Glorious, under-rated and often misunderstood: that's Sherry. Well, not all of it - there's lots of sweetened stuff that tends to cast an unfashionable shadow over the rest - but the good stuff is really, really good. So when my friend Hannah asked for some Sherry recommendations I vowed to do a post on them. Here's what you need to know when you go shopping for Sherry:
What is it?
Sherry is made mainly from the light-skinned Palomino grape in Spain's most southern - and very hot - province, Andalucia. To be called Sherry, it must come from the Sherry Triangle, marked by the towns of Jerez de la Frontera (from which Sherry takes it name, we just couldn't pronounce 'Jerez') and the coastal towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. The best vineyards are on chalky 'albariza' soils.
What does it taste like?
Sherry ranges from bone dry to candy sweet, depending on style. The two basic dry styles are Fino and Manzanilla, both very pale in colour and positively quivering with nervous tension. They taste tangy (due to flor, more on that in a mo). Then there are dry amber-coloured Amontillado and darker Oloroso styles, both nutty in flavour and in the case of Oloroso aged for much longer in oak barrels. If you want good sweet, there's the dark treacle-like PX, made from the Pedro Ximenez grapes.
Flor! What is it good for?
Flor is a strange yeast beast, unique to the Jerez region and grows as a delicate film on top of the wine in the barrel, protecting it from air (and oxidation). Flor needs around 15.5% alcohol to thrive, so base wines are fortified with spirit to reach at least that, sometimes more depending on what style of Sherry is being made. Wines aged in bodegas in the more humid coastal town of Sanlucar are called Manzanilla and possess a certain seaside saltiness (although I do wonder if this is partly due to the salted almonds I shovel in when sipping it). Flor doesn't survive on the higher alcohol Amontillado or Oloroso styles, so the wines oxidise and darken in colour as they age in oak, developing stronger flavours.
Should it be aged?
Actually, by the time you buy it, it is pretty much good to go. It is aged as it is made, via a 'solera' system. Barrels (known as Sherry butts) are stacked up on top of each other in a pyramid shape in the bodegas (cellar) and a proportion of older wines are taken out at this blending stage and replaced with younger wines. The older and more layered the 'solera' system, the more subtle the resulting wine should be. Over the years producers have developed their own consistent styles, similar but unique. Drink Fino and Manzanilla within days of opening the bottle. Darker styles will last a bit longer.
So what else makes Sherry interesting?
What makes it is the complexity, the mix of young and often very old wine and the exhausting range of styles. Dry Fino & Manzanilla is best served really cold in small measure as a pre-prandial (tapas-type nibbles essential). Amontillado & Oloroso (meaning 'scented') is best served when curled up in front of a fire. PX is almost always poured over ice cream in this house (adults only, obv).
What should I buy?
Sherry can make for complicated shopping. Luckily, there are some very trusty producers to look out for. Some of them make wines for supermarket own labels too, making them brilliant value. Here's a shortlist:
Lustau - brilliant producer, always winning medals. They make the Sainsbury's Taste the Difference 12 year old Oloroso, a snip at £7.99.
Hidalgo - try their Manzanilla, La Gitana. Widely available, including Waitrose & Majestic at around £9. Love the label.
Gonzalez Byass - the makers of Tio Pepe (lovely Fino). Try their more adventurous Palo Cortado, a style that starts life as a Fino and quickly morphs into a sort-of Oloroso style. Widely available, including Majestic, Tesco & Waitrose at around £17 for a half bottle. Small measures, remember.
There are lots more, including Valdespino, Harveys (makers of Bristol Cream) and Osborne.
Chin chin x