Wine is very much a product of the moment. Similar to music, it can be enjoyed even more when you are with good company. Conversely, a great wine can seem mediocre when you're not in a pleasant mood, or if things aren't just right. The seasons also contribute to the experience, and there is nothing better than having certain wines at different times of the year. This leads me to the sometimes forgotten sherry. With the weather getting warmer, there is nothing better than enjoying certain beverages outside, ones that are refreshing and easy to drink. Sherry is the perfect drink for this season. Unfortunately, it has become one of the most misunderstood of all wines. Some of the first things that come to mind when you think of sherry is "cooking wine" or "that Dry Sack style that comes in the burlap bag." Yet sherry can be one of the most enjoyable wines, and the artistry of sherrymaking and its regional influences make this one of the most unique wines in the world.
Sherry is produced in the south of Spain in a region called the Jerex. It is comprised of three main grapes; Palomino is used for all of the dry wines, and Pedro Jimenex and Moscatel are used for the sweet wines. Sherry production is one of the most complex of all winemaking methods. After the wine is made and placed into barrels, a yeast, called the flor, forms on top of the wine. The growers know which lots are more susceptible to this yeast, and only under the proper conditions will it form. Since the wine has already been fermented, the flor mellows many of the flavors in the wine and makes them more complex. The formation of the flor determines the style of the sherry. When the flor does form, the most common style that is produced is Fino Sherry. This is a dry and crisp style that can be very refreshing. The wines that do not form the flor are the Olorosos which are usually lightly sweet and richer in texture. The remaining sherry in the dry category is the Palo Cortado. In this sherry, the flor begins to form and then the process mysteriously stops. This happens infrequently, in perhaps one out of one hundred barrels. The style of sherry that is produced is between a Fino and an Oloroso. Because it is one of the more complex sherries, it is an incredible style to accompany richer foods. There are two sherries in the sweet category, Pedro Jimenex and Moscatel. The wines can be decadently sweet and rich, and are truly a treat by themselves.
Next the wines are fortified. By adding a clear grape spirit, the alcohol content is increased in the wines, giving them a natural preservative. After this, the wine is put through one of the most incredible aging processes, the solera system, which blends many years of wine together. Since all sherries are not vintage dated, there needs to be a way to make the wine consistent. Many of the soleras started as far as one hundred years back. From that time until the present, a small amount of wine from each year has been blended into wines from previous years. So theoretically, the sherries contain wine from one to one hundred years old. By taking these different vintages and blending them together, the wine becomes more homogenous and more consistent.
The next factor in the aging process is the location. Many of the Finos are aged in Jerex de la Fonterra. Most of these are simply called Finos. Some are taken to Puerta de Santa Maria, where the distinct climate produces more mellow characteristics. These wines are called Puerto Finos. The most unique of all the Fino Sherries is the Manzanilla. These are taken to an oceanfront town called Sanlucar de Beerameda, where the ocean air gives the wine a tangy, even salty characteristic. It is the perfect sherry for hot weather, and when it is served chilled it can be quite refreshing.
There is also another unique style of sherry that exists. It is called Almacenista Sherry. It is from soleras that have been owned by families for generations. Many sherry houses purchase wines from these soleras and bottle them with the name of the family on the bottle. Many of these are the highest quality sherries, and can also be some of the most expensive. Yet the maximum price is thirty dollars a bottle, which is certainly reasonable for these great wines. Emilio Lustau distributes some of the finest of the Almacenista sherries, releasing wines from family soleras which range from dry to sweet.
There are many producers who make excellent sherries that are worth drinking. The only sherries that I do not recommend are those from the United States. They are not true sherries, and most of them are not made with the same grapes and do not use the solera system; however, they can be quite good for cooking. For Manzanilla Sherries, "La Gitana" by Hidalgo is one of the best. Tio Pepe is a great producer of Fino Sherry. For Almacenista Sherries, Emilio Lustau has the best quality sherries, and the highest availability of all the producers. In particular their "Vides" Palo Cortado can be one of the most enjoyable with Tapas.
The only reason that sherry is misunderstood is because wineries have produced sherries that are nothing like sherry at all. So the next time you are thinking of grilling out, pick up a bottle of sherry and give it a try. After that, every time spring and summer come, sherry will be the first thing that enters your mind when you want a refreshing drink.