Dulce or seco, Spanish sherry is divine

Nuanced flavourful drink is experiencing a renaissance

  • Apr. 22, 2019 11:20 a.m.

– Story by Jane Zatylny Photographs by Lia Crowe

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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Until recently, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about sherry. I knew my mother occasionally poured herself a small glass to help her sleep. I knew it added richness and depth to my French onion soup recipe. But most of all, I knew I could never enjoy drinking it because it just was too sweet.

I was wrong.

“Most people tell me that same story,” says Emily Henderson, partner and general manager of Victoria’s Bodega Tapas and Wine Bar.

As she sets out several small glasses of sherry and little dishes of almonds, olives, blue cheese and sliced ham, she explains why this fortified wine is so misunderstood: “People just don’t really give sherry a chance. Typically, their only experience with it is their granny’s sherry, which may have been super sweet, or maybe they tried a sherry that had gone bad.”

Emily didn’t know much about sherry herself when Bodega first opened in 2014.

“It was having a bit of a renaissance, so we thought it would be fun to highlight it on our menu,” she says. Now a serious enthusiast, Emily sees sherry as a remarkable, regionally specific drink. “It’s had a bad rap for a long time, but it’s so nuanced and it’s just meticulously made,” she says.

Emily has also converted members of her staff, like bartender Chili Berisoff.

“I didn’t know anything about sherry until I met Emily,” says Chili. “Sherry has unlocked a whole new world for me. It’s trained my palate and made food so much more pleasurable.”

Sherry has been produced in southern Spain’s “Sherry Triangle” since about 700 AD. The main production towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María offer chalky soil and a unique microclimate that is ideal for aging, storing and blending the fortified wine. Naturally occurring yeasts, known as flor, are an essential component of the sherry-making process and impart sherry with its trademark nutty flavour.

There are six different types of sherry — fino, manzanilla, amontillado, oloroso, cream and Pedro Ximénez. Most of the paler, drier varieties are made from Palomino grapes, while the sweeter, richer sherries are made from Pedro Ximénez and Muscat grapes.

To separate the wheat from the chaff, Emily provides pairing guidelines to her staff to help patrons choose a sherry.

“We tell them, ‘If it grows, pair with a fino. If it swims, pair with a manzanilla. If it flies, chose an amontillado. If it runs, try an oloroso or a palo cortado. And if it’s blue cheese or dessert, try a Pedro Ximénez.’”

But there aren’t really any hard and fast rules for pairings, she says.

“A lot of it is individual taste. A fino can be equally great with seafood or a salad.”

I’m intrigued as I slowly lift a pale-coloured sherry called Hidalgo Fino Clasica to my lips. I savour its dry, tart-apple notes then pop a plump Cerignola olive into my mouth. The pairing is incredible: the briny, refreshing sherry perfectly complements the buttery flavour of the mild, meaty olive. I know one thing for certain: This isn’t your grandmother’s sherry.

Nor are the dozen or so other sherries Bodega offers by the glass on its drinks menu.

“It’s amazing how much they vary from one another,” Emily says. “Some are salty and very dry, while others are so sweet you can pour them over ice cream.”

Bodega serves sherry flights of three one-ounce pours so beginners and connoisseurs can compare a range of sherry styles.

“The more you learn about sherry, the more you appreciate it,” Emily says.

Both fino and manzanilla sherries are biologically aged in barrels covered by a layer of the flor yeast. Manzanilla sherry, a fino that’s sent to age on the coast, has a distinctive briny note.

“If skinny dipping had a flavour, this would be it,” says Emily.

Amontillado is aged under the flor, then exposed to the air, giving it a darker quality and a more complex flavour. Oloroso, palo cortado and Pedro Ximénez sherries are called oxidative sherries, meaning that they are all exposed to oxygen. Oloroso sherries are exposed for a longer period of time than other sherries, giving them their dark, rich flavour and higher alcohol content. Palo cortado is a rare sherry that’s blended in a similar way to amontillado and oloroso sherries, while dark mahogany or black sweet sherries are made by fermenting either Moscatel or Pedro Ximénez grapes.

Next up for me though is Lustau Los Arcos, a dry amontillado. This type of sherry is aged entirely under its yeast flor; all of its nutty, yeasty flavour comes from this biological aging process. Smooth, light, soft in tone, Los Arcos’s aftertaste imparts a faint hazelnut flavour that seems to go on for days. It is perfection paired with a single slice of the house Schinkenspeck ham.

Then it’s onto Nutty Solera, a medium sherry that tastes a bit like burnt sugar and offers a smooth finish.

“We playfully call this one the ‘gateway’ sherry, because it tastes like maple syrup on pancakes,” says Emily. “It’s great paired with our confit almonds, and also with chorizo.”

My next sample is the Hildago Triana PX. Pedro Ximénez (or “PX”) grapes are sun-dried before fermentation, which gives these sherries their sweetness. PX wines are also blended with other sherries to create medium and cream sherries. I try this elixir with a few crumbs of blue cheese for a delicious riot of salty, sour and sweet flavours. Then Chili appears and offers me a single stewed fig. Its signature sweetness pairs beautifully with the palo cortado’s toffee, prune, raisin, black tea and pistachio flavour notes.

The last taste of the day is the crema de la crema, a 30-year-old palo cortado called Apostoles. Like all sherries, Apostoles is produced in a cascading “solera” system of maturation barrels that blend young wine with old. The young wine feeds the flor, and in this case, each wine that is added to the barrels is at least 30 years old.

“This sherry is like an exclamation point after a meal,” says Emily. “It can also be enjoyed all by itself.”

And this is how I experience this precious final glass of sherry. Dry, but smooth as silk, Apostoles offers complex notes of almond, maple, apricot and citrus.

Despite its renaissance in recent years, this distinguished, historic wine remains an enigma, something Emily and her staff are working hard to change. My experience at Bodega has certainly altered my perception of sherry, so much so that I now find myself dreaming about exploring sherry in its birthplace. As 19th-century Spanish novelist Pedro Antonio de Alarcón y Ariza once said: “The destiny of a thousand generations is concentrated in each drop. If the cares of the world overwhelm you, only taste it, pilgrim, and you will swear that heaven is on earth.”

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