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Pulse Check: Sherry

Posted on  | November 30, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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A criadera of barrels at González-Byass in Jerez

The Sherry Triangle—an area in southwestern Spain between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María— sits on the Atlantic Ocean just west of the Straights of Gibraltar. This arid Iberian Peninsula outpost is known for its vinos generosos, or fortified wines. Unsurprising for a region producing since Chaucer’s time (and perhaps before), Jerez has seen peaks and valleys. Today, Sherry is experiencing not only a resuscitation, but also a full-on, geek-fest in major wine-consuming cities.

Stocking and selling Sherry today can be a delicate balancing act: balancing traditional consumer tastes with emerging attitudes; balancing various styles; and balancing the apparent simplicity of the term “Sherry” with the fact that the category a broad spectrum of liquids.

THE (MIS-)CONCEPTION OF THE PRODUCT

U.S. imports from Jerez, not unlike German wines, have typically been off-dry to sweet. Conversely, consumers in Spain and Germany mostly drink dry wines. Yes, this country has that Coca-Cola palate. The contrast of consumption merits a closer look. Worldwide, Fino is the most important style. In fact, Fino and Manzanilla comprise just under half of the world’s Sherry consumption and just over three-quarters of Spain’s consumption. Conversely, in the U.S., 75% of Sherry consumption is sweet.

Key today is the rise of wine consumers favoring savory wines. Though sweet versions have long settled into decanters in aunties’ living rooms, wine lovers are now embracing Sherry’s full spectrum of versatility.

STYLE & PAIRINGS

More or less, two styles of Sherry exist, defined by how they are aged: either “biologically” or oxidatively. Biologically aged Sherries see the effects of flor yeasts, which form a layer on top of the wines in barrel, protecting them from oxygen, keeping them clear in color and rendering them bitingly dry on the palate. Oxidatively aged wines, intentionally exposed to oxygen, become brown-colored and rounder. Sometimes, when back-blended, they are even a bit sweet. Some wines actually began their lives under flor, but go into bottle after a period of oxidative aging.

Generally speaking, Jerez offers remarkable consistency thanks to its soleras. A solera is a pyramid of barrels where the lower, older tiers that have experienced evaporation are topped up with younger wine from the upper barrels. Nonetheless, boutique bodegas and almacenistas, who age special cuvées of wines, are changing the landscape and offering more individual wines.  

A surprise to some, Sherry is highly versatile with foods. Tapas are an obvious starting point, but Peter Liem, co-author of Sherry, Manzanilla & Montilla, suggests trying these umami-driven wines with Japanese and Chinese cuisines, which emphasize this portion of the flavor spectrum.

Liem categorizes Fino and Manzanilla as white wines, best suited to lighter dishes. Both he and Talia Baiocchi, author of Sherry, a wine and cocktail book due out in 2014, liken dry Oloroso to red wine. While Olorosos don’t possess the tannins of most reds, they do have a similar body and alcoholic cut.

SIPPING, STORING & SERVING

Finos’ and Manzanillas’ bright, fresh styles favor early—and rapid—consumption. These wines don’t store as well or as long as their counterparts once opened; opt for half bottles to ensure freshness. Amontillados last marginally longer. Palo Cortados and Olorosos have more staying power. Sipping them over a few weeks is fine, and some last a month or more when properly stored with oxygen-elimination techniques and proper temperature control. Some of these wines may even improve after opening, but if you are experimenting, monitor their evolution carefully.

In contrast, the sweet, even syrupy, Pedro Ximénez-based wines often favor development with oxygen. They can keep years after opening when properly stoppered and temperature-controlled, presuming they can be resisted so long.

Like white wines, Finos and Manzanillas—as well as sweet, blended wines—are best enjoyed lightly chilled. Amontillados, Palo Cortados and Olorosos work best at “cellar temperature.” Once the temperature is properly dialed-up, most Sherries show best in a medium-sized, white wine glass rather than the classic copita.

THE TEST OF TIME

In juxtaposition to many other historic and heralded European regions, vineyards and grapes in Jerez are cheap—too cheap, in fact. Sadly, many bodegas have folded, leading to the marriage of singular solera systems with others, reducing the possibilities of eventual complexities in expression. At the very least, these barrels are kept alive in criaderas (criadera meaning “nursery,” referring to the wines being “raised” for years in these systems), even if today’s forced melting pot consumed their original features. Conversely, from a purchasing perspective, Sherry prices, especially high quality Sherry, remain ludicrously low.

In sum, the horizon is bright—with a rising versus setting sun—on higher quality Sherry. Though likely to remain a niche market, engaged consumers’ interests are clearly growing. As Antonio Flores, Master Blender for González-Byass, notes, “An important part of the Sherry revolution is young people’s interest in an ancient wine. And, this is something happening outside of the wineries’ influence. The consumers are asking for it.”


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