What’s in all those barrels, found in Andalucia, Spain? It’s sherry, baby.
Al Gore might not have seen it coming, but the Farmer’s Almanac predicted this would be the coldest winter in a decade. Weather this frightful calls for something more than that Snuggie you got for Christmas. Thankfully, it still leaves your hands free for a glass of my favorite winter warmer—sherry. Sadly, what most people know about sherry leaves it banished to the back of a cabinet only to be dug out to deglaze a pan now and then. Its highly involved classification and aging method contribute to its enigma, so here are the CliffsNotes on how this puzzling wine is made and, most importantly, how to enjoy it.
Sherry is one of five oft-neglected fortified wines (along with port, madeira, marsala and vermouth), which were born from the need for European wines to withstand the fluctuating temperatures and constant motion of their lengthy trade journeys in the 16th and 17th centuries. Made from palomino, Pedro Ximénez and moscatel grapes and fortified with brandy, sherry is produced exclusively in Spain’s southwestern region, Andalucia, in and around the town of Jerez (the anglicized version becoming its namesake).
O.K., now pay attention. After a typical fermentation that results in a dry white wine with 11-12 percent alcohol, it is sampled and classified with marks that indicate the potential of the wine. A single stroke indicates a wine with the finest flavor and aroma (suitable for manzanilla, fino or amontillado) and is fortified to about 15 percent alcohol to allow the growth of flor, a yeasty foam that creates an air-tight seal over the wine’s surface, preventing oxidation. A single stroke with a dot indicates a richer, fuller-bodied wine (suitable for oloroso) and is fortified up to 18 percent alcohol to prevent the growth of flor, thus allowing oxidative aging. A double stroke indicates a wine with undetermined potential (amontillado? oloroso?) and is fortified to about 15 percent alcohol. A triple stroke indicates a no-go and the wine is either distilled or used for vinegar. Wine that makes the cut goes into American oak casks leaving “two fists” of space on top. This space allows the flor to develop in the finos and oxygen to be present in the olorosos. The solera system of aging and blending creates a consistent product year after year. Simply put, one-quarter to one-third of the oldest wine is drawn off for bottling and then replaced by wine from the next oldest tier and so on up through the entire stack of casks. Older wines lend character to the younger wines and younger wines lend nutrients to the older wines. Piece of cake, right?
Dry sherries (manzanilla, fino, amontillado and oloroso) should be served chilled and enjoyed before or with a meal. Tangy, delicate and sea-salty, manzanilla and fino sherries make olives, marcona almonds and serrano ham sing. Rich, nutty, and raisiny, amontillado and oloroso sherries make cheese and bacon-wrapped dates worthy of worship. Sweet sherries (cream, brown and PX) feel like liquid caramel in your mouth and should be served at room temperature with everything from foie gras to warm bread pudding. Is it getting hot in here?
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