More than just your grandmother’s (fortified) wine.
History and production:
The Phoenicians first introduced winemaking to Spain in 1100 BC, but it wasn’t until the Moors conquered large swaths of the country in AD 711 that Spanish sherry-making began in earnest. Spain’s production of sherry and its export throughout Europe increased markedly with Alfonso X of Castile’s rise to power in the mid-to-late thirteenth century.
Like port and vermouth, sherry is a fortified wine, meaning a distilled spirit (brandy, in the case of sherry and most other fortified wines) has been introduced upon completion of the fermentation process. The white grapes used to make sherry are grown near the city of Jerez de la Frontera, located in the Andalusian region of southern Spain. Though sherry can be produced in a variety of styles, the Palomino grape remains the go-to for sherry makers, regardless of which style the maker seeks to ultimately produce.
Spanish law dictates that in order for a wine to be labeled as “sherry,” it must come from an area known as the Sherry Triangle, which can be found in the Spanish province of Cádiz, between the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.
Characteristic notes, aromas, and flavors:
Sherry is largely defined by the manner in which it is aged. All sherry undergoes aging through the Solera system, which essentially entails using cask-rotation to blend younger and older sherries, but while some sherries are oxidized, others are intentionally deprived of oxygen, kept under a layer of protective yeast known as “flor.”
Some basic types of sherry include Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, Palo Cortado (very rare), Pedro Ximenez, and Cream Sherry.
Because Manzanilla and Fino are both aged under “flor,” they have a bone-dry, nutty, tart, and yeasty character. However, Manzanilla comes from a seaside town, and therefore has more salinity than Fino. Amontillado is allowed some oxidation, creating a greater degree of depth and nuttiness. Flor cannot survive at the level at which Oloroso is fortified, lending this type of sherry deeper fruit and nut notes, as well as a hint of sweetness. Palo Cortado begins its life under a layer of flor, but then proceeds to randomly lose said flor and continue aging with exposure to oxidation, thereby combining delicate and rich flavors. Pedro Ximenez and Cream Sherry are both dessert sherries.
As evidenced above, sherry is an incredibly versatile wine, meaning many food pairings are possible. For instance, Manzanilla pairs well with seafood stew, Fino with garlic prawns, Amontillado with sesame-crusted salmon, Oloroso with penne pasta in tomato sauce, Palo Cortado with lamb kebabs, Pedro Ximenez with pecan pie, and Cream Sherry with churros.