Like many fortified wines, Sherry, from pale and dry to dark and sweet, is often overlooked by wine lovers, perhaps at best conjuring up mental images of Frasier and Niles Crane pompously trading bon mots in their upscale Seattle apartment while quaffing a sip or two.
But authentic sherry, from Spain’s Andalusian Coast, with its flavors of toasted nuts, dried fruits and tang of Mediterranean sea salt, is a complex and versatile wine with a range of styles that can accompany a meal from cheese to dessert. The word sherry is an anglicized version of Jerez, the name of the largest municipality in the so-called "Sherry Triangle" of the province of Cádiz on the southwestern coast of Spain. Here, in limestone-rich, chalky soils grow the Palomino grapes of which the wine is made.
Sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that a neutral grape spirit is added after fermentation and before aging to increase the alcohol content. At this point the must (grape mash) is sorted into one of two grades: fino and oloroso. The fino must is placed in partially-filled oak casks, leaving room for a thick blanket of natural yeast to form (called flor), which protects the wine from oxidation as it ages. If the flor fails to develop, oxidation will take place and the resulting wine is called Amontillado. Oloroso sherries are produced by adding significantly higher amounts of alcohol to the must so that the flor never develops at all.
Fino sherries spend at least five years in the barrel and are pale in color and bone-dry with a nutty, tangy flavor profile. Manzanillas (a fino produced exclusively in the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, also in Cádiz) are even lighter, with a pronounced salty tang. Aged for 10 or more years, Amontillados are amber in color and exhibit aromas and flavors of almonds, hazelnuts, caramel and baking spices. Olorosos can be aged for decades and produce sherries that are darker than Amontillados, sharing similar flavor profiles, but with a pronounced aroma of walnuts.
Sweet and cream sherries are made from blending different sherries with fermented Pedro Ximénez or Moscatel grapes, resulting in wines that are mahogany in color with sugary flavors of figs and molasses.