Why drink Sherry:
Becoming a Sherry Lover
Full disclosure: I haven’t always been a Sherry lover. Who has? My first experience was with a friend living in Córdoba ten years ago. She took me out to the local haunts and told me I’d be drinking Fino whether I liked it or not. I did not. It tasted of paint-stripper (and it probably was). While the Sherries I serve on WSET courses are (luckily) of a much higher calibre, students trying it for the first time rarely have a positive reaction. The apricot, citric, almondy nose of a Fino has them primed for a fruit-driven white, perhaps sweet. What they actually get is drier than dry, bready, savoury, often with a touch of nail polish remover (the effect of acetaldehyde produced by flor). And it’s delicious! But it takes some getting used to.
Living in Barcelona will make a wine lover into a Sherry lover pretty quickly (check out the selections at Bar del Pla, Monvinic and Vila Viniteca, or the excellent AQ in Tarragona), but it wasn’t until my WSET Diploma studies that I became truly obsessed. While it’s probably the most complicated region covered for the Unit 6 (Fortified) exam, it was also the one that had me hooked. Before long the fridge was filled with gems from Fernando de Castilla, Maestro Sierra, Lustau, Bodegas Tradicion and more. I passed my exam with Merit but I wanted to keep learning.
In January 2019, along came Chelsea Anthon (pictured) and Annie Manson. Chelsea had recently moved to Barcelona from Andalucia and had been introduced to Sherry by Annie, who runs a very successful cookery school in Vejer de la Frontera. She began working for the Consejo Regulador de Jerez on their digital marketing and started International Sherry Week in 2014. They were both Certified Sherry Educators and came to Wine Courses Barcelona to take their WSET Level 2 in Wines. A Certified Sherry Educator, I asked, how did that work?
In November last year I travelled to Jerez de la Frontera to attend the Sherry Educator Course with fellow Sherry lovers and WSET educators from around the world. I didn’t know how much more there was to learn on top of my Diploma studies, but meeting the people making it, seeing the processes first hand, visiting the vineyards and bodegas and (of course) tasting an awful lot of it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To read more about the ins-and-outs of the course, the incredibly knowledgeable Ruben of Sherry Notes has written this piece about his experience. To top it all off, I achieved the highest grade in the written examination and was awarded this venencia! Beltrán Domecq suggested I practice in the bath (unclear if I should be in it).
But why should you guys drink it? I’m on a mission to get more of YOU drinking Sherry. So read on to find out why.
1. The diversity of styles on offer
While Fino (the dry, pale, yeasty and zesty one) is the classic expression, there is a style to suit every palate (and every plate but more on that later). Oloroso is all about the dried fruit, nutty, caramel and meaty notes. Manzanilla is light, fresh and creamy. But even within these categories there is so much choice and experimentation. To the left you have a single vintage sweet Sherry made from lightly raisined Palomino grapes. Most Sherries are NV (non-vintage) due to ageing in the solera system and Palomino is typically used for dry styles. To the right you have a Manzanilla Pasada made from older wines which lost their veil of flor (yeast) and were refortified. It was creamy, yeasty, bold and brioche-scented. Delicious!
2. It’s where tradition and modernity meet
At Gonzalez Byass we were shown traditional methods of propagating vines and vara y pulgar pruning. Highly skilled, impossible to mechanise but considered worth holding onto for the long term health of the vine. The Consejo Regulador also related to us their emphasis on organic viticulture, integrated pest management (IPM) and minimum use of SO2 in order to create wines with the least impact on the land and environment. The vine growers and winemakers of this region value tradition while looking forward to a sustainable future for the region. It doesn’t get cooler than that!
(The picture to the left shows the furrows dug to capture winter rainfall.)
3. It’s amazing VFM
That’s Value For Money! Unlike getting into fine Bordeaux, Sherry wines are accessible because you get a lot for your money. Under €12 could get you Callejuela’s 7 year old Manzanilla, or Williams and Humbert’s Don Zoilo 12 year old Oloroso (both 90 Parker points, if that’s your thing). A half bottle of the classic and timeless Tio Pepe will set you back less than €4. Also, oxidatively-aged styles last a couple of weeks in the fridge, so it’s a purchase that keeps on giving. Trying a range of styles to find the one that suits you won’t break the bank and any that don’t float your boat can always be used for cooking. Chicken braised in Amontillado, anyone?
4. There’s nothing else quite like it
The production process for these wines is completely unique. Grape selection, fermentation, must classification and fortification all lead to the solera system. A series of criaderas (think rows of barrels stacked in levels and see picture to the right) hold wines of various average ages, the top one holding the youngest wines. When wine is to be bottled from the solera (the bottom row of barrels) each criadera has some wine removed and moved to the next row down. Fresh wine goes into the top criadera to refill it. This method of fractional blending results in a consistent product with the complexities of multiple years’ wines.
Then there’s the mysterious flor! Flor are strains of yeast which form a film on top of some wines, influencing their character and protecting the wines from oxygen during the ageing process (that’s your Fino and Manzanilla styles). Flor truly is a magic substance, eating away at alcohol and glycerine and imparting signature savoury notes which make for a dream food wine.
5. It’s a perfect wine for food pairing
César Saldaña, General Manager of the Consejo, explained to our group of educators that Sherry lovers almost never drink it without food. So while a glass of cold fino on a hot day may be heavenly, in his words “Sherry makes everything tastes more!”. The Consejo came up with some easy guidelines to get you started:
- If it swims (fish, seafood): Fino, Manzanilla
- If it flies (poultry, game birds): Amontillado, Palo Cortado
- If it runs (beef, pork, venison etc.): Oloroso
But there are so many food and wine pairing options. The yeasty, savoury notes of biologically aged wines are superb with olives, almonds and sheep milk cheeses; while the oxidative, nutty tones of Oloroso and Palo Cortado styles make them ideal for robust, full-flavoured sauces and firm cows’ cheeses too. Pedro Ximenez produces sweet, raisin-laden wines which love chocolate desserts, while floral Moscatel wines are great with fruit.
So get your friends together, get creative and get pairing! Heston Blumenthal gathered recipes and pairings from top chefs in the book The Perfect Marriage which is highly recommended. You’ll soon find a whole menu accompanied with these unique wines is a feast for the senses.
This year we’ll be running a number of events (both educational and tasting-based) dedicated to this magic liquid, so follow on Instagram and watch this space. Sherry is coming to get you!
Where to buy the wines mentioned:
- Lustau Almacenista Manuel Cuevas Jurado Manzanilla Pasada (50cl), Lavinia, €15.40 (90 Parker Points)
- Lustau Añada 2002 Vintage Sherry (50cl), Vilaviniteca, €35.80 (92 Parker Points)
- Callejuela Manzanilla Madura (75cl), Bodeboca, €10.50 (90 Parker Points)
- Williams and Humbert Don Zoilo 12 Year Old Oloroso (75cl), Bodeboca, €10.90 (90 Parker Points)
- Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino (37.5cl), Widely available, around €3.50
(Prices correct at 22/01/20)