Sherry is perhaps the most undervalued, unappreciated alcoholic drink in existence. How did this happen to Sherry? It is versatile, food-friendly, and offers exceptional value for money.
Sherry is made with the Palomino Fino grape, which is grown in chalky albariza ('snow white') soils in Jerez, located near the southern tip of Spain. The basic wine, which is low in acidity, is rather dull at this point - it is the next stage that gives Sherry its magic.
Sherries head down one of two paths: Finos, which are light and delicate, and Olorosos, which are darker and richer. After grape spirit is added, which fortifies the wine to not more than 15.5% for Fino and 17%-18% for Oloroso, depending on the style, a layer of flor (yeast) develops across the surface of a Fino, which protects it from oxidation, and ensures that it retains its subtle, pale appearance. Finos are bone-dry, but very refreshing, and should be served chilled.
Manzanillas are similar to Finos, but come from the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which has a more humid climate, so the layer of flor is thicker, and grows permanently. As such, the Sherry has a more appley character. Aged versions are known as Manzanilla Pasadas, and are nuttier with more concentration.
A style of Sherry which begins life as a Fino, but the winemaker allows the flor to die, thus exposing the wine to the air. Amontillados are amber in colour and have a nutty, dry to medium-dry character. They have more body than Finos, and are excellent with more robust dishes.
True Olorosos are rich and full bodied and either dry or sweetened by blending sweet wines, some made with sun-dried Pedro Ximénez grapes. A good Oloroso will have an alluring aroma (Oloroso means 'aromatic' in Spanish) of nuts, caramel and coffee, but no cloying sweetness.
The rarest style of Sherry, combining the fragrance of an Amontillado with the body of an Oloroso.
One of the richest and sweetest wines in the world, Pedro Ximénez is made from grapes of the same name that are dried in the sun after picking to concentrate the flavour. PX, as it is also known, has a thick, almost treacly texture, and an intense, rich flavour.
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A unique feature of Sherry production is the solera system. Sherries are not vintage-dated in the way that most wines are; instead, the oldest casks are frequently topped up with Sherries from younger casks to maintain a consistent style. Solera takes its name from suelo, meaning 'soil' or 'floor' in Spanish; in the bodega, the oldest casks will be those nearest the ground. Each year, a proportion of the oldest wines will be removed from barrel, and replaced with wine from the next-youngest batch, and so on. This ensures consistency, and the addition of younger wine helps to sustain the flor in Finos. And the fact that no more than one-third of the wine may be withdrawn in any one year means that the youngest Finos and Manzanillas will be at least three years old before they are released.
Fino: salted almonds, olives, anchovies, cured ham, paëlla
Manzanilla Pasada: richer dishes like crab
Amontillado: tuna stewed in onions, hard cheeses
Oloroso (dry): mature Cheddar, Parmesan
Oloroso (sweet): blue cheese, Christmas cake
Pedro Ximénez: chocolate desserts, Christmas pudding, vanilla ice cream