Some Thoughts on Serving Sherry
While most people have a good idea how to store and serve red and white table wines, sherry sometimes trips them up. In fact, poor service and storage is one of the reasons sherry is less popular than it deserves. Here are some guidelines to help you get the most out of drinking sherry.
Temperature: Finos, and Manzanillas should be served chilled, as should Amontillados and Palo Cortados, if somewhat less so. Opinion is divided on Olorosos, and I tend to let the occasion dictate; in warmer weather I prefer to chill it ever so slightly. Cream sherries are drank at all sorts of temperatures, even on the rocks with a slice of lemon. This is in keeping with their commercial character; the more ways that can be recommended to serve a drink, the more occasions a consumer might purchase it. If for some reason I have to drink a poor-quality cream sherry – for politeness’ sake, let’s say – I try to drink it as cold as possible to mask its flaws as much as possible.
Glasses: Because it is fortified and therefore stronger than many wines, sherry is usually served in small, tulip-shaped glasses. The traditional variety is called a copita. However, I must admit that at home I drink it from a larger Chardonnay glass so I don’t have to go to the fridge so often.
Storing: Sherry has had all the aging it needs before it is released. The richer styles will last quite some time in an unopened bottle, but will not perceptibly improve from the experience. Finos and Manzanillas are much more delicate and should be drunk as soon as possible after purchase as they tend to lose their freshness just as many crisp, light, unfortified white wines do. Some experts even suggest confirming that your local supplier moves enough sherry to ensure that the bottles haven’t been sitting around the store too long.
There is a common misperception that sherry, once opened, remains fresh for quite some time, like some other fortified wines (madeira, for example) and liquors. This is unfortunately not the case, and another reason that sherry is not as popular as it deserves to be with Americans is that they try it at a restaurant that has kept a bottle of Fino sitting on the bar for several months developing dust on the bottle like a reminder of the flor that once helped make the wine great. In restaurants it is definitely important to order sherry at a place that takes wine seriously and sells a fair amount of sherry. They should keep their finos and mazanillas chilled and ideally use some sort of vacuum stopper to help protect the wine once it has been opened.
At home try to finish a bottle of any of the drier sherries within a few days, and keep the wine refrigerated and stoppered after opening. Amontillados, Olorosos and Cream sherries will last much longer whether chilled or otherwise; usually a couple of months or so. This makes them a safer bet in restaurants that may not sell too much sherry generally.
Pairing Sherry with Food:
Anything with nuts in it probably has a friend in some sort of sherry. Finos and Manzanillas make great aperitifs, and match perfectly with many tapas and hors-doevres such as olives, shrimp, nuts, and hard cheeses; light Manzanillas are also a hit with raw oysters. Amontillados are a little more robust; I find they’re great with creamy soups like chowders and bisques and may be the best sherry for main courses like game birds and white meats generally. Oloroso, Cream, and Pedro Ximenez Sherries can all work with a variety of desserts, and the latter also complements blue cheeses like Cabrales or Valdeon very well. A dry Oloroso or even a Palo Cortado can also suit beef dishes; although they lack tannins that would cut through fattiness, their inherent intensity often balances well and the Oloroso’s flavor can add depth to the meat
The Varieties of Sherry
Here are the various types of Sherry, depending on the evolution of the “veil of flor”
(Editor’s Note: For those less familiar with true sherry, it’s important to note that, aside from the Pedro Xinemez, none of these wines are usually sweet. The “Cream” sherries one sees outside of Spain are blends sweetened especially for the export market, which is why Mr. Benito does not address them. The Cream style was developed to cater to the 19th century British market; while there are some quality wines made in this style, by-and-large these wines have only hurt the reputation of sherry abroad):
FINO: The most popular and delicate of the sherries. Finos are made with 100% Palomino grapes and develop and retain the veil of flor for their entire aging process. Usually the flor does not provide a hermetic seal, so some oxidation occurs which gives the fino a marked and penetrating aroma.
MANZANILLA: A fino, but made in the bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. Here the humidity pretty much guarantees a permanent cap of flor that insulates the wine, making this the palest and lightest of the sherries, with a very characteristic iodine note.
AMONTILLADO: A wine that starts being aged as a fino, but which loses its veil of flor during the solera aging process and so is fortified and aged oxidatively (exposed to the air). This gives the wine greater acidity and a darker, golden shade; sharp notes of dried fruits stand out on the nose, with a fuller body than a fino.
MANZANILLA PASADA: Made in the same manner as the Amontillado of Jerez, but more elegant, but less well-known; like Manzanilla, it is made exclusively in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
OLOROSO: This wine is fortified early on to 18% alcohol, and so never develops any flor. All the aging is oxidative and lasts much longer – it usually takes at least 10 years before the wine is brought together into the solera process. Complex and full-bodied, with a dark, mahogany color, olorosos show notes of walnuts and hazelnuts.
PALO CORTADO: This is an oloroso with very special characteristics; it begins by “wanting” to be a fino; the flor develops, but falters and so the wine evolves into an amontillado. Then the winemaker decides to age the wine extensively, like an oloroso. This wine earns its name when the winemaker marks the cask by cutting (cortado= cut) a mark on the cask to set it apart for this prolonged aging. They are classified with one, two, three, or four cuts depending on the wine’s age. A joy.
PEDRO XIMENEZ: A wine made solely from grapes of the same name, the grape clusters are picked, raisinated in the sun and then collected again; this process concentrates the richness of the sugars. During fermentation a neutral grape brandy is added to the must which stops fermentation with some residual sugar remaining. The result is a sweet fortified wine which is then aged to balance the wine. These wines are smooth and velvety on the palate, with a refreshing acidity.
The wines of Montilla-Moriles are classified in the same manner as those of Jerez with the notable exception that they are made with the Pedro Ximenez grape, which does not need to be fortified to develop the veil of flor. This difference means some subtle differences such as more body, smoothness, and some bitterness. Some of the Pedro Ximenez (P.X.) sweet wines made here are truly spectacular, above all in special vintages like the 1939.
Sherry is a very special and often under-valued contribution to the world of wine which regales our senses and enchants us with its extraordinary character.