I am an old woman, and I'm not afraid to admit it: I have been known to open a bottle of sherry and enjoy it. But I don't keep a bottle stuffed between the sofa cushions, and my other hobbies don't include cross stitch, Wheel of Fortune and going to bed at 7:30 p.m. I don't have snow white, poofy hair, but I still like sherry. It's a crying shame that sherry, the pride of Andalucía, gets maligned as a tipple for tipsy old ladies. It's time to change all that.
Sherry is a racy drink, and its fortified to be a boozy one. Sometimes its sweet, and sometimes it isn't. It is made in the Jerez region in southern Spain and comes in four main styles of increasing sweetness and heaviness: fino (also called manzanilla), palo cortado, amontillado, and oloroso. In this space I'm going to take on fino and amontillado. They can be the lightest, driest and the most non-Grandma-like, and therefore the easiest to sell to you sophisticates - they also happen to be my favorites.
And what's not to like! The growing regions in Southern Spain - Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and Puerto de Santa María - were first established by the Phoenicians in 1110 BC. Sanlúcar de Barrameda was an important town for transatlantic voyages in the 15th century, and so it is likely that sherry was the first wine brought to North America. This makes it suitable for Thanksgiving and other patriotic holidays.
This illustrious history got run off the rails by the British, who started adding sweeteners to poor-quality sherries and giving it a foul moniker: "cream." It's a rare case of bad taste in alcohol for the Brits, who we can also thank for the popularity of port and claret. But the damage was done, and by the time sherry became the house drink at nursing homes everywhere it was all over. It's not that sweet sherries are a travesty - the dark, syrupy ones made from the Pedro Ximénez grape are fine dessert wines - it's just that the bad ones are so often sweet.
Back in sunny Andalucía, fino sherry is made differently than other wines. First, it is fortified with grape spirit to add character to the palomino grape. When the juice is aged, the sherry casks are not completely filled to allow the growth of a yeast called flor, or "flower." To keep the yeast alive during the maturation process, the sherry is placed within the solera system, which circulates the wine among many barrels of different vintages. The constant influx of new wine keeps the flor from being killed off by the alcohol, so that it continues to impart flavor to the wine. This has the added benefit of keeping the wine at a consistent style. About a third of the wine is drawn off every year, bottled and shipped to market. It is replenished with new juice from the most recent harvest, and the process begins again.
Of the sherry styles, amontillado is my favorite. It's darker, richer and nuttier than fino, which is ethereally light. Amontillado is just a fino that has been exposed to oxygen and is fortified to a slightly higher alcohol content so that the flor dies. Good sherry producers include Gonzales Byass, Tío Pepe and Lustau; I've also had all of the offerings from Bodegas Dios Baco and thought all of them were great, particularly the amontillado. A bottle from any of these companies will cost you about $15-$20.
For a completely non-traditional sherry, I picked up the fino made by Alvear. It's a fino en rama, or aged in casks before bottling rather than being run through the solera system. Mine was a 2003 from Montilla Moriles. This region has mostly been producing wines from Pedro Ximénez since it was given its Denominación de Origen in 1945; Palomino has not been very successful there, and it has always been considered a minor DO because it is too far from the sea for flor to flourish.
Clearly Alevar is set on changing that reputation. Their fino has a darker color, pale straw rather than lemon-hued. It's hefty and yeasty on the nose, with hints of golden raisin and a bit of ripe pear. It's a recognizable fino but is weightier and more savory due to the PX grape. Unlike a standard fino, the Alevar is best when the refrigerator chill has a chance to fade somewhat.
Now that I have the bottle open I'll have to have friends over for tapas. Sherry is best as an aperitif, drunk with little salty things like olives, anchovies, Serrano ham and Manchego cheese. I'll tell them they're drinking pinot grigio until they've had enough sherry to admit that it can respectably be appreciated by the under-30 set.