15 Mar 2011

The Author

PJ Wine, Inc. is one of the leading fine wine and spirit retailers in the United States. Based in New York City. PJ Wine was founded in 1991 by wine connoisseur, Peter Yi. PJ's mission is simple: Extraordinary Wines. Exceptional Prices.

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Sherry 101
Sherry 101

Sherry 101:

Sherry 101: It’s fitting that we get the word Sherry from a mispronunciation of Jerez—the town where the fortified wine originates—because Sherry is the most misunderstood, underappreciated alcoholic beverage on the planet.

But that makes sense. For one, Sherry is like the hard rock candy of wines—for many of us the first place we ever crossed its path was at our grand parents’ house. Alongside the dried fruits, stale nuts, and ancient salt-water taffy, the only alcoholic beverage our parents’ parents ever seemed to have around was Sherry. Our childhood palates knew better; one whiff and Sherry was off the radar for life.

The next strike against Sherry is the fortification bit. It hardly seems refined to pour booze into wine just to add power. Wine lovers drink for taste, or so they claim, not to get hammered.

And lastly, Sherry—even the refined varieties—are an acquired taste. Sherries are the anchovies of wine; try it once and it might repel, but give it time and you find yourself craving it. You get an itch only Sherry can scratch. Their salty, sea-breezy nuttiness or their caramel, burnt orange goodness is not something that is readily obvious as delicious. But find the right comparison and the deal is sealed.

Another potential complication between Sherry and the American consumer is the process and the classification. It’s a bit confusing. Not French appellation system, or German wine label confusing, but confusing nonetheless. Time to get over that. Here’s the deal:

After the initial fermentation ends, the wine is fortified with destilado (a wine spirit) and placed in huge casks made from American oak. Why American? Our trees are stubborn, or more to the point, not very porous—nothing comes in, nothing gets out.

The nice Spanish folks who make your sherry always leave a little room in these uptight casks to allow a big cloud of yeast to form, called the flor. The flor is like a gentle monster who guards the precious golden juice from air, allowing just enough in to oxidize the Sherry in a pleasant, rather than funky way. When done right, the sherry takes on the character of fine aged Champagne, not musty Chardonnay.

Now comes the cool part, as if yeast monsters weren’t already cool. The wine is transferred to a solera system which involves multiple barrels arranged in a triangular pattern where the youngest wines are poured into the top barrel, whereas the wine that gets bottled comes from the bottom. Every year—or three, or more depending on the producer—the wines get transferred down in small increments resulting in a final bottling that is a blend of multiple vintages, some as old as three hundred years. Think about that for a second. Every bottle contains a bit of the oldest liquid in the solera; it’s like an infinite bottle of wine always replenishing itself and never aging beyond its initial oldest vintage.

Now, no two producers of Sherry are the same, and every house has their personal style: More flor, less flor; longer barrel aging, less barrel aging; more oxidized, less oxidized and so on. That said, here’s a rule of thumb for how the classification system works:

Fino

Finos are bone dry and pale straw in color. They are lightly fortified to about 15.5% alcohol. Surprising to many, they are quintessentially fresh and fragile wines that must be drunk promptly to be at their best. Once open, a bottle is best consumed within 3 or 4 days. They should always be served chilled and are the ultimate thirst quenching aperitif with almonds, olives, seafood and fried hors d’oeuvres. They are also excellent with sushi and shellfish. Crazy, huh?

Manzanilla

Manzanillas are a sub-category of Finos and also bone dry and pale straw in color. They are made in the same way as other Finos, except they are exclusively from the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. They share the same character as Finos, except they tend to be somewhat lighter in weight and more delicate with a distinctive hint of saltiness. As with other Finos, they should always be served chilled.

Amontillado

Amontillados are dry and clear amber colored, although some producers ship them off-dry for the American market. They start their lives as Finos but are given additional cask aging without flor, which adds wood, nut and caramel notes. They are dry, but intense and powerful. They feature a lively snap on the palate which makes them pair well with rich consommés, roasted chicken, pork or duck dishes, plus they are exceptional with foie gras. They also work well before meals with toasted nuts, cured meats, and cheese.

Palo Cortado

Also dry and amber colored, this is the rarest style of sherry. It’s an aged Amontillado that acquires the rich toffee, butterscotch, smoke, milk chocolate, burnt orange and spicy notes of an Oloroso. Almost always blended dry or just off-dry, these are among the most subtle and complex vino de meditazione made anywhere in the world. They pair beautifully with aged cheese, toasted nuts as well as flan and crème brulée type desserts.

Oloroso

Olorosos are dry and range in color from amber to deep brown. They are fortified to about 17.5% and then wood aged without time under flor. They are darker and fuller-bodied and range from bone dry to off-dry, depending on the producer’s house style. These rich, nutty, toasty, smoky, caramel, butterscotch, toffee and milk chocolate character wines also show hints of dried fruit such as burnt orange, lemon peel and even caramelized banana. They are excellent after dinner wines and the best examples display extraordinary smoothness.

Amoroso / Oloroso Dulce

These are Olorosos in the off-dry to sweet range and are blended with small amounts of Pedro Ximenez to add sweetness. They are also from amber to a deep nut brown in color. The added sweetness rounds out the edges of the dryer styles and makes for a wonderful, mildly sweet dessert wine. These wines work in the same settings as Olorosos but with a sweeter character. Again, the level of sweetness depends on the producer’s house style.

Cream

Cream Sherries are Olorosos which have substantial amounts of sweet Pedro Ximenez wine added before aging. This adds raisin and fig notes to the nuttiness of Olorosos making for rich dessert wines to sip alone or match with creamy cheeses, ice cream and sweeter cakes and chocolate desserts. Traditionally Creams are amber to nut brown in color, but are also available in a “Pale Cream” style, similar to Finos in color. Creams are the best known style in the US. We do love our sugar.

So there’s your Sherry 101. Simple, no? Keep checking back for more posts on Spain’s magical golden liquid, as we’re always experimenting with new combos. Sherry with the right snack (tapas anyone?) is diabolically good. Grandma would agree.

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