The magic of sherry

I love sherry. It makes a beautiful and sophisticated start to any evening. There’s a bar in Madrid that serves nothing else, and when we visited we had an amazing night.

Maybe it’s something in the Andalusian soul that seeps into the grapes, something to do with careful aging in quiet bodegas or just that my sherry glasses are so lovely, but sherry seems to have an air of calm and quiet about it. Whether I’m drinking manzanilla or fino under the July sun or sipping an oloroso or amontillado by the fireside at our friend Chris's flat in November, I find there’s something inherently mindful about the experience.

Image: S Fogarty
I never serve sweet sherry as an aperitif. I may be influenced by remembering something awful in a schooner with a cherry across the top in a Merseyside restaurant, circa 1986. More likely, it’s simply that the best sweet sherry, Pedro Ximinès, is simply too sweet to really benefit the appetite and sits much better as an accompaniment to nuts and dried fruits as an afternoon treat, or an alternative to port with salty blue cheese.

All dry sherry is made from white grapes. What gives darker sherries their distinctive colour and nutty taste is oxidation, the chemical reaction that takes place when wine is exposed to air. In any other wine, this would be a bad thing, but centuries of learning, skill and careful handling have shown sherry producers how to control the process in ways that actually benefit the wine. The lighter, fresher varieties are sometimes aged almost as long, but have spent their entire life under a film of flor, a yeast that grows naturally in the Andalusian climate, preventing the oxidation and leaving the wines tasting as fresh and young as when they were first fermented. With palo cortado sherries, the flor has been broken part way through the aging process, to leave some freshness but also to allow a slight nuttiness to develop. The best of both worlds, you could say.
Image: S Fogarty

If I’m serving sherry, as I did at a dinner to celebrate the wonderful culinary heritage of Andalusia some years ago, I will always serve Spanish foods to nibble on. Nothing beats anchovy-stuffed olives, air-dried ham and salted almonds with a bold, dry fino. For the coastal manzanilla wines, with their slightly salty tang, try boquerones (marinated anchovy fillets), or mojama cured tuna. Amontillado and oloroso sherries have a darker taste, reminiscent of nuts, fresh mushrooms and a touch of spice. These wines go really well with Spanish cured meats like lomo and chorizo. Why not be courageous and serve morcilla, the gorgeous, garlic- and wine-laden black pudding of the area?

Image: S Fogarty

Next time: Madeira and other fortified wines


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