Gonzalez-Byass' Tio Pepe
Could there be a more overlooked wine category than Sherry?? Of course, there are less prized wines—and fortified wines, in general, seem to be getting no love these days. But still, Sherry seems to be particularly unappreciated by consumers given its versatility with food and newly as a valuable mixer in cocktails.
However, it seems no matter which wine critic or famous sommelier or TV show (think Frasier and Niles Crane in the comedy sitcom Frasier) extols Sherry sales seem destined to remain flat at best.
According to the Consejo Regulardo, over 60% of Sherry drinkers are over the age of 55, and surprisingly, Sherry depends on four markets for sales of over 86% of its production; the UK consumes 29% of supply followed by Spain at 25%, the Netherlands at 22% and Germany at 10% according to Cockburn. It is really sad that these beautiful wines haven’t found a wider audience.
Even after working years in the wine trade, one can go by with relatively little exposure to fortified wines and Sherry, in particular. A prominent California winemaker recently confessed that he had always assumed Sherry was terrible until one of his importers exposed him to some quality Sherry.
This ignorance of Sherry and other fortifieds for that matter may be more extreme in the US market where the fortified wine category is especially marginalized due to archaic laws leftover from Prohibition. Some states dictate that anything above table wine levels of +14.5%-15% alcohol must be controlled and often warehoused by the state. In some states, this means that a sole bureaucrat decides what citizens in that state will be able to purchase, and unfortunately, these wines often end up relegated to a corner collecting dust. There is often no one on hand to promote and sell the wines or from a distributor level to help with the marketing.
Not surprisingly, Sherry is a bargain, even more so when considering the time-consuming process required in making quality sherry. A basic Fino or Manzanilla will usually spend minimally 3 years in solera ageing biologically under a layer of Flor or yeast, but, depending on the bodega could be left to age for up to 8 years. Amontillado is aged under Flor for a minimum of 3 years and then oxidatively for another 3 years, at least. Olorosos are at least aged similarly as long as other Generosos and often longer than several years.
The waterfront at Sanluccar de Barrameda, responsible for the micro-climate that allows a thick veil of flor to develop and the salty flavors of Manzanilla
Many of the best priced Finos and Manzanillas price around $12-$15, or £9-10 for a bottle. Even the best VORS (30 years) Amontillado or Oloroso coming from soleras established in the late 1700s can price at an affordable £24 or $35. The good news for those willing to experiment or for the converted is the explosion of tapas bars in the US and in global capitals in the last decade. Sherry is finally getting some deserved attention and exposure, even though the category still has a tough row to hoe in marketing itself.
Reasons why sherry may not be in vogue?
Roadblock #1 – It is Sweet
There is often a perception that sherry is sweet. Perhaps this is a result of the excellent marketing job Harvey’s and others had done in selling their Cream Sherries. After a certain point, it is interesting how overwhelming success can lead to a downfall in perception for years later, thinking of German Riesling which used to be among the most prized wines in the world and even in the 1960’s out-priced first growth Bordeaux and the likes of Petrus. Then came Blue Nun and Black Tower and suddenly when the craze for sweet fruity wine faded, so too did the reputation of the wines of the country for decades! But, I digress…
Back to Sherry…while there are sweet Sherries, many are very dry. The average Fino or Manzanilla has around .05 grams per liter while an Amontillado may have up to 5 grams RS, but are often also under 1 gram sugar. Olorosos and particularly those aged for extended periods of time (VORS) don’t usually exceed 5 grams per liter RS, finishing dry. Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, and Oloroso are all made with the Palomino grape, are dry in style and aged in Solera or Criadera, more on it later.
The sweet Sherries can be differentiated from the dry ones by the label. Natural sweet Sherries are made with either Pedro Ximenez (PX) or Moscatel and this will be stated clearly on the label. Blends of dry Sherries with either concentrated rectified must or natural sweet wines will be labeled as Pale Cream, Medium or Cream.
Roadblock #2 –It Isn’t Fresh
Because Sherry isn’t the fastest moving category, finding fresh stock might be a challenge for consumers not to mention that determining release dates on the bottle can be a challenge. While there is some debate about how long after release it is best for Sherry to be consumed, according to the Consejo Regulador de Vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla it is best to drink the most delicate of Sherries such as Fino and Manzanilla between 12-18 months after release from the Bodega, although many Sherry aficionados believe that it is best to source a bottle within 6 months of release.
It is thought that Amontillados are best consumed within 18 months to 36 months and Olorosos and Creams between 24 and 36 months. Not surprising considering the level of sugar, PX preserves the best, and is best consumed within 48 months from the time of release.
Roadblock #3 –It Is Too High in Alcohol
Admittedly, Sherries are higher in alcohol than many may be used to consuming. Finos and Manzanillas are habitually between 15.5% abv – 17%, Amontillados between 16—22% abv and Olorosos between 17%-22% by volume. These wines are so flavorful, that a little can go a long way and with a variety of foods really create some amazing pairings. But, let’s face it, there are plenty of non-fortified +15% wines out there; Zinfandels from California often exceed 15%, as an example.
Sherry and Food in a Nutshell:
While visiting Jerez de la Frontera, I visited Bodega Lustau for a tour and tasting. The goal of the tasting was not just to sample their amazing Sherries, but to also show how Sherry’s compliments food. In a nutshell, a description of each Sherry and the best food pairing according to Consejo Regulador de Vinos de Jerez y Manzanilla and some of the folks I met in tapas bars and on this and other bodega tours:
Fino- from bodegas located in Jerez de la Frontera and El Puerto de Santa Maria using Palomino grapes, the wine is aged in Solera biologically under a veil of Flor, a layer of yeast that floats on the wines surface (see photo below). A bright, pale lemon color, Fino is often described as tasting like almonds.
A veil of Flor on top of the Sherry ageing
Try with: Shell Fish, anchovies, sushi, anchovies and cured meats like Iberico.
Manzanilla with Beef (probably better with Oloroso or Amontillado)
Manzanilla- from bodegas only located in Sanluccar de Barrameda. This is made in the same way as Fino using Palomino grapes, but has its own designation. Located near the ocean, the special climate allows for a thicker veil of Flor to develop and given its proximity to the ocean imparts a saline component to the wine. Like Fino, bright, pale lemon in color; nutty and saline notes.
Try with: Fish, salted/fried fish shellfish, cured meats, and tapas of all types, at Lustau I tried with potato chips and nuts, plus a few other delicious items.
Amontillado- made in bodegas throughout the Sherry triangle as Fino and Manzanilla using the Palomino grape and undergoing ageing both under Flor (biological ageing) and oxidatively after the Flor dies off. Normally a bright amber/topaz color hazelnuts and dried fruits are often associated with Amontillado. Due to the oxidative ageing Amontillado has more viscosity and is heavier on the palate with more complexity.
Try with: Curry dishes, risotto, soup, smoked fish, game and grilled asparagus
Oloroso- made in bodegas around the Sherry district from Palomino grapes purely through oxidative ageing. The Palomino table wine at 11.5% alcohol was fortified with neutral grape spirit to 18% alcohol to prevent Flor from developing on the wine. Darker in color than an Amontillado, more of a light brown or mahogany in color, Olorosos are typically nutty with dried fruit flavors. This wine is heavier and depending, more complex than Amontillado.
Try with: Nuts, cured meats, stews, cheese
Cream- an Oloroso blended with PX this is a semi-sweet/sweet wine.
Try with: cheeses like blue cheese, nuts and foie gras and pate.
Pedro Ximenex- Often opaque dark brown in color, this luscious wine comes from bodegas around the district this reminds me of molasses, dried date and prune flavors.
Flan with PX
On a Recent Trip to the Sherry Triangle:
To find out a bit more about Sherry, I decided to go explore myself. Below are some pictures detailing my time in Sanluccar de Barrameda and Jerez de la Fronterra.
A place for great tapas in Jerez, Meson del Asador
Meson del Asador's list of tapas
- The tasting at Lustau and everything from Fino to the most luscious PX