RICHARD ESLING: A good excuse to buy a bottle of sherry

It's International Sherry Week

The great British love affair with sherry seemingly dates back to the wars between us and the Spanish Empire in the 16th century.

In 1587 Sir Francis Drake ransacked the port of Cadiz and sailed off with 3,000 barrels of the stuff. Ever since, we have been the world’s largest consumer of sherry and many producers still have English names or investors.

In recent times, sales have seen a bit if a dip as fashions and drinking habits change, but the slow revival of sherry drinking in the UK continues unabated. This week is International Sherry Week, and as good an excuse as any to get out there and buy a bottle or two, perhaps trying something a little unusual.

Sherry is a wine made from white grapes grown in the hot region of Southern Spain near the town of Jerez, from which it gets its name. It is different from most other wines in that it is fortified, that is grape spirit has been added after fermentation, producing a different style of wine. It is unique in the world, and despite various attempts to recreate it in other countries, sherry remains a somewhat magical product which only comes from Andalucia.

The ‘magic’ comes from a particular type of yeast called ‘Flor’, which spontaneously grows on the top of the barrels or ‘butts’ of sherry. This imparts a particular flavour and aroma to the wine, which is made from Palomino grapes and only seems to occur in this region. More ‘magic’ occurs later, as the different barrels of sherry develop differently, for no apparent reason. Many different styles of sherry are thus produced, some remaining as dry Fino, others as Amontillado or Oloroso and yet more as rare Palo Cortado.

Ageing of sherry is also unique in what is called the solera system, where the fortified wine is blended with different aged wines over a period of years in the oak barrels, with some beneficial oxidation occurring. The making and blending of sherry is thus a highly skilled art, under the control of the capitaz, and produces wines of exceptional quality and incredibly good value for money, considering the production process. Although often drunk as an aperitif – for the drier styles – sherry is a very versatile wine for accompanying food due to the deep, complex flavours.

One of the driest styles is Manzanilla, matured in the bodegas of Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic Coast. It is the most popular style of sherry in Spain, consumed as an aperitif or with seafood, smoked meats and tapas. One of the oldest brands is La Gitana from Bodegas Hidalgo founded in 1792, dry, crisp, fresh and delicate, with a salty tang,to be served well chilled. £10.99 from Waitrose. For an even more special Manzanilla, try the Pastrana from the same producer, which is a ‘pasada’ or aged style only a pound more from Majestic. Notes of apple peel, almonds, nuts and orange peel, with great complexity, yet keeping its freshness and zing.

A sherry that may be a surprise even to experienced lovers of these wines, is the Sanchez Romate Fino Perdido. Aged for about eight years, the translation means ‘lost fino’ and it is a style that is rarely produced currently. It is between a Fino and an Amontillado, dry, pale gold in colour and with characteristics of both styles, with the yeasty flor character combined with apples and rich nutty, smoked almonds. Light bodied yet with rich flavours, it is ideal with dressed Selsey crab, langoustines or seared tuna steak. An amazing £7.95 from the Wine Society, which has a surprisingly good selection of top quality sherry wines.

But my own personal favourite style of sherry is Palo Cortado. The rarest type of sherry, it combines the nutty character of Amontillado with the power and complexity of oloroso. A silky texture with toasted almonds and hazelnuts on the palate, combined with dried apricots and sultanas. The wine is dry, full bodied, with great complexity and length on the palate. Fernando de Castilla produces a fine example at the top end called ‘antique’, around £35 for a 50cl bottle from specialist wine merchants. The wine is around 30 years old from a single bodega and has notes of orange marmalade and dried fruit together with the other flavours previously described.

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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