels, each tier containing wine of different ages. The oldest wine is in barrels closest to the floor.  This tier is called the “solera” after which the whole process is named. The barrels layered on top of the solera level contain progressively younger wine.  Each year, a fraction of wine is taken from the lowest tier to be bottled and sold.  The barrel is filled with an equal volume of wine from the next tier up, and the top tier is replaced with new wine.  Aging soleras will stay unmoved for 100 years or more, so in any off-the-shelf Sherry there are traces of wine that is up to 100 years old.

Fino Sherries are bottled after 5 years.  A Manzanilla Sherry is a specific subset of Fino Sherry, it must be aged in the coastal port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.  It’s much warmer and drier in Jerez (where standard Fino Sherries are aged) which inhibits the growth of flor.  Warehouses in Sanlucar de Barrameda, where Manzanilla Sherry is aged, are exposed to the cool, moist ocean breeze which foster a thicker, more robust flor and a subtle, more delicate flavor of Sherry.

On to the next.  Amontillado starts with a 5 year aged Fino or Manzanilla.  The flor is removed (sometimes it naturally happens, sometimes manually). Additional brandy is added to bring the alcohol percentage to 17.5% which slows the oxidation.  With the flor cap removed, the sherry oxidizes and turns darker and richer and more complex.  Amontillado sherries are naturally dry, but medium and sweet Amontillado sherries are made by blending it with sweet Pedro Ximenez Sherry (more on that in a bit).  Whereas the Fino sherries are crisp, delicate and never fail to cause my stomach to start growling, Amontillados are more complex.  The oxidation aging creates a nutty taste and the longer the age, the longer and more complex the finish.  Of course, Amontillado’s rise to cultural relevance came from being the bait for the poor doomed Fortunato in Edgar Alan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado.

Oloroso Sherry starts out the same as the Finos.  After the first fermentation, however, delicate tasting wines are sent to become Finos and heavier, more full-bodied wines skip the flor process and are immediately fortified to 17.5% alcohol and aged (sometimes for a very long time) to become Oloroso sherries.  Again you can get the Oloroso Sherries in dry varieties or those sweetened with Pedro Ximenez.

Pedro Ximenez is the last style of Sherry.  It’s really quite unlike all the rest and thus caused my initial confusion as to what Sherry is all about.  Instead of Palomino grapes, Pedro Ximenez sherry is made from Pedro Ximenez grapes (thus the name).  PX, as they  are called, are also white grapes, and are grown in the same Jerez region.  The PX grapes are picked at full ripeness and then left to dry under the hot Spanish sun.  The juice from the Pedro Ximenez “raisins” is then pressed to produce a black liquid which is partially fermented and then fortified with Brandy and aged in a solera.  Pedro Ximenez Sherry is very sweet, but the very old varieties take on an amazing, complex, long oak finish.  Pedro Ximenez, as I mentioned before, is blended with Amontillado and Olorosos to create sweetened blends and Cream Sherries.

It has nothing to do with the taste of the product itself, but an indelible aspect of my love of Sherries has to do with a fascinating bit of Sherry’s visionary marketing.  I’m not talking about the iconography of Tio Pepe above, the most popular Sherry in the world.  Tio Pepe sport some pretty half-assed, embarrassingly-lame branding in my book: a sherry bottle with a little flamenco jacket, hat and guitar.  Its sad really, like something you’d find on an exploited miniature dog.  If you want to see a true marketing genius, feast your eyes on the iconic minimalism of Osborne Sherry below.

I drove all over Spain in the summer of 1988 and must have seen over 100 monumental towering Osborne bulls.  No words, no urls, just raw steel and iconic power.  Since the mid-50s, these massive bulls have dotted the landscape and rural highways of Spain. Everyone in the entire country knows that the looming black bull means powerfully good Sherry.  What I didn’t realize at the time, however, that the very same year I was touring Spain for the first time and experiencing my transformative first glass of Sherry, the first public highway beautification laws were put in place and the government soon mandated that Osborne tear down their “bullboards.”  The Spanish people revolted; violently and loudly.  The bulls were not just an ad, they were an iconic symbol of Spanish pride.  The Osborne family fought fines and court battles for nine years until 1997 when the highest court in the land, the Spanish Supreme Court strangely sided in their favor.  In their official ruling the chief justice wrote, “It has gone beyond its initial advertising purpose and has become part of the landscape. As a result, it is declared a part of Spain’s National Heritage.”

That’s all I have to say on the subject of Sherry.  I highly encourage everyone to head out to the liquor store and pick up a bottle or four.  The awesome thing about exploring the world of Sherry is that it is a vastly under-appreciated wine and thus is dirt cheap compared to other aged alcoholic beverages.  You can buy amazing very old sherries oftentimes for less than $20 a bottle.

I like every one of the varieties of Sherry, but the very old rare (actually an official acronym: VORS) Olorosos and Pedro Ximenez styles are my favorite.  Serve the Finos as an aperitif, ice-cold with manchego, olives or oysters.  All the other Sherries should be drunk at cellar temperature - cool, but not cold.  The sweet ones go great with any dessert or strong cheese and the dry ones you can drink during the meal.

If anyone lives in Austin and wants to try the complete range of Sherries, Badass Digest is hosting a tasting at The Highball on February 13 at 6:00pm called Highball University: Not Your Grandma’s Sherry.

We’ll be trying:
Tio Pepe Fino Muy Seco (dry)
Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla (dry)
Bodegas Tradicion VORS 40 year old Amontillado (dry)
Fernando de Castilla VORS Antique Oloroso (dry)
Gonzalez Byass VORS 30 year old Matusalem Oloroso (sweet)
LustauEast India Cream Sherry (this is an interesting style - it is aged in hot, humid cellars that are meant to replicate the aging that Sherries would have experienced on ancient East Indian sea voyages) (sweet)
LustauDeluxe Cream (sweet)
Gonzalez Byass VORS 30 year old Noe Pedro Ximenez (sweet)

Tickets are $54 and include tastings of 8 different styles of Sherries, many of them very old and rare.  The ticket includes paired snacks, olives and cheeses.  I most certainly will be sitting in one of the 20 seats.  Tickets go on sale at 5pm on Saturday, Jan 29.