Is it possible that sherry, a Spanish wine steeped in centuries of tradition, is turning trendy?
Given its diverse range of colours, and a personality which occupies every section of the dry to sweet spectrum, it has tended to come across as rather complicated, when in fact its production is quite straightforward. Sherry is basically made in two styles: the pale, bone-dry Fino (meaning “Refined”), and the richer, initially dry, Oloroso (meaning “Scented”).
Fino is made using the free-run juice of the best-quality grapes, and the rest essentially becomes Oloroso. The principal grape is Palomino, with some Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. The latter is usually referred to as PX, given the easy potential to mispronounce it. Palomino is low in acidity and sugar which makes it suitable for sherry but not very attractive as a table wine.
Sherry is distinctive for its invention of the Solera system. This is a dynamic system which gives uniformity and continuity to the wine in which recent vintages are gradually combined with older vintages. This can take up to 30 years, the result being wines of deep complexity.
To help understand how this works, the Solera might be seen as a sophisticated version of the blending process in the Champagne region. Here, for the production of non-vintage champagne, base wines from a number of different years are skilfully blended to achieve the same consistent house style.
Sherry is also distinctive because of flor, an indigenous yeast present in the air in the Andalucia region of southern Spain. It forms on top of sherry wines almost immediately after fermentation and protects wine from air contact. Ivory in colour and somewhat wrinkled, flor can be up to two centimetres thick.
In sherry speak, flor basically divides the wines from the Jeres-Xeres-Sherry DO into two main categories: the biologically aged sherries which develop under the flor (Manzanilla and Fino, with their highly individual aroma profiles); and oxidative sherries which mature either partially without, or entirely without, flor (Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez). Flor will only develop if the alcohol content of the wine in the barrel is less than 16 per cent. Thus wine intended to become Fino is fortified to 15 or 15.5 per cent, while wine destined to become Oloroso is fortified to 17 or 18 per cent. This higher percentage destroys the flor cap.
While oenologists are continually researching and refining production methods, particularly as more is discovered about the nature of flor, wine making has remained essentially the same for centuries. So why might sherry be emerging as fashionable?
The global proliferation of tapas bars and establishments specialising in so-called “Small Plates” – generally fashioned so as to appeal to a younger audience – can certainly take some credit. Interestingly, legend has it that tapas were created in the sherry bar: A slice of bread placed on top of a glass prevented flies from landing in the amber liquid. On top of that bread was placed perhaps a green olive, a sliver of Serrano ham, a slice of Manchego cheese. And so a new dining concept emerged from dimly lit basements.
Sherry is, in any event, highly food-friendly, and not only with tapas. Even the quite delicate aperitif-style Manzanilla, with arresting floral aromas, most particularly camomile, gains complexity with food. This sherry is matured in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda, where it is fanned by ocean breezes, and it is fantastic with fish and seafood – most particularly sushi and sashimi.
The sharper, more herbal Fino is similarly fish friendly, but can also complement more intense flavours and textures. Oloroso, a warm and powerful wine which finishes dry but has a glycerine mouth-feel which means it is wonderful drunk alone, but pairs well with rich meat dishes. PX, which is made with sun-dried grapes for sugar concentration, can serve as a dessert all by itself, but in common with other dessert wines should be matched with something less sweet than itself: dark chocolate, for example; or it can be poured over ice-cream. It is also great with blue cheese.
The highly complex Amontillado, a wonderful wine which can show nuances of delicate petals and rich caramel at the same time, is one of the most versatile sherries at the table. It can even partner with artichokes and asparagus, two vegetables notoriously difficult to match with wine. It can also pair well with spicy dishes, even curries.
Given that the most enthusiastic of sherry drinkers are probably wine lovers, the renewed interest, particularly for Fino styles among younger drinkers, may also reflect the direction that winemaking in general is taking. Delicacy and mineral qualities are increasingly favoured over overt oak and fruit. Meanwhile, the boom in natural wines has also created renewed interest in oxidative styles, and the notion that wine does not just come in one of three narrowly defined (red, white or pink) colours.