The magic of sherry

Top sherry from Gonzalez Byass
Top sherry from Gonzalez Byass

Often referred to as ‘one of the best kept secrets of the wine world’, or ‘the world’s most neglected Wine Treasure’, there is a certain magical element to the wine region in Southern Spain, surrounding the town of Jerez de le Frontera.

This is the region where all sherry sold in the world is made, sherry taking its name from the town of Jerez itself. On the face of it, this area is far too hot to make fine wine, yet there are sherries which are light and delicate and many wines – yes sherry is still referred to as a wine – are of outstanding quality, representing some of the best value anywhere in the world.

Sherry is a wine which is fortified with neutral grape spirit, which helps to balance the wine and protect it during its often-long maturation period in cask (called butts in the sherry region). Time was sherry was on everybody’s lips in England, or at least those that could afford it, and although the UK is still the premier export market for these wines, markets have crashed as more and more good quality still wines have appeared from all around the globe. That said, there has been some resurgence of demand for sherry, which continues to grow, albeit slowly.

The days of Auntie’s syrupy and rather oxidised tipple left on the sideboard from one Christmas to the next, are thankfully long gone and although commercial medium sweet sherry still fills the shelves of many supermarkets, alongside these are others which are far more appealing to the discerning wine drinker, what I tend to call ‘Real Sherry’. The sweetness profile may range from bone dry to intensely sweet, but quality and depth of flavour is unmistakable.

One of the many ‘magical’ elements of sherry, concerns a particular yeast called ‘Flor’, which appears on the surface of the 80% filled wine butts during maturation and only develops in this region. The Flor imparts a certain flavour to the maturing wine, which later may undergo other transformations, dependent on the longevity of the Flor and desired oxidation. Many companies around the globe have tried to replicate sherry production, all without success. The magic of sherry.

As sherry matures in the Bodegas of Jerez and the surrounding towns, it is classified into different types, depending on the natural maturing process and sometimes intervention by the cellar-master. Nearly all sherry starts off dry, with fortification occurring after fermentation. This is in contrast to port, where the fermentation is interrupted by the addition of spirit, thus keeping residual natural sweetness in the wine. The sweeter styles of sherry have been produced by adding a sweet element to the original dry wine – often blending with naturally sweet sherry, such as Pedro Ximenez, or with unfermented grape must.

The different styles of sherry are wonderful accompaniments to a wide range of foods and dishes and should be thought of much more in this way than as just an aperitif or after dinner glass. Try the bone-dry styles of Fino and Manzanilla with Gravadlax or smoked trout and Dry Amontillado or Dry Oloroso are marvellous with charcuterie and white meats.

One of the top producers of sherry is the Bodega Gonzalez Byass, dating back to 1835. They have a wide range of first class wines, including the Fino market leader – Tio Pepe. The Limited edition unfiltered ‘En Rama’ style is superbly fresh, delicate and aromatic, as if drinking straight from the cask. Or try the pale amber Vina AB dry Amontillado with a plate of Jamon d’Iberico cured ham.

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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