Sherry, sherry baby

It’s more than just cooking

By Mike Rosenberg

Photo: Flor, a solid layer of yeast, develops on the bottom of a sherry cask

While the Sweet Partner in Crime and I have been enjoying our recent Tapas Tuesdays kick, I received an offer to sample a few bottles of sherry. Sherry’s popularity peaked in the 1970s in the U.S., when every household seemed required by law to keep a bottle of cream sherry around for nightcaps and highballs. I cook with sherry all the time—it’s a fundamental component of many of my sauces and no chowder is complete without at least a splash of the stuff.

Neither are the sherries regularly found in tapas bars and Spanish restaurants around the world. The “drinking sherries” are somewhat more carefully constructed, usually quite old and have a small yet passionate following in the world of small plates.

Years ago, back when blogging was considered cutting edge and I was just beginning my wine education, I did a rundown of the major types of sherry. I can honestly say that, at the time, none of the various styles agreed with my palate. Fast forward a bit, now that I’ve become slightly more refined in experience if not in practice, and I hoped the passage of years might have made me more appreciative of the stuff.

Before I get to that, though—let’s talk for a moment about what sherry is. The name “Sherry” is an Anglicized version of “Jerez” (pronounced “zhe-RETH”)—the region in Spain from where this tipple hails.

Sherry is a type of fortified wine, which makes it a cousin to port, Marsala and Madeira. In WineSpeak—a “fortified” wine means that the winemaker’s gone and added a bunch more alcohol, usually a neutral spirit like brandy, after the grapes have been fermented. This additional alcohol prevents the wine from spoiling, and allows the wine to be aged in barrel for a long period of time. Most Sherries are between 15-22 percent alcohol. Sherry is made largely from the Palomino grape, but other grapes called Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel are used in sweeter varieties.

Sherry has a fascinating method of production. Winemakers fill the large casks, known as butts about 80 percent full—and then put the bung (translation: “big ass stopper which closes a cask”) in loosely, so air can circulate during fermentation. While in the barrel, as much as five percent of the wine evaporates. As any veteran of a distillery tour can tell you, this is what’s called “The Angel’s Share.”

During the aging process, many types of sherry develop a solid layer of yeast, known as flor, on the surface of the wine in the barrel. This yeast layer slows the process of oxidation as the wine ages, preserving certain aspects of the flavor, as well as adding certain compounds called acetylaldehydes, which give Sherry its “sharp” aroma.

As a part of the aging process, Sherry producers use what is called the “Solera System.” Solera is Spanish for “on the ground.” In this process, as much of a third of a cask of sherry is drained and bottled, and the butt is refilled with younger wine made in the same style. This process is known as “refreshing the mother wine,” and maintains consistency in the product from year to year. Sherries are aged a minimum of three years before bottling.

There are five basic types of sherry: Fino and Manzanilla are dry. Amontillado is aged for a minimum of eight years and is dry to medium dry. Oloroso is also a medium dry sherry which is produced without the flor. Cream sherry is sweet. Fino and Manzanilla are made to be served well chilled. The others can be chilled slightly. (Also, Cream sherry is often poured over vanilla ice cream.)

I received two bottles—Emilio Hidalgo Fino ($14) and Faraón Oloroso ($17)—to try alongside our Tuesday slate of various yummies.

Back to my hope for an evolution of my palate. The last time I did a sherry tasting was somewhere in 2007. Eight years later, I can honestly say that my sherry palate is largely unchanged. I just don’t think I’m programmed to appreciate it, as someone who has it as a “house spirit” on a regular basis would. The old “acquired taste” cliché applies firmly.

The Fino, which was my favorite of the two, had a nice floral nose and an almost olive brine-type flavor. It was the most drinkable on its own, and it paired OK with the various olives and spreads we’d assembled for dinner. But I wouldn’t exactly seek out that drinking experience. The Oloroso—I simply wasn’t a fan. The darker, oxidized flavor had a nutty characteristic that was interesting—but it was largely overwhelmed by the jet fuel-y alcohol flavor.

I’m sure that there are many out there with more sophisticated Sherry palates who might be able to guide me through the cultivation of an understanding of the stuff, but on my own, it just didn’t really resonate. There are so many good Spanish reds and whites—not to mention my beloved sparkler cava—which I would turn to in a tapas bar ahead of either of these.

That said, with the broad range of flavors and aromas in tapas—a higher-alcohol wine like this would be able to cut through most flavors. If you’d been out and found yourself at a tapas bar in the wee smalls, you might consider a glass of this to keep your evening rolling. As for me, bring me that split of cava and I’ll be a happy man.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at TheNakedVine.net.

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