A Visit from the Sherry Fairy
Growing up in the particular breed of white suburbia known as Western Massachusetts, “Sherry” always referred to the much-loathed swimming instructor/helicopter mom the entire family tried to avoid.
Sadly, this left me unaware of the glories of real sherry for roughly two decades, and gave Spain’s most famous fortified wine an instantly negative connotation. At this point, I’d like to officially apologize to Sherry for my ignorance.
In the defense of all normal wine drinkers non-sherry experts, the Spaniards certainly don’t make it easy to understand this special wine and the complicated world of yeasts, soleras and other strange practices that make sherry production unique. Luckily, the mystery behind the making was unveiled for me during NYC’s Sherryfest last month, where a visit from one of El Maestro Sierra’s Almacenistas aka Sherry Fairies explained this oft-elusive sipper courtesy of De Maison Selections.
Read on for revelations, and a sprinkling of alcoholic pixie dust.
What the heck is sherry?
Sherry is a dry, fortified (read: high alcohol) wine in the Jerez region Southern Spain. Palomino Fino is the main grape used in Sherry production, but Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel are also used occasionally.
What is a Solera, and why does it seem to accompany sherry everywhere?
Voilà the Solera. Young wine moves down from the top and into older barrels (and wine) at the bottom.
The “Solera,” or solera system is the fancy-pants name for the way that sherry is blended. Old wine is taken out of barrels, and then the barrels are replaced or “topped up” by younger wines. Because the oldest wine barrels are never empty, each bottle of sherry has is a compilation of wines from different vintages–often some that are over 50 and others that are incredibly young.
What the hell is “flor”? It just looks like a typo.
Nope, not a typo. “Flor” is the name of the thin layer of yeast that grows on top of sherry inside the barrel. Because of flor, air and sherry don’t come into contact in the barrel, which allows the wine to stay fresh and bright, and nearly clear in color. Certain sherry styles don’t age under flor and have darker colors and nuttier flavors as opposed to fresh, citrusy ones.
Is it sweet?
Sometimes. Sherry comes in lots of different styles ranging from bone dry and semi-tart to syrupy sweet. For example, the El Maestro Sierra Fino was jarringly bright, with hints of pineapple and nuts followed a salty, briny mineral finish while the same producer’s Pedro Ximenez sherry was super sweet with combinations of fig, dried fruit, and bacon on the palate.
Rule of thumb: Ask for help at the store.
Is it expensive?
Two of my favorites–both under $20!
Heck no! As with anything there are more and less expensive sherries out there, but bank-breaking isn’t necessary to enjoy this gem. El Maesto Sierra sherries start around $100, but you can get good stuff (like La Guita Manzanilla or Tio Diego Amontillado) for as little as $15.
What the heck do you do with sherry? Is it like wine? A spirit?
Sherry can do almost anything! It’s delicious on its own–think fresh citrus and beachy, salty minerality–but can also be a great ingredient in cocktails or recipes.
What do you drink it with?
In short, everything. Sherry stood out recently during Dare to Pair: Ramen Edition, but is traditionally used as an aperitif in Spain. Whether with Jamon Iberico or artichokes, the high acid lets sherry sing with almost anything–and especially harder to pair foods like artichokes, asparagus, or bitter greens. (Some people may also really love it with vending machine fare like cheetos…)
Go forth now, little pixies, and share your fairy dust. (Read: get to drinking.)
Laura Loves: Valdespino Contrabandista, a semi-dry sherry that’s all cinnamon, spice, and toasted almonds.
Sherry & Tapas at Manzanilla in NYC.
The Bamboo cocktail which combines white vermouth and Fino Sherry.
This New York Times article on the many merits of sherry.
Fun Facts: El Maestro Sierra tests unfermented grape juice, or must, for over 200 attributes before using it to make their premium sherries.
Manzanilla Sherry can only come from the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the salty ocean spray allegedly contributes to the salty minerality in the finished wines.
Fino Sherry uses a Solera with 5 criaderas, or levels.