Uncorked: Sherry, Baby

Long though of as an aperitif or an after-dinner drink, sherry, the single greatest wine value in the world, is showing itself to be a pretty great match for anything in between, too.

By: Don Rockwell

For David Bueno of DC's Taberna del Alabardero, sherry can be an aperitif, a digestif, a drink with dinner--even a topping for vanilla ice cream. Photograph by Steve Barrett.

If the mere mention of sherry conjures up visions of Grandpa reclining in his La-Z-Boy and guffawing at reruns of Petticoat Junction and Hee Haw, perhaps it’s time to reacquaint yourself with this almost-forgotten remnant of peasant Spain—to my mind, the greatest wine value in the world today.

Steeped in history and shunned by fashion, sherry long predates Grandpa: The Phoenicians toted the stuff around in amphoras.

The area around Jerez, where sherry is made, is the oldest wine region in Spain. You’d have to fast-forward at least 2,300 years after the Phoenicians to watch the Palace of Alhambra being built in Granada and another 200 to witness Sir Frances Drake’s 1587 invasion, during which he absconded with several thousand barrels of sherry, until then exclusively a local beverage.

What followed was 400 years of cheap imitations from around the world, which caused long-term damage to the wine’s reputation. It wasn’t until 1996 that the name “sherry” became protected within the European Union. The name may have been widely used, but the process for making it certainly wasn’t—laborious, painstaking, and up to seven harvests before a single bottle is produced.

Called a solera system, it can be pictured as a pyramid of barrels—seven on the bottom, six on the next level, and so on. The new wine gets put into the top barrel, and some of it literally trickles down each year to the row below. From the bottom row—the solera—up to one-third of the wine is drawn and bottled. It can take between 5 and 100 years for wine to complete its journey and exit the solera.

With such a lengthy process, you might expect sherry to be pricey. In fact, it’s absurdly inexpensive. Yet it is largely ignored by the wine-drinking public. How can such a versatile, food-friendly, world-class wine languish in near-total obscurity?

“It’s obscure everywhere, even in Madrid,” says David Bueno, sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero in DC. “The name ‘sherry’ was abused for so long that many young people aren’t sure what it is. They’re drinking Red Bull or vodka and cranberry juice, and they’re scared off by the mere thought of sherry, not to mention its strong flavor.”

Sherry, especially dry sherry, has an assertive aroma and flavor, ranging from light, salty, and yeasty in the case of a fino or manzanilla to burnished and nutty when it comes to the amontillados and oloroso. And there’s always a teasingly small amount of sweet fruit to call you back for the next taste.

No other wine is as capable of taking you through an entire meal, from aperitif to digestif. “A fino is the perfect drink with sushi,” says Bueno. “At the other end of the spectrum is oloroso, which is made for rich stews, and then you have everything else in between.” Sherry is often thought of as an after-dinner drink, but sweet sherries made from the Pedro Ximénez grape also are ideal sauces for some desserts. “I love Pedro Ximénez over vanilla ice cream,” says Bueno.

Sherry is just the wine for a budding connoisseur on a budget: food-friendly, plentiful and cheap, with no vintages to memorize, no vineyards to pronounce. Just fabulous, inexpensive wine to enjoy.

Here are some recommended sherries and their descriptions, with food pairings suggested by David Bueno.

Dry sherries

Fino: Tio Pepe (Gonzalez Byass); delicate, yeasty, youthful. Cured ham, light cheeses, sushi, stuffed peppers, clam chowder.

Manzanilla: La Gitana (Hidalgo); much like fino except exclusively from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Raw seafood, grilled sardines, cured or marinated fish, roasted almonds, olives.

Amontillado: Lustau Almacenista Amontillado del Puerto Jose Luis Gonzalez Obregon; medium-dark, aged, instense, complex. Foie gras, roasted-hazelnut-crust pork tenderloin, pâté, medium-paste sheep’s- or cow’s-milk cheese, poultry consommé, braised chicken and rabbit.

Oloroso: Lustau Almacenista Pata de Gallina; chestnut brown, rich, oily, burnished. See Palo Cortado for pairings.

Palo Cortado (a special distinction among olorosos): Lustau Almacenista Vides. Hard-paste cheese, veal and pork stews, slowly braised oxtail and ribs.

Sweet sherries

Cream sherry: Gonzalez Byass Cream Solera 1847; oloroso blended with extremely sweet wine. Bleu cheese, sweetbreads, pâté, crème brûlée, berries sabayon, and as a digestif instead of port.

Pedro Ximénez: Gonzalez Byass Noe; almost black; tastes like essence of raisins. Flan, ice cream, rich chocolate desserts, figs, and dried fruit.

Don Rockwell is the moderator of donrockwell.com, a forum for food and wine lovers in the DC area.