IT’S TIME TO GET REAL about sherry. Let’s not pretend we’re eating tapas in an expensively tiled bar every night, ordering a single-vineyard aged Manzanilla with a sharing plate of potted crab and Ibérico ham.
Let’s not get too hung up on its past, either. Yes, in certain parts of Northern Europe sherry has long been the genteel favorite of senior citizens, rather than a fashionable drink. But really, who cares? While we’re at it, there’s also the common misconception that sherry is sweet. In fact, apart from Pedro Ximénez, most varieties are dry.
The fortified wine is made in Andalusia, Spain’s southwestern Mediterranean region. Here, above the Bay of Cádiz, vines of the Palomino Fino grape are planted at altitude in chalky soils to produce a wine that is clear, dry and salty. Not only is it arguably Spain’s greatest wine, it’s also the most undervalued wine in the world. Some say shockingly so.
While I can’t ever imagine myself being comfortable walking into a wine shop and buying the cheapest bottle on offer-for red and white, I always look to trade up, avoiding the uniformed, branded commodity wines-with sherry I’m more than happy to stock my cellar with the big brands such as Antonio Barbadillo, Emilio Lustau or Gonzalez Byass. With no other wine is the difference in quality between the top and the bottom so minimal.
Some say sherry’s biggest problem is that people don’t know when to drink it. The answer is right now: When the temperature rises, sherry makes a wonderful aperitif. And because it’s such good value, you don’t need to worry too much about ordering a dud. All you need is a little knowledge about the various styles.
Finos and Manzanillas are your summer aperitifs. They are similar in style-refreshing and easy-to-drink-the main difference being that Manzanillas have a slightly saline quality. As a rule, they are both clear, with a crisp, dry, nutty tang and a complex taste of the wood they’re aged in.
Darker than Fino, Amontillado is amber-colored and has a nuttier, fuller flavor because of the way it’s made and the cask-ageing process. It can also work as an aperitif but is perhaps better in the winter as its heavier texture provides a warming drink.
Palo Cortado is a stronger-flavored, nuttier version of a Fino, while Oloroso is rich, spicy and nuanced-a wine to savor.
Use your imagination when pairing sherry with food. As well as the usual suspects-almonds, olives and dried meats-you can serve it with a cheese board, as a partner to roast chicken or even with sushi. I’ve also found that Manzanilla works with smoked salmon.
And the great news is you don’t need to spend anywhere near as much on sherry as you do on Bordeaux and Burgundy to get the same enjoyment: You’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than ?20. I’d start with Tio Pepe, a Fino, then try La Gitana and Pasada Pastrana Manzanillas before exploring a few Amontillados. Who knows? When the weather turns colder, you might want to try something sweet, like an aged Matusalem Oloroso.