Fortified Wine Week: Sherry
This week, we’re giving fortified wines some attention. They’re part wine, part brandy, essential to cocktails, and each delicious in their own unique way. Yesterday, we discussed fortified wines in general. Today, we’ll focus on sherry.
You probably have a bad impression of sherry; most Americans do. It’s that cloyingly sweet, syrupy wine that stays at the back of your grandfather’s liquor cabinet until your great aunt visits and, when offered a drink, says, ‘Maybe just a glass of sherry.’ Indeed, for the longest time, sherry in the US has been relegated to Aunt Ethel’s visits, and to cooking. For a shorter, but still substantial, length of time, a sherry renaissance has been predicted. I don’t know whether the sherry comeback will ever happen, but it should; and I’m doing what I can to help it along. There’s a lot more to sherry than your great aunt knows.
‘Sherry’ is an anglicization of Jerez, the small town in southern Spain near which all sherry is made. Two things make sherry special: the solera system, and flor. In the solera system, new sherry is added to older sherry bottles of varying ages, rather than being put into a new bottle. So, any given barrel or bottle of sherry doesn’t have a vintage, and hasn’t been aged for a particular number of years; it’s a mix of many different years.
Flor is a particular type of yeast unique to Jerez and central to the fermentation and classification of most sherries. It forms a foamy barrier between the fermenting sherry and air, the quality of barrier determining the style of sherry made:
- Fino sherry–also known as pale, dry, or pale dry–is when the flor remains airtight through the entire aging period. The airtight seal allows the fermentation process to go longer, so long, in fact, that the yeast consumes every last bit of sugar from the grape. Fino sherry is very pale, and very, very dry. It’s the driest wine in existence;
- Amontillado is sherry that doesn’t quite make it to the finish line with its flor intact. Toward the end of aging, the flor breaks down, exposing the amontillado to air, which pauses fermentation and begins an aging process. This makes the amontillado just the slightest bit sweeter and turns it a nice sepia tone, like your childhood photos.
- Olorosos have their flor break earlier in the process, sometimes even intentionally. With the longer exposure to air, olorosos are more exaggerated versions of amontillados. They’re sweeter, more rounded, and darker; and they have a bit of an intense funky, yeasty flavor that is quite distinctive and a little intense, but in an attractive way.
In one way of looking at things, amontillados and olorosos are failures. And to a certain degree that’s how sherry bodegas see it: finos are the purebreds, amontillados and olorosos the mutts. But often mutts make better pets. You might find yourself enjoying the character of amontillados and olorosos more than the rarefied taste of a fino.
There are two other types of sherry that have nothing to do with flor:
- Pedro Ximenez come from a different grape (Pedro Ximenez, instead of Palomino, if you’re interested). It’s rich and sweet, more like it came from raisins than from grapes;
- Cream sherries are blends from olorosos. They vary in quality and process. Some of them are good olorosos blended with good Pedro Ximenez, for a semi-sweet end product. Other are bad olorosos blended with Pedro Ximenez. Still others are bad olorosos mixed with grape juice. For the longest time, those last ones were the only ones available in the US; they’re what great aunt Ethel drinks.
Sherry in Cocktails
As you might guess, from how different the types can be, cocktail recipes are designed with particular types of sherry involved; so it’s worth paying attention. If you’re going to substitute, inside the sherry world is often not the best option. Dry vermouth is a better substitute for a fino than a Pedro Ximenez would be; and a ruby port is your best Pedro Ximenez replacement, not an amontillado.
If you’re going to buy just one bottle, first stay away from the creams; it’s just too hard to know if you’re getting a good quality one. Beyond that, you have two options: 1) buy the proper variety for your favorite cocktail recipe; or 2) get yourself an amontillado. Being, as it is, the midway point between a fino and an oloroso, it can adequately fill in for the whole range of the non-Pedro varieties. Lustau is a brand that mixologists tend to like, of good quality and for a moderate price, around $15.
If you think you’ll love sherry, you’ll probably want to get yourself one each of a fino, an amontillado, and an oloroso–maybe even a Pedro Ximenez too. You’ll also probably want to try out different bodegas, and you’ll soon know much more about sherries than we do.
If you really love sherry, or like sherry a lot and really love traveling, you should go to Andalucia, Jerez’s region in Spain. It’s a lovely spot. You can see the bodegas where sherry is made, as well as the most stunning Arabian palaces, and the beautiful and impressive Andalusian horses; and, at night, you’ll enjoy tapas in the place of its creation, over a glass of fino. Just don’t ask them to put it in a cocktail; wait until you get home.
The Sherry Cobbler Cocktail Recipe
This is one of the very oldest cocktail recipes, as captured by the patron saint of mixologists, ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas. It really show off sherry’s best qualities, and best of all you can use whatever variety you want; in fact, any fortified wine will do.
- 4 oz sherry
- 1 Tbsp sugar, or less to taste
- 2 orange slices
- fruit of your choice and/or mint, for garnish
- shake the sherry, sugar, and orange with ice for 15 seconds;
- strain into a highball (or, better, a collins glass if you have one) filled with crushed ice;