An Introduction to Sherry
By Tatiana Humphreys
I try to recall the moment I ‘got into’ Sherry. It wasn’t the time I was served Fino at a smart party when I said to the host, ‘are you sure this white wine isn’t corked?’ As you can imagine, that didn’t go down very well. It also probably wasn’t the day when I sipped on my Granny’s glass of Hidalgo La Gitana thinking how is this wine SO dry. Tio Pepe has always been a fixture in my parents’ fridge and a few Christmas’s ago, the lightbulb moment finally happened. I had a glass and still remember its salty tang, the whiff of almonds and that oily texture as the hook that brought me into the world of Sherry.
There is so much more to Sherry than meets the eye, much more than we can cover in this piece, so I am going to stick to the dry wines as, in my opinion, this is where Sherry’s strengths lie. There are different styles, cities and bodegas but I am sure even the most novice of drinkers will be aware of Fino or Manzanilla. I see these styles as the gateway into Sherry. Manzanilla is Fino but the difference stems from where they are aged. Manzanilla must be legally matured in Sanlucar de Barameda, which is a town on the coast. Fino wines must be matured in the towns of Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa Maria. These three cities make up the Sherry Triangle in Spain. Essentially, these two styles are the same thing, but the different climatic conditions create subtle nuances. Manzanilla tends to have a salty tang and is the most delicate whereas Fino from Jerez is weightier and richer.
To back track even more, I should say that dry Sherry can be divided into two categories dictated by how they are aged. The two methods are biological and/or oxidative ageing. Fino and Manzanilla are first fortified to a lower level, and then aged biologically. Imagine a barrel that isn’t quite full, but ¾ is filled with wine that has been fortified (adding alcohol protects the wine) to 15% abv. In the gap between the liquid and the wood a white layer develops. We call this ‘flor’ and it protects the wine from oxidising and turning brown, whilst also imparting nutty, yeasty flavours. You can remember this by looking at the glass, if it’s golden or lemon coloured then it has been matured biologically.
Sherries such as Amontillados and Olorosos are mostly aged in oxidative environments. Look out for the darker coloured sherries, that is your tip-off. The basic method entails fortifying to a higher level so that the alcohol rises to 17%. At this level, flor cannot survive, and without this protection from the air, the wine turns a mahogany colour, burnt toffee notes emerge and the texture changes. Now these wines aren’t sweet, they are still technically dry, but the flavours and increase in glycerol levels, trick you. Don’t be fooled by Sherry’s mysterious ways as these are majestic wines but I appreciate they can be quite an assault on an uninitiated palette. Pecan, orange peel, almond, charred wood, smoke and toffee- that’s quite a line-up of flavours.
There is a lot to take in when studying Sherry and to be honest, I learn something new every time I taste it or visit a Bodega. In simplistic terms, I see dry Sherry as a scale starting with fresh and tangy Fino and ending with dark and moody Oloroso. Amontillado is a mix of both, and one I would really recommend as a good place to start with the richer, oxidative styles. You might also come across Palo Cortado, which is a unique wine that changes in the hands of each bodega. There are no hard and fast rules with Palo Cortado. If you see it on a wine list, order it and you won’t regret it.
By this point, my passion for Sherry is obvious but it isn’t just the liquid that grabbed me, it was the places and the people. I was fortunate enough to travel to Jerez a year ago on a very special trip that came from WSET Level 3 scholarship. To say I struck gold is an understatement as the prize involved a 12-day trip that covered all the major wine regions in Spain, culminating in a 4-day bonanza around the Sherry Triangle. One of the things that stayed with me was the reality that there are no straight lines when it comes to Sherry. Just when I thought I understood it, I would meet another winemaker or taste a different style. If you are looking for a great weekend away spot, I would recommend Jerez. It has the most relaxed atmosphere of any Spanish city I’ve ever visited. Beautiful architecture, bodegas to visit and tapas plus Sherry for 1 Euro – it doesn’t get better than that.
One of the reasons you should all be buying a bottle of Fino after reading this is that it’s great value. My local Morrisons supermarket sells an own label Fino, which crucially is made by Lustau (a very famous Bodega), at the jaw dropping price of £5.75. Imagine buying and enjoying an unfortified, drinking white wine for that price? I’d say that’s impossible. Amontillados and Olorosos tend to be a little more expensive due to longer ageing periods but for the hard work it takes to create them, the prices are still very attractive. I urge you to experiment and buy a bottle of Sherry from your local wine merchant as well because I am keen to push buying wine from independents rather than supermarkets. The staff are on hand to help, and they will guide you towards the right bottle for you.
A few of my favourite producers that you should seek out are:
Fernando y Castilla
Hidalgo- Sanlucar de Barrameda
Bodegas Gutiérrez Colosía- Puerto de Santa Maria
Sherry has had a resurgence lately and that has a lot to do with the rise of Spanish restaurants. José in Bermondsey offers a great selection as does Brat in Shoreditch. It’s great to see Sherry of all styles usurping the traditional choice of sparkling wine, as the aperitif. I dare you to find a better food and wine combination than Fino Sherry and green olives. Sherry should be regarded as a wine, not something your grandmother drinks, and served in a proper glass with a variety of different courses. Sherry is intertwined with tradition, but the flavours are modern and unique. Drinking a glass transports me right back to Jerez, I can feel the heat, I can smell the Bodegas and when a wine does that, I know I am onto a good thing.
Tatiana Humphreys is a Private Account Manager in Berry Bros & Rudd’s Fine Wine team. Her interest in wine was piqued by working in her local wine merchant, which developed further when she did a harvest In France's Languedoc region.
Tatiana also runs The Little Grape (@the_littlegrape) where she decodes and translates the labyrinth world of wine for those who want to be educated and entertained.
Illustration by Dom Mckenzie:https://www.dommckenzie.com/