Spotlight on: Sherry – ‘Wines for the 21st Century Drinker’

As whisky enthusiasts, we are often encouraged to drink more sherry, so let’s do just that! Through vintagewineandport.co.uk [for just £50], Sarah Jane Evans takes us through six sherries of varying styles.

Much like sake, sherry is to be shared and paired with food. “They all taste better with food”, says our host. Sarah follows that by giving us this gem of a guide for pairing sherries:

  • If it swims: fino or manzanilla [light dry white wines]
  • If it flies: amontillado or palo cortado [weightier styles]
  • If it runs: oloroso

Some examples:

  • Garlic mushrooms and fried fish – heavier fino or [older] manzanilla
  • Rice and shellfish can take something weightier like an amontillado
  • Asparagas – fino or a [richer] amontillado
  • Meat and potatoes – oloroso
  • Chocolate cake – PX

“A style for every lifestyle”, says Sarah.

Suggested serving temperatures:

  • Under-flor styles – fino manzanilla – chilled at 5-7 degrees
  • Oxidative wines at 12-14c
  • VOS and VORS [older wines] at 15c, perhaps

Region-wise, of the six sherries we are trying tonight, we have two manzanillas from Sanlucar de Barrameda, two wines from Jerez, and two very different wines – a young Fino and a 25yo PX – from Montilla-Moriles.

The six sherries we are tasting tonight are made from just two grapes. Four are made from Palomino and two from the sweeter PX grapes.

Compared to cooler coastal Jerez, inland Montilla-Moriles, ‘where the Pedro Ximenez grape is king’, sees “Albariza glistening soils consisting of clay, calcium and marine fossils”. Known as ‘the frying pan of Spain’, temperatures can easily reach in excess of 40c. In general, the wines here are not fortified, styles which include [under-flor] dry fino, Amontillado [in the Montilla style], oloroso, Palo Cortado and sweet Pedro Ximenez.

Sherry in general is typically aged in 600 litre casks, with a 500-litre fill level. Many wines are aged ‘under-flor’ – also referred to as ‘biological ageing’ – which offers a different chemical environment underneath the oxidised fermented layer [see pic above right], as opposed to oxidative ageing typical in the whisk[e]y and rum industries.

Let’s begin!

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We start with La Guita. So the story goes, traditionally, when people would ask for a glass of this sherry style, the original producer would enquire whether they had ‘guita’. Guita means cash, and also, guitar string. The distinctive string on the bottle between the seal and the label signifies these things.

La Guita [2020] Jose Estevez Manzanilla 15% [20cl]

independent: ‘Manzanilla: This sherry can only come from the seaside city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The flor is thicker and that salty coastal tang is evident in its taste’.

Our accompanying tasting notes say: ‘Made from 100% Palomino grapes grown in the lower part of Sanlucar, a small coastal growing region. Aged ‘under flor’ using the traditional Sanlucar de Barrameda system of criaderas and solera’ [a little on that later]. 

  • N: Sake vibes, subtle grape sweetness, apples [Sarah], a touch of pond water [flor?], a little lemon juice, olives > & brine of,.. 
  • T: Rounded, not overly dry, succulent mouthful. Rather like a flat cava or a fizzy sake to my sherry-amateur palate. More firm [green] olives and gentle yet clear lemon juice to balance, followed by further firm juiced citrusy fruits,..
  • F: ,… turning slightly salty with further hints of lemon juice and pear, with a flor finish. One of the wine makers recommends this with smoked salmon.
  • C: A nice one to start and one I readily came back to. I believe it’s aged around three years.

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Solear Barbadillo Manzanilla [2020] 15% [37.5cl] SN

Also from Sanlucar, this is a well-known Spanish brand. Sarah tells us this differs from La Guita due to where it’s made and how they age it. This sees six years+ of ageing under flor in different bodegas, the last stage occurring against a sea-facing wall of the Las Pastoras bodega in order to promote the saline character.

  • N: Slightly sweeter than the La Guita, rather refined, rounded, effortless balance,.. Notes then of olives, riper fruits, floral top notes, sugared almonds,…
  • T: Stupidly easy to drink and as refreshing as the La Guita if a touch sharper/affirmative on arrival. Being slightly drier, it carries through clean and light with slightly less flor-like ‘pong’. Becomes more salivating over light apple and lemon juice with a lactose touch – SN says ‘buttered toast’.
  • F: Cleaner dry finish.
  • C:Pretty much the epitome of Manzanilla‘, says SN. On their own, I prefer the nose of this yet the palate of the La Guita. With food, however, you can’t go wrong. With a curry perhaps? I try with curry and Chinese cuisine in the following days and recommend it with either. I could see myself buying both this and the La Guita again.

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We’re off to Montilla-Moriles now. From family-run bodegas Alvear – established 1729 and Montilla-Moriles’ oldest winery – this fino is made from 100% PX grapes. This +/- 5yo Fino CB is the flagship of Alvear and commonplace in Spain. From “the frying pan of Spain”, it is unfortified. ‘CB’ were the initials of Alvear’s wine master in the 19th century who used to sign his name on every barrel, so the story goes.

Fino CB [2020] Bodegas Alvear Montilla-Moriles 15% [37.5cl] SN

independent: ‘Fino: The classic dry sherry, pale in colour and a superb aperitif that has aged under a layer of yeast (or “flor”). In recent years it’s also been the basis for some splendid sherry cocktails.

  • N: Less citrus quality here compared to the previous two, with a nuttiness [fusty chestnuts and pistachio skin tannins] and a cheesiness – [grated] parmesan > distant Stinking Bishop and yeast flakes, mushroom powder, smelly socks,… drying Christmas cake,…
  • T: Refreshingly-dry with an olive cardboardy flor oddness, just a suggestion of yeast flakes on kale, and a touch of fungal chlorine. This one shows resilience on the palate with stronger flavour-driven foods. Indeed, compared to the manzanilla’s, this one has “more structure”, says Sarah, who recommends it with a strong [Manchega] cheese as an example.
  • F: After dry flor-borne notes, there’s a clean hum on apple/pear/olive sake vibes and a further bite of Christmas fruit cake.
  • C: ‘Flagship fino’ apparently. My least favourite of the first three on its own, but again, a very different experience with food. Works well with spicy food, managing to hold it’s own with very peppery and gingery Chinese food.

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Away from biological ageing [under-flor], the next three wines have seen oxidative ageing [aswell or instead of].

William & Humbert Collection 12yo [2020] Oloroso Don Zoilo 19% [37.5cl] SN

We’re back to Jerez with this dry oloroso procured from palomino grapes using controlled fermentation at 28c before being fortified with distilled wine alcohol up to 19.5% [often only 3-4% of the overall volume].

independent: ‘Oloroso: Either dry or sweet, this is a dark sherry with stronger more concentrated nutty and dried fruit flavours. A sherry to linger over’.

  • N: A light and dry oloroso, says Edward Butler [see video above]. Compared to the last three, it’s decidedly sweeter towards savoury, certainly. Notes of prunes, prune juice, leather, cling film, shoe polish, mince pies, port,… coconut water,…. caramelised onion, buttery dried figs,,,, a waft of emulsion. That’s plenty!
  • T: On the palate, I find it more plasticy > leathery [sofa shops] and bready with light well-diluted prune juice,… Turning acidic and dryer in taste [if not in mouthfeel], there’s plenty of [fungal fruity] lemon juice,…
  • F: ,… into a dry sourness, concluding like a dry savoury tawny port in part.
  • C: A malternative nose for sure, and as a whisky enthusiast, you can see why whisky makers gravitated towards this style over others. Sarah recommends trying this style as an alternative to red wine.

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Lustau Palo Cortado Península 19% [37.5cl] JXS

independent: ‘Palo Cortado: This started life as a fino or amontillado until, for some reason the flor disappeared leaving a sherry that’s less dry but with more depth of flavour. ‘Amontillado: A sherry that has been kept in the cask until the flor dies off, giving it a darker hue and a nuttier, less dry flavour’.

Made from 100% palomino grapes and with an average of 12 years ageing, this wine brings the finesse and delicacy of an amontillado with the richness and body of an oloroso. Furthermore, it’s seen under-flor and oxidative ageing.

  • N: A touch sweeter compared to the previous oloroso, you can see why whisky makers might also gravitate to these casks. Bunnahabhain brought out a 20yo in 2018, matured in an ex-Palo Cortado cask, and it was fantastic [WLP88]. Notes for this Lustau include leafy/fungal/earthy blanched almonds, poppadoms, fig-laced carrot cake,… so one for the aroma treasure hunters.
  • T: Well worth trying the oloroso first, as this feels like a step up. With a weightier body to what’s gone before, there’s an acidic fruity juicy dryness to this one, the sugars manifesting in rather subtle ways.
  • F: Drying further with a detectable peppery oakiness.
  • C: Worth it for the nose alone, Sarah recommends pairing this with a curry, encouraging us to move away from pairing sherry with the more obvious European foods.

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Toro Albala 1994 [2020] Don PX Gran Reserva Montilla-Morilles [btl #033] 17% [25cl]

Jose Maria Toro is a small wine grower, ‘known for producing aged wines for demanding palates’.

independent: Pedro Ximénez: ‘Unlike the sherries above which are made using the palomino grape, this is made using the grape which gives this style its name, usually shortened to just “PX”. This sweet grape is left longer on the vine and then dried in the sun to an almost raisin-like state. Sweet and luscious it’s a superb dessert wine.

  • N: Like a liqueur, albeit a clean one, we’ve grape must, pomegranate juice, hints of chopped hazelnuts/pistachios, harks to rum,… it’s a delight.
  • T: Refreshingly, not a weighty as expected from the nose, with plenty of fungal < [pistachio] nut skin which makes it dry – texturally – against the concentrated dried apricot, raisins, figs, date sweetness,… A drop of lemon juice attempts to lift the sweetness.
  • F: Sticky sugar-sweet grape and nut skin,…. 
  • C: Sweet yet with all these savoury undertones, this is rather a special vintage. With 25 years of ageing in 550 litre casks, £20 for half a bottle sounds rather reasonable. Given it’s estimated there are around 60 grams of sugar in a litre, kept cool, a bottle should last a year.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

Once seen as an old ladies drink, “things are changing”, says Sarah. With the large majority of bodegas owned by a few large corporations [much like cognac, whisky, rum,..], Sarah tells us that bespoke independent bodegas are emerging once again and that these makers and their vineyards are beginning to earn deserved recognition.

“What did we miss anything out”, asks Sarah? What of sherry in cocktails? Recommended with ginger beer, I try it. it’s good!

A brief final word about the Solera system. The word solera from soelo which means ground. Solera refers, then, to the cask nearest the floor.

independent: Solera system:Huge casks are housed in ground-level wine cellars called bodegas. When wine is taken out for bottling it’s replaced by younger wine from the cask above‘. See VIDEO below [from 1.23]

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The take-away is to try a number of sherries side by side, pairing, sharing, and comparing. Try with varied foods as an alternative to your usual glass of vino or in cocktails, and most of all, have fun with it!

With thanks to Sarah and everybody involved in producing this eye-opening tasting.

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END

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Sherry – ‘Wines for the 21st Century Drinker’

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