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Sherry for beginners

Forget everything you know about sherry - even if it’s nothing at all. It’s time to unlock the mysteries of sherry, the gem of southern Spain.

Forget everything you know about sherry - even if it’s nothing at all. It’s time to unlock the mysteries of sherry, the gem of southern Spain.

The term “Sherry” comes with a bit of baggage. The stereotype that sherry is all syrupy sweet dessert/cooking wine has been hard to shake. In fact, sherry runs the dry-to-sweet/light-to-dark gamut, and a good glass is among the finest experiences in the entire wine world.

Sherry versatility

There’s an excellent, mouth-watering fino sherry to start your dinner and a dark, lush sherry to cap it off. A nutty, complex oloroso can sub in for bourbon or scotch in front of the fire or provide extra inspiration during a board game. Before you pick a bottle or two, though, let’s break through the myths and explore this unique fine wine with sherry for beginners.

Note: sherry is a pretty rare commodity, so we recommend just searching our sherry page rather than searching by specific style of sherry.

What is Sherry?

Sherry is a fortified wine from the area around the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. “Sherry” is a British corruption of the word “Jerez” - pronounced “heh-rez”. The British were early proponents of sherry. This is mostly thanks to Francis Drake, who in 1587 pilfered a massive amount of the wine while attacking the coastal city of Cadiz before hightailing it back to England. Whether or not this was brilliant guerilla marketing on Spain’s part, we may never know. Nevertheless, sherry was a hit in Britain.

What is fortified wine?

In addition to alcohol from fermentation, fortified wine gets an extra infusion of spirits - or fortification - to increase the alcohol content.

Why would you fortify wine?

More alcohol (particularly above 16%) means better defense against pesky microbes that might eventually spoil the wine as it ages. Some of the best sherries age for over 30 years (yes, thirty; that’s not a typo), so a long shelf-life is pretty crucial.

What are the main types of sherry?

The two chief types of sherry are the lighter “fino” and darker, nuttier “oloroso”. Most sherry comes from the white palomino grape. Strange to think of it as white wine, isn’t it?

How do they make sherry?

Ever unique, Sherry's production process is an outlier in the winemaking world. Sherry ages in wooden american oak barrels - nothing new there. However, the barrels are intentionally underfilled to allow some oxygen into the remaining “head” space. As fino sherry ages, an indigenous yeast called “flor” protects it from aggressive oxidation (which leads to vinegar), allowing it to age gracefully and giving sherry its famous character.

How is oloroso production different from fino?

Oloroso also begins in a flor-rich environment, but winemakers quickly fortify it to an ABV greater than 16%. This kills the flor and prevents other microbes from turning it into vinegar, leaving oxygen to slowly age it. Lengthy oxidation (at least 5 years) deepens both the color and flavor of the oloroso, resulting in a silky, nutty, sherry with a gorgeous amber color.

What does sherry taste like?

Sherry isn’t your average wine. As it ages in barrels through hot Andalusian summers, gentle contact with the sea air develops very unique characteristics. The most common flavors throughout both sherry types are a distinct nuttiness (think almonds) and a bright saline character that is reminiscent of the ocean. We’ll discuss distinctive flavors in a bit.

Is all sherry super sweet?

Certainly not! We don’t know who started that ugly rumor, but we’d like to have a chat with them. Fino sherry is bone dry and not at all sweet. Same goes for the darker oloroso. Sweeter sherries like pale cream, cream and pedro ximenez (which is so sweet that it’s usually just for blending) are variations of the main styles.

Is the name “sherry” protected?

Yes. Like “champagne”, sherry enjoys regional protection. Real sherry can only come from that tiny southwestern corner of Spain. Anything else is just riffing on the real thing.

What is a good sherry? How will I know good sherry when I see it?

For the best quality, seek out the drier, more traditional versions of sherry - labelled from Jerez or thereabouts. "Fino" sherry, which appropriately translates to “fine”, is a good place for sherry novices to cut their teeth. It’s complex, delicate and versatile with food. A good fino will have both nutty and tangy flavor, as well as a salinity that makes your mouth water. It’s an absolute world-class aperitif, but you’ll probably find yourself drinking it more often than just before a meal. Both Sandeman and Lustau Fino Jarana are excellent starters.

Oloroso sherry flavor

Oloroso is the other sherry you’re going to want to get your hands on, particularly if you’re a fan of brown spirits. Its extended aging period fills it with richer oxidative flavors like raisins, chocolate and smoky wood. It has a deeper nuttiness (hazelnuts, sesame, almonds) that complements bright lemon-rind and saline goodness.

How do I drink fino sherry?

Fino sherry might be the ultimate aperitif. Chill it down to 45-50 degrees for optimal flavor and get yourself a spanish-style “copita” glass for impossible elegance - or just use a generic white wine glass. Applicable appetizers are seafood like oysters, smoked salmon, prosciutto or spanish iberico ham (obviously). You’ll also enjoy it with light seafood main courses like sushi.

What pairs with oloroso?

With greater depth and darker flavors, lush oloroso is more of a main course companion. It goes great with meats like lamb, beef or pork, as well as mature cheese like parmesan or gruyere. It can also stand up to hearty stews or just a roaring fire. 

What’s a good, sweet dessert sherry?

If you DO fancy a glass of sherry with your cheesecake or ice cream, go for an amontillado. It’s got great sherry nuttiness, but also a warming sweetness that’s splendid with a dessert (or even BBQ pork with a sweet sauce). If amontillado isn’t sweet enough for you, Pedro Ximenez is an intensely sweet liquid dessert. It’s too intense for many people, but maybe not for you!

All these refined flavors sound pricey. Is sherry expensive?

No - that’s part of the magic of this stuff. Sherry is surprisingly affordable for an item of such rarity and refinement. A good fino or oloroso can hover between $20-30. Get some before everyone else catches on.

Sherry is one of wine’s best-kept secrets. Now that you’ve got some insider info, grab a few bottles and find out what you’ve been missing. Salud!