Sweet as sherry

Sherry is the most complicated fortified wine in the world.

Sherry is the most complicated fortified wine in the world.

Everything old is new again, including the most retro of drinks. Ben Canaider raises his glass to an old favourite.

Sherry? I hear you say. Sherry? Some people still seem a little surprised that this fortified wine is something of the flavour of the month. Yet sherry’s return to the trendoid end of the drinks market is now well-established. There are a number of reasons for its steady re-mise over the last seven years or so, and in order to understand how to better serve and sell sherry, it is worth considering them.

First of all however, a quick outline of this wine style.

Sherry invariably starts life as a white wine. This sounds simple enough, but from here on, sherry becomes the most complicated fortified wine in the world.

Take some white grapes; crush, press and ferment them into a dry white wine, then put it through one of many different barrel maturation processes and you’ll eventually have one of many different types of sherry—from the dry and pale end of the spectrum (fino or manzanilla), through to medium bodied, aromatic varieties (oloroso), to the unctuously sweet and rich, yet balanced, dark sherries made for wrestling after dinner (Pedro Ximenez).

Fino or manzanilla sherry—the palest and driest of all types—owe their nuttiness and tang to a yeast flor that grows over the liquid’s surface once it is placed in a not-quite-full barrel. Not only does this flor layer protect the wine from oxidation, but it also consumes whatever nutrients remain in the wine—thereby making it dryer, lifted, exotically perfumed and, well, quite a strange little drop when you think about it. Fino sherry is this remarkable half-creature.

It almost sits somewhere between a fresh, wooded chardonnay and excellent vermouth. A chilled glass of manzanilla or fino with some gazpacho or prawns and the world is your smoked oyster.

Leave fino sherry in barrel for a much longer period and you end up with a much richer and darker product—amontillado. This is another great pre-prandial drink, or an excellent accompaniment to autumnal soup: anything from a rich and creamy tomato to an earthy pumpkin. Ideally, serve amontillado somewhere between chilled and room temperature—preferably alongside dead things on toast, which are otherwise known as tapas.

Other styles of sherry develop no flor barrier in the barrel and, therefore, become more deeply coloured and a little more richly flavoured. Take oloroso sherry. Because there’s no flor protection in oloroso barrels, these wines have to be fortified to a higher strength than the lighter, paler sherries. Whereas fino, for instance, might weigh in at about 15 per cent alc/vol, oloroso is usually closer to the 20 per cent mark. The depth and pungency of good oloroso means it makes for excellent post-meal drinking—which some of us like to do in that awkward hour between lunch and dinner. A cold evening, a fire in the hearth and a glass of oloroso makes everyone a better person.

For those who prefer their sherry with the consistency of molten bitumen, look no further than the mighty PX.

No, it’s not a failed chemical formula, but an abbreviation for Pedro Ximenez. This grape variety is left out in the sun before processing to concentrate the sugars. The effect is a treacly wine that almost needs mechanical help dislodging from the bottle. With a sliver of rich fruitcake it is superb, however.

There are a couple of reasons that sherry has made a comeback. One is the general craze for anything Spanish in the food market, which, as experience shows, quickly flows onto the wine industry. Spain’s culinary scene is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, and Spanish wines are following the trend to imported wine growth. Some imported wines have seen sales growth of up to 10 per cent per annum in the past few years.

The second reason sherry is finding new friends relates to Australia’s maturation as a wine-drinking nation. The 1970s were all about cask wine, the 80s were dedicated to chardonnay and cabernet, the 90s embraced shiraz, and now, increasingly, we’re more interested in the entire world of wine. It’s an odd turn-about for sherry’s fortunes.

You see, Australian ‘sherries’ were once the backbone of our local wine trade.

As recently as the 1960s, some 70 per cent of the wine Australians drank was sherry—or at least in a sherry style. That’s all changed, and Australian sherry sales are now very low. The term is set to be eradicated anyway, under a new EU/Australian trade agreement. Like many of the French varieties that have gone before it, ‘sherry’ will soon be a name that’s only allowed to be used for those fortified wines made in the Jerez area of Spain. Future local sherries will be known as Australian Fortified White Wine, for the want of a more interesting and characterful name.

So what should restaurateurs stock their cellars with now? The imported, real-deal finos and manzanillas are leading the way in the latest sherry craze. With new and enthusiastic importers of sherry—including the dry, light manzanillas in half-bottles sealed with a screwcap to guarantee freshness and a determined lack of cork taint—pre-prandial sherry drinking in this country has never been better.

Half-bottles from either La Gitana or La Goya are fantastically fresh and lively manzanillas, perfect for aperitif drinking or served as a white wine in their own right. And at 15 per cent alcohol, they are not much more dangerous than a lot of the chardonnay going around at the moment.

One final and very important point: the darker sherries keep well enough for a few weeks, while the pale fino and manzanilla styles should be treated just like white wine.

Not that anybody needs much of an excuse to finish off the rest of the bottle.

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