Sherry, or the Obvious Alternatives
By Mike Rosenberg
Sherry — the name evokes images of deep shag carpet, wide lapels, ruffled blouses and key parties. The quintessential ‘70s drink, every household was required by law to have at least one bottle of cream sherry on hand for highballs and nightcaps. Alternatively, there’s usually a bottle of cooking sherry in any well-stocked pantry. However, after our very pleasant sojourns with Spanish wine, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try the native drink of Spain.
So, what is sherry, anyway?
Sherry is a fortified wine. In WineSpeak — a “fortified” wine means that the winemaker’s gone and added a bunch more alcohol. Many sherries are right around 18-20% alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but there’s another grape called Pedro Ximénez that is often used in sweeter varieties. “Sherry” is also the region in Spain where all this stuff is made (“Sherry” is a bastardization of “Jerez”).
Sherry has a fascinating production process. Most winemakers do everything they can to keep wine from air while fermenting. Sherry is an “oxidized” wine. Winemakers fill the casks only halfway and then put the bung (translation: “big ass stopper which closes a cask”) in loosely, so that the air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as 5% of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a bourbon tour can tell you, this is what’s called “The Angel’s Share.”
There’s also what they call the “Solera System” of aging, by which an aged cask may be drained of as much of a third of its contents, and then young wine, made in the same style, is added to refill the cask, thus “refreshing the mother wine.”
There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry. Cream sherries are sweet and are most commonly consumed (especially poured over ice cream) domestically. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well-chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. Truth be told, it was the Amontillado (as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of…”) that caught my eye and got me thinking about how best to do a tasting.
Sherry is traditionally served in Spain with tapas, of which I’m a big fan. We got some smoked salmon, made a fish chowder and cobbled together a sort of semi-bruschetta with fresh mozzarella and chorizo. We got three bottles of Sherry. There’s a saying in Spain regarding this wine: “We drink the dry and ship the sweet.” So, we picked up a Fino, a Manzanilla and (to satisfy my curiosity) an Amontillado.
We were … shall we say … surprised at what we found.
The first bottle we tried was Osborne Pale Dry Fino. The label doesn’t lie — this is a very light-colored wine. This sherry actually had a very nice nose — a nice scent of almond oil. The taste was very neutral and dry, and there wasn’t a lot of flavor to it — just a neutral alcohol taste that wasn’t too strong. I realized why dry sherry and tapas go together so well. This type of sherry would be an excellent palate cleanser. It cut right through the oil of the salmon, and if it could do that, it would also do the same with just about anything else. In addition, the high alcohol content would make for a good start to any evening. This was, by far, the most drinkable of our Sherries. I could actually see pouring a glass of this with food. A bottle goes for about $10.
We bowled up the chowder and poured the Savory & James Deluxe Pale Dry Manzanilla. Again, very pale in color. The taste and bouquet were somewhat similar to the Fino, although it seemed slightly “wetter.” It reminded me a little of sake, and if you like sake, I would imagine that you could pair this up with a plateful sushi and you’d be OK. Otherwise, well … not so much. We did a side by side with the Fino, and the Fino was markedly tastier. With the food, we quickly discovered that the chowder lacked something, so I poured in a few splashes of the Manzanilla. What a difference! The soup took on a whole new, tastier character with a little Manzanilla added. However, for my $10, I could buy three bottles of cooking sherry.
We read that the Amontillado was better served with slightly heavier foods, so we had it with the “semi-chetta.” After being a little disappointed with the first two Sherries, I was ready for an upswing. I wanted to know why poor Fortunado found himself shackled to a wall. We poured some Pedro Romero Amontillado. This wine was much darker than the other two. Since both Amontillado and Oloroso are aged longer, the tannins in the barrels impart a darker color to the drink. There’s a more pronounced bouquet — veering nearer to and reminding me very much of Madeira, being more sugary and nutty than the others.
From what I’ve read, Amontillado is supposed to be “darker and softer” than a Fino. I was interested — until I got the stuff in my mouth. Maybe I’m missing something, but this tasted like cooking sherry mixed subtly with paint thinner and lighter fluid.
I admit — I admit to my Sherry ignorance. Perhaps I don’t have the palate for it, or I just haven’t tried the good stuff, but this was pretty unpleasant (I’m open to suggestions for better ones!) With so much delicious Spanish wine out there — I don’t see putting more money into the Sherry region anytime soon.
And since the Sherry Experiment didn’t work out — we dug out some tasty selections from our cellar to more properly enjoy the evening. And no one got shackled to a wall.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at www.TheNakedVine.net.