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A Chicago Wine Writer's Quest To Understand Sherry

By John Lenart in Food on Aug 4, 2016 3:48PM

Sherry with tapas. Photo via Shutterstock.

All the cool kids are into it at the moment, but sherry is something many wine lovers, particularly in the U.S., have a hard time wrapping their brains around. Many people have misguided, preconceived notions that sherry is that sickeningly sweet, syrupy thing grandma used to drink twice a year. (Or every night, if granny liked to party!)

Or maybe you're like me, and you approached sherry with an open mind, and were poured a nice fino sherry. You wanted to like it because everyone said you'd love it. But that oxidized first sip and somewhat thin mid-palate texture just didn't wow. But to just sip a sherry takes it out of context. And that's really the problem that sherry faces. You need to understand the context of sherry perhaps more than any other wine in order to truly appreciate it. And until recently, I never got it.

Sherry was just never my jam. I can recall numerous occasions sitting at the bar at Vera in Chicago, tasting different sherries, always looking for what I jokingly called my "gateway sherry." You know, that one that would help me get it. While I was close on a number of occasions, the fortified wine that so many love just eluded me. As I thought about it more, I determined that what really makes wine special is that connection to the people and place that the wine comes from. And when it came to sherry that was just something I was never able to connect with.

Sherry is such a complex subject because it's so different than any other wine and there are so many styles. I asked Liz Mendez, owner or Vera Wine Bar and arguably Chicago's leading authority on sherry, to walk me through it. Mendez recommends that, rather than starting with the ideas of the different aging processes or production methods of sherry, you first make a simple comparison to other wines as a starting point.

Sherry aging. Photo Credit John Lenart

“To help understand style, look at it like this: Fino and Manzanilla are like Champagne or an aperitif, light and refreshing," Mendez said. "Amontillado is like white wine, a bit more body. Oloroso, like red wine; Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez are sweet like a dessert-style wine.”

Well, that doesn't sound so complicated. We won't dig too deeply into sherry production (as there are plenty of excellent books by some brilliant authors on this topic) but here are the basics:

Most sherry is made from the same grape variety, palomino, which thrives in the bright white, nitrogen and calcium chloride rich albariza soil of Jerez. By law, 40 percent of the grapes making up a sherry must come from albariza soil. 95 percent of all sherry is made from palomino. One of the least acidic grapes in the world, palomino loves to produce a lot of big grapes in gigantic bunches.

Calcium chloride rich albariza soil of Jerez. Photo Credit John Lenart

The other grapes used in sherry production are moscatel, which makes a sweet wine for blending and Pedro Ximénez, often referred to as PX, which is typically used to make sweet sherry.

After sherry is vinified, it's lightly fortified with brandy. It is then aged in a complex system called "solera," which involves stacks of large black barrels. The barrels are black so it is easy to spot any leaks. As the wine ages, some of it is removed from each barrel and bottled. The remainder is moved to a lower barrel in the stack for further aging. This means you can never really get a "vintage" sherry. In fact, by law sherry cannot be given a vintage date. Each type of sherry has its own solera within the Bodega (The Spanish term for winery).

Like most fortified wines, sherry can last for some time once opened:

“With Fino and Manzanilla, about three days. Amontillado, Oloroso, Moscatel & Pedro Ximénez have a longer shelf life, about two to three weeks, but we rarely are able to test this at Vera, as our Sherry rarely lasts that long,” said Mendez.

On a recent trip to Spain it all became clearer for me. (Full disclosure: this was a press trip hosted by Gonzales Byass, a producer of sherry, among other wines.) One evening on a tapas crawl I learned that the Spanish culture is neither a drinking culture nor an eating culture. It is an eating and drinking culture; never one without the other. And the beauty of the tapas crawl is that it's a little bite, a little drink, a little walk. A little bite, a little drink, a little walk. Lather, rinse repeat. We entered our first tapas bar and ordered a Tio Pepe fino sherry and Brocheta de gambas, skewered prawns. I pulled a prawn from the skewer with my teeth and sipped the sherry, and oh my lord, I found it. I got it! Context! The brininess of the prawns married effortlessly with the citrus notes and nuttiness of the dry fino. Neither the food nor the drink took the lead but they intermingled in beautiful, delicious harmony. I finally got it!

I think all along my problem with sherry had been that I failed to understand the importance of food in the equation. To truly enjoy sherry you must be drinking and eating, not simply drinking. So the next time you're in a place with a wide sherry selection, ask which sherries might pair with the dishes you order. If done right, perhaps you too will be able to put this mystifying drink in context.

After years of searching, after dozens and dozens of tries, it's funny how one simple bite of food and one sip of fino, along with the understanding of the eating and drinking combination culture of Spain, made it all happen.

Post Script:

There’s one more story about touring Gonzalez Byass that's so cute I just had to share it:

While touring the bodega, the Spanish term for winery, I spotted a small glass of sherry right in the middle of the floor with a tiny ladder leading from the ground up to the rim of the glass. I asked what that was for. Turns out that one day the guys working in the bodega saw a mouse sipping a small puddle of sherry that had spilled onto the floor. They were so taken by the good taste of the mouse that it became tradition to leave a glass out with a little ladder for the mouse to have his daily sherry.