Hey! Another column on cooking wine. Right?! Isn’t sherry that stuff in dust covered bottles
on the bottom rack of the supermarket wine section that’s only used for cooking… or skid row?
Seriously, no one actually drinks sherry, right?! Oh, maybe the small handful of spinsters that
also spike their elderberry wine served to guests, right?! Well, if you feel that way you’re missing
out (in my humble opinion) on a great aperitif that also pairs nicely with a wide range of foods.
And perchance if you do have leftovers, it can be stored for deglazing any pan.
My first gustatory encounter with sherry was at some unnamed Bed & Breakfast in wine country
– unnamed because it was many moons ago, too many moons and B & B’s have passed for me to
remember every one. Though I still remember the encounter like some illicit tryst that you kept
to yourself. After all, my original impression of sherry was like that of many readers, sherry just
wasn’t something you drank. Cooking with it was fine but box wine had a better reputation
than sherry as a beverage. Until I poured a glass left out by the proprietors on the buffet. Maybe
it was the fancy crystal they left for guests to serve themselves. Maybe it was the etched crystal
decanter that contained the sherry or stainless vessel with ice water keeping the sherry cool.
Maybe it was just that any liquid beverage in Wine Country looks appealing and I’m simply a
lush. Ok, guilty as charged but after a sip of Fino sherry with some salted California almonds and
cheese left on said buffet immediately converted me to a sherry believer.
What is Sherry?
Sherry is a fortified wine produced in the Spanish region of Jerez; in fact the word “sherry” is an
anglicanization of Jerez. With a temperate climate, rolling hills and the Atlantic Ocean in close
proximity, the Palomino grape thrives in the area though grape cultivation is just one factor in
the production of sherry. The chalky white soils that retain moisture during the hot summer
months produce a neutral white wine that is perfect for the production of sherry. Oxidation,
fortification and the “solera” technique are the other factors needed in producing the perfect
sherry. And sherry is not just sherry; there are many different styles of sherry from the light and
almost spritzy Fino sherries all the way up to the black-as-midnight Pedro Ximenez sherries.
And everything in between. What all sherry does have in common is they are all fortified with
distilled spirits to increase alcohol from 11 to 12% up to 15 to 22%, a certain degree of oxidation
present in the finished product and mixing aged sherry with new sherry via the “solera” process
to produce a unique though underappreciated beverage.
The lightest of all sherries in color and body, they are bone dry and fortified to just to the 15%
range to allow a fine layer of yeast or “flor” to cover the exposed top layer of liquid while aging
thus minimizing oxidation of the wine. If you’ve never tried sherry, this would be the place to
start. At 15% alcohol, it’s only as “potent” as the ripest California chardonnays but it’s like a
combination of Chablis (due to the minerality of the wine), Albarino (due to the balancing
acidity) and Sauvignon Blanc (same type of mouth feel). It also pairs with most seafood like
other white wines but due to the slight oxidative qualities, also is excellent with almonds,
especially the Spanish Marcona almonds (available at Safeway and Costco) and saltier foods like
olives, air cured hams (Serrano ham and Prosciutto) and crumbly cheeses.
Like an amber colored Fino sherry, Manzanilla sherry also began life under a cap of “flor” though
as the flor subsides, the oxidation begins which produces the amber hue and also gives the sherry
a nuttier nose and richer mouth feel. Primarily linked to the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda at
the mouth of the Guadaiquivir River, Manzanilla sherry is like a Fino sherry in its own unique
style. Also a dry sherry, Manzanilla pairs with the same type of foods as Fino sherry though
pairs exceptionally well with the air cured hams of Spain.
Also starting life as a Fino sherry, Amontillado eventually loses its “flor” cap partly due to its
higher alcohol level (> 16%) and eventually takes on a fine amber or reddish brown hue and
richness not found in Fino or Manzanilla sherry. The nutty and dried citrus peel qualities are up
front so the wine understandably pairs with heartier faire like fattier seafood, mushrooms and
soups and consommés.
Since Oloroso sherry is fortified to at least 17% alcohol, the cap of “flor” never really forms on
the surface of the aging wine so that it takes on the darkest hue, almost mahogany and develops
the richest and complex flavor characteristics. Toasted nuts, wood notes and earthy tones are all
in there as well as a glycerin, palate coating richness to the wine not found in the previous
sherries. As far as food, think hearty meats and slow braised, collagen rich cuts like oxtail. In
fact my Kim Chi Braised Oxtail would do this wine proud. Along with aged cheese and
There also are several sweetened sherries that start life as Fino or Manzanilla sherry but have
added concentrated sweet grape must (sweet grape pulp) added to the blend to give a touch of
sweetness to the sherry. I won’t elaborate on these wines as dessert wines are material for one or
two more columns. I will put a brief plug in for Pedro Ximenez sherry which is produced from
Pedro Ximenez grapes (as opposed to the Palomino grape used in most other sherries). Pedro
Ximenez produces a black-as-midnight wine with more of a caramel sweetness than sugar
sweetness (if that makes any sense). But it is THE wine for dark chocolate. No, make that the
ONLY wine for dark chocolate. A small glass of Pedro Ximenez and bittersweet chocolate
truffles… can you say “died and gone to heaven”? But to elaborate would be material for that
Not Just for Spinsters
So the next time you bypass that supermarket aisle with those dusty bottles of sherry, that’s
fine with me. But don’t bypass your local wine shop’s sherry selection. Because it unfortunately
is associated with cooking, prices aren’t bad. In fact they’re very good. A good bottle of sherry
will only set you back $12 to $20 dollars. And when you just can’t find that perfect wine to pair
with salty dishes… or nuts… or roasted root vegetables… that one wine has been there all
along. Sherry, that other white (or amber) wine. And as an added bonus, opened bottles of
sherry keep nicely in the refrigerator for 1 or 2 weeks and older leftovers can still be used for
cooking. Try saying the same about an open bottle of Dom Perignon.
A Spot of Sherry