When I thought of sherry, my mind drifted to sweet little white-haired ladies sipping from thimbles. Then I tried a glass and gained some serious new respect for these hearty women. My first dry, high-alcohol sherry reminded me of nail-polish remover. Being an alcohol wimp, I mostly restrict my imbibing to wine and beer, since scotch and the like pretty much make me wretch. (Note: This harks back to childhood when my adventurous friend Ashley and I mixed orange juice and six different spirits into one large, vile concoction and drank it all; needless to say, we didn't eat for two days and orange juice has never tasted the same.) But until I explored the different types of sherry -- there are 12 altogether -- I thought they fell into that same stomach-turning category. I was wrong.
Sherry is a fortified wine, like port, made from white grapes in southern Spain. There are basically two types of sherry that might concern us sherry neophytes: dry and sweet styles. Dry varieties are fino, amontillado, manzanilla, and oloroso. Smelling faintly of nuts and pungent alcohol, these are for the strong-of-stomach. By adding a sweetener to these dry versions, the winemaker creates sweet sherry, called pale cream or just cream sherry. These are more like port wines -- with rich raisin, roasted nut, and caramel flavors. I swim in these waters.
Sherries are made like normal table wines until their fermentation process is complete. After fermentation, they're fortified with grape-based spirits such as brandy and left in barrels. While they're maturing, a yeast called "flor" develops on the wines' surface, which helps prevent oxidation. The thickness of the flor determines the style of sherry each barrel will produce: The thicker the flor, the drier the sherry.
Next the sherry is added to a "solera" for blending. In the unique, traditional solera system, several rows of small oak barrels are stacked on top of each other, with the oldest wines on the bottom. When it's time to bottle, a certain amount of each barrel on the bottom row is removed and replaced with sherry from the row immediately above it. This process continues until a complete transfer is made from top to bottom. In this way, consistent character and quality can be achieved from year to year, and they aren't bothered by vintage years.
Here are some ground rules for enjoying sherry. If you're seeking the dry varieties, find stores that have a high turnover of sherry, since the freshest are the best. Likewise, when ordering by the glass in restaurants, inquire as to how long the bottle has been opened. Drink sherry as soon as possible after opening -- within a week for dry sherries and within a month for sweet ones.
Recork the bottle immediately after serving to preserve the wine's freshness, and store it upright in the refrigerator. Finos should be served very cold. Amontillados, olorosos, and cream sherries are best at just below room temperature.
Sherry is okay by itself, but it's even better with food. Finos complement tapas, seafood, and soups, while amontillado and oloroso go well with spicy foods, nuts, and strong Spanish cheeses like Manchego. Serve sweet sherries as dessert or with equally sweet desserts.
Harvey's Bristol Cream -- This Kendall Jackson of sherries fared quite well in a blind taste test. Deliciously sweet and creamy, nutty and caramel-y, like a Spanish flan. Cheap too, making this exploration not so intimidating. $9
Alvear's Cream Montilla -- A fantastic sherry. The label looks like my grandfather bottled it in his garage, but the contents are not amateur. Unctuous like liquid pecan pie, with burnt caramel, sweet honey, and an everlasting, lingering flavor of roasted nuts. Amazing deal. $10