My wife and I honeymooned in the south of Spain. It was a compromise. She wanted the beach. I wanted Europe. So we went to a European beach. My secret plan the whole time, however, was to get down to the area of Spain where sherry is made. Sherry is, in my humble opinion, the most maligned and underrated wine produced in the world.
How does one describe how sherry is made without getting incredibly confusing? Let’s start at the bodegas. These aren’t the kind of bodegas where one can purchase a buttered roll and a Snapple, however. A bodega in Spain is a winery, and the sherry bodegas are all in one area of southwestern Spain. The three cities in this area that sherry can come from are Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and Puerto de Santa Maria.
One of the two main differences between sherry and other wine is that all sherry is non-vintage or, more appropriately, multi-vintage. Let us transport ourselves to the cool, humid basement of a sherry bodega. If we were there, we would see endless rows of barrels, all stacked on top of each other, three or four barrels high. The wine that is bottled for the current year comes out of the bottom barrel. Only about a third of each bottom barrel is bottled, however. That barrel is then topped off with wine from the barrel above it, and that barrel is topped off with the barrel above that. This is repeated until the top barrel is filled with wine from the current harvest. This is called the Solera system, and it ensures the sherry tastes the same, year after year.
The second biggest difference between sherry and other wines is that they are allowed to oxidize. I have mentioned before that oxidization is one of the main ways wine can spoil. That’s true, unless you’re talking about sherry. Think of it like cheese. Spoiled milk, in general, is bad. But when the spoilage is controlled, it can become not just good, but spectacular.
This is where the different types of sherry are created. The less oxygen the sherry is exposed to, the lighter, crisper and drier the sherry will be. Manzanilla sherry is the driest. The area it is from is so humid that the yeast in the fermenting wine blooms on the top, cutting off the wine from the surrounding air. Because of this, the sherry is exposed to very little oxygen. For the fresh sea air and raw almond flavors of a great Manzanilla, try “La Guita” Manzanilla ($7.99 at 67 Wine, 179 Columbus Ave., at 68th St., 212-724-6767).
Farther from the coast in Jerez de la Frontera the air is less humid, so the sherry oxidizes a bit more creating the still crisp, but slightly fuller bodied Fino style sherry. Finos that are aged longer are the darker and more complex Amontillado-style sherries. An Amontillado like Valdespino Amontillado “Contrabandista” ($26.99 at PJ Wine, 4898 Broadway, btwn 204th and 207th St., 212-567-5500), with its bold flavors of roasted hazelnuts, orange peel and butterscotch, is a perfect example of Amontillado at its best.
Oloroso Sherry is often sweeter and heavier than Amontillado, with flavors ranging from dates to candied ginger. Cream sherry has a bad rap because much of it is commercially made and not very interesting or complex. The sweetest type of sherry is called Pedro Ximenez (pronounced hee-MEN-ez). While the Pedro Ximenez grape is generally only used as a blending grape in most sherries (Palomino is the main sherry producing grape), in Pedro Ximenez-style sherry, only the namesake grape is used. A great example is the Osborne Pedro Ximenez ($17.99, also available at 67 Wine), which is as thick as syrup and has flavors of brown sugar, caramel and dried figs.
Needless to say, during our stay in the South of Spain, much paella was eaten, and bottles upon bottles of local sherry were drunk. I can think of no better way to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, or the East River, for that matter, than with a “copita” of sherry in one hand, and a dish of olives in the other.
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