Why You Need To Know Sherry Better
Sherry is a wine category that is largely under-regarded in the drinking world at large and even in the fine wine world, partially because it has still not recovered from a period of mediocre quality in the late 20th century, and partially because it is so easily misunderstood. But the winemaking of Jerez is equally […]
Sherry is a wine category that is largely under-regarded in the drinking world at large and even in the fine wine world, partially because it has still not recovered from a period of mediocre quality in the late 20th century, and partially because it is so easily misunderstood.
But the winemaking of Jerez is equally intriguing in its process and results: Jerez wines are far from some universally sweet, plummy, dessert syrup as most of us conceive it. There is a great deal of variety and complexity, and their pairability is also impressive.
I got to enjoy a Jerez Wine Dinner with Bodegas Emilio Lustau a few weeks ago Jaleo by Jose Andres at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and it was really a great way for me to get to know Sherry better.
First of all, some quick background: ‘Sherry’ is just an adaptation of Jerez, known as a center of winemaking since the Middle Ages, although Sherry’s height in popularity came in the 19th Century, when it was particularly popular in England (The English probably remain the most passionate and knowledgable about Jerez wine today, although like everywhere it has much reduced). Sherry was arguably nearly extinct when a law change in 1997 allowed independent winemakers who had their own Almacenistas (aging warehouses) to bottle their own product rather than be forced to sell it for larger, less personalized blends.
Lustau in particular focuses on this element, which shows a lot more variety in Jerez wine than previously well known. Jerez wines are aged in a variety of methods, roughly delineated into Flor (a floating yeast) and Oxidation. Fino, Palo Cortado, Manzanilla and Amontillado (Palomino grapes) are all aged with flor. Oloroso (Palomino), Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez (named after their grapes) are all aged with Oxidation.
We started with a Rebujito, which is nothing more than a fino sherry spritzer, light and refreshing and slightly sweet—paired to Jamon Iberico de bellota with imported crispy pan de cristal bread, a little classic pan con tomate, and fried baby squids from Cadiz.
The next taste was Manzanilla Papirusa, a fino from the seaside, where the ocean air gives it a slight brininess making it a natural pair for seafood like the course of sea urchin and Iberico bacon on bread.
Then came Fino Jarana, another remarkably light crisp sherry, delicate with a lot of compelling nutty notes on the nose—paired with a gorgeous cold salad of lobster, preserved tuna, Spanish trout roe, potatoes and mayonnaise.
The fourth of our seven courses brought Amontillado Los Arcos, also made with Palomino Fino grapes but extensively aged after the flor is removed, giving it an amazingly rich nose of herbs, almonds, raisins, and even lemon custard (followed by a surprisingly dry, restrained mouth) which proved a great contrast to a dramatically presented dish of cold smoked Iberico with more Norwegian lobster and olive tapenade, revealed in a cloud of cigar smoke.
Next was my personal favorite, Palo Cortado Peninsula, a very unusual Sherry that, as Lustau explains themselves “begins as a fino, but mysteriously loses its flor early, continuing its maturation like an Oloroso,” and extensively aged. Again, an abundant nose of bread, baking spices, tree nuts, and citrusy sweetness is followed by a light, clean mouth which was paired with more baby Cadiz octopus, this time served with fried organic egg and onions.
The last savory course, a steak of “Secreto Iberico” served with a roasted onion, Valdeon blue cheese, pine nut praline, and sauces, was paired with yet another take on Palomino Fino, the Oloroso Don Nuno, an oxidized version which again led with a rich nose of caramel, raisins and walnuts or hazelnuts, leading to a full bodied rich but still acidic mouth, excellent for the pork.
Last came the classic style of Pedro Ximenez sherry that we know best in the US, the East India Solera (blended with Palomino Fino from a variety of solera casks, then put in its own solera and further aged 3-5 years, full of all the figgy, creamy sweetness that you want in a Cream sherry. The pairing was a ball of creamy Torta Pascualete raw sheep’s milk cheese with quince and fig spreads, and a perfectly light Spanish flan with espuma of Catalan cream, and oranges.
Lustau has been encouraging the revival of Jerez wines as a modifier in cocktails, which I think is a great idea as an alternative to too many sweet liqueurs and even amaro and vermouths, adding greater complexity (especially on the nose) and savory notes. Try them!