No one who calls him or herself a wine lover deserves that title, in my book, if he or she doesn’t have a great bottle of Sherry in a wine cache. Or a dozen!
That’s because there is virtually nothing in this world like a great bottle of Spanish Sherry for the various purposes it provides. And those purposes are many, and often not limited to consuming it.
I first learned (nothing!) about sherry (lower case ‘s’, domestic) approximately 50 years ago. Most of what I tasted back then was pretty bad stuff. I hated it. And for good reason.
My love affair with Sherry came in 1976 when I first tasted a great Spanish Sherry — I use a capital S for the real thing. That taste changed my life instantly. The wine was a dry oloroso, and I haven’t been the same since.
Sherry is wine that is intentionally not protected from oxygen, so some oxidation is an essential component of it. That is why it perfectly reflects foods that are on the fall dinner table, Thanksgiving in particular.
Candied yams, stuffing with walnuts, caramelized fruit preparations, and the like all are compatible with dry, medium, and sweeter Sherries — both to sip alongside or put in the dish.
Sherry, from southern Spain near the Mediterranean, is one of a few great wines of the world in which the grape variety is almost immaterial. (It’s mostly made from the Palomino grape.) Far more important is the method of production. Part of Sherry’s secret is that it’s typically aged for years in various types of barrels, acquiring nutty nuances that might be perceived as flaws in more traditional table wines.
Sherry also is fortified with neutral spirits, so most are between 15 percent (bone dry Fino) and 18 percent (dry to medium olorosos, with their remarkable nutty aromas. A few are in excess of 20 percent.
Appreciating the nuances of any great wine calls for years of tasting, and that’s as true of Spanish Sherry as any other wine. Since this column can’t provide a 10-year tasting regime, let’s look at just a few of its most fascinating attributes.
Besides consuming it as an aperitif, with nuts, olives, aged cheeses, or other finger foods, Sherry is an engaging companion to some seafood and shellfish dishes.
It is also an almost essential ingredient in many of traditional holiday dishes; without a dash of it, they are merely okay. With it, they can be sublime.
For example, I have a great turkey dressing recipe that calls for four different kinds of nuts (including chestnuts) as well as one essential ingredient: a quarter cup of quality Sherry to give the dressing the proper aromatic nuttiness. (Even cream sherry works.)
I routinely add two tablespoons of an oloroso Sherry to onions and mushrooms while they are being sautéed. They later will be placed atop marinated, grilled Portobello mushroom burgers.
A teaspoon of Amontillado Sherry added to a cream soup, or consommé, and a chilled glass of the same wine served alongside, are sublime accompaniments to each other.
And it’s hard to even imagine lobster bisque without a few drops of Sherry.
A salad dressing recipe I occasionally make calls for sherry vinegar. I enhance the flavors by adding a teaspoon of Sherry itself.
Fino is the driest of all Sherries and it’s not for everyone. Served ice-cold, I love its austere lemon-peel, “salty” minerality. (A companion wine, Manzanilla, is just as dry and austere.)
Amontillado Sherries can be dry, but often lower-priced ones ($8 to $13) are slightly sweet. For me, the best Sherries are called dry oloroso (also called oloroso secco), long-aged in a progressive series of barrels called a solera. Dry versions are superb before dinner with nibbles.
Sweeter sherries, some called cream, work nicely with desserts or alone as dessert.
A few additional notes:
— Although your great aunt Matilda may have sipped sherry after dinner from a long-opened bottle, chances are it wasn’t as fresh as it should have been.
Most Sherries are best when freshly opened, but can be OK to sip for a couple of weeks if refrigerated. They can be used for cooking after that. (Old Sherries can oxidize. Sherry is a white wine, so after it is open, consume the rest without further oxidation.)
In general, the more you pay, the better the Sherry will be. The good news is that even modestly priced Sherry can be great value. So although my favorite Sherries run $50 to $75 bottle, great ones can be had for $20.
Most Sherries are best served slightly cool, and fino is best cold.
Wine of the Week: NV Emilio Lustau Dry Oloroso, Don Nuño ($25): This reliable producer has a series of exceptional but higher-priced olorosos called Almacenistra. Most sell for $35 or more. This basic version is a true bargain, similar to the higher-priced wines and occasionally discounted to about $21.