Sherry - a much misunderstood wine: Richard Esling November 3
This week is International Sherry Week. A great time to re-assess this most versatile of all wines with its rich history full of swashbuckling adventure.
Unlike the majority of wines, sherry is a still wine fortified with brandy and made by a totally unique process in the deep south of Spain.
In contrast to port, the other world-famous fortified wine, sherry is fermented to complete dryness, with fortification and any sweetening added afterwards. There is thus a great range of different styles of sherry, from a bone-dry manzanilla to syrupy sweet Pedro Ximenez. Often drunk as an aperitif, sherry is fabulously versatile, capable of accompanying almost any dish you can imagine. With a possible tinge of ‘the marmite factor’ – you love it, or you hate it – sherry is greatly misunderstood. A drink of kings and aristocrats for centuries, it has recently been in the doldrums, overshadowed by other interesting wines from around the world, and its reputation in England tarnished in the latter half of the twentieth century, by cheap, unappealing commercial blends. Now undergoing a slow revival, the old cobwebs of past sherry understanding are being blown away.
The image of a rapidly oxidising half-full bottle of pale cream sherry sitting on Auntie’s sideboard since last Christmas, is all but gone. Turn the page rapidly to today, where the various tapas bars around the country serve well-chilled, bone dry, elegant, salty, Manzanilla or dry, full amontillado or oloroso. Confusion with the sweet styles of a bygone era and misinterpretation of what fortification is all about, are two of the reasons sherry is often left on the shelf. But when tasted and paired with food, its complexity, depth of flavour and sheer elegance can be revelationary.
The UK is still the number one export market for sherry and England’s centuries long association with the wines of Jerez is due to one man – Sir Francis Drake. In a pre-emptive strike on the build-up of the Spanish Armada, this daring sea captain boldly raided the port of Cadiz in 1587, sinking 37 Spanish ships and making off with 2,900 barrels of sherry. On return to England, the wine was eagerly consumed as a fitting toast to a successful raid. Thus started the British love of sherry.
For my own part, I am a confirmed sherry lover, appreciating all the different styles and its extraordinary value for money, when considering the quality and complexity. My all-time favourite is one of the rarer styles – Palo Cortado. Dry and full flavoured, it sits somewhere between an amontillado and an oloroso, with a unique flavour profile of candied fruit, orange rind, dried apricots, sultana raisins and nuts. I have sampled many, all of which are excellent, but my standard tipple is Torre del Oro Palo Cortado, made by Emilio Lustau and sold by Waitrose at £11.99 a bottle. To me, unbeatable for the price. Sheer amber nectar.
My other favourite style is the bone dry Fino, with its unmistakeable, bready, yeasty aroma from the Flor – a naturally occurring yeast which grows on the top of the maturing barrels of sherry, imparting a unique flavour and keeping the colour pale. Intensely aromatic and deep flavoured, it is a transformation of the rather ordinary palomino grape variety from which it is made. Fabulous with smoked salmon, anchovies or grilled garlic prawns. The Wine Society has an excellent example from the house of Sánchez Romate at the unbelievably reasonable price of £6.95.