Spanish Secret

While most wine experts routinely cite the sherry wines of southern Spain as offering incredible value, these fortified wines remain largely unappreciated and misunderstood in the U.S.

While most wine experts routinely cite the sherry wines of southern Spain as offering incredible value, these fortified wines remain largely unappreciated and misunderstood in the U.S. Part of this is due to the crushing success of the Harvey’s “Bristol Cream” brand, which has dominated the American market for decades and created an assumption that Sherry is a super-sweet, low-quality product for folks of an older generation.

Similarly, sherry wines are sometimes associated with British pretentiousness, as the U.K. remains the largest market for these wines outside of Spain itself. As a freshman at Harvard, I was “put up” for the Signet Society of Arts and Letters, a social audition of sorts, and it was at their introductory cocktail party that I was served a tiny glass of fino by an aspiring young gent whose fake British accent was rivaled only by his bad taste in thrift store smoking jackets. I declined the invite, but also declined sherry for years and it was the latter and not the former that proved a real loss.

The term “sherry” itself is an anglicanization of Jerez, which is one of the three towns in the Spanish province of Cádiz that make up the fabled Sherry wine triangle in partnership with Sanlúcar de Barrameda and el Puerto de Santa María. Like port wines, sherry wines are fortified which means the wines are strengthened with added neutral grape spirits which amp up the resulting alcohol. As a winemaker friend here in California recently said by way of explaining why he prefers to make wines with lower alcohol levels: “I really like to drink wine. If I drink a bottle of my own wine, I end up on the table. If I drink a bottle of sherry, I end up under the table.” Sherry is potent.

Sherry and port wines also share a common problem: protecting their unique products by protecting their place-names as brands. While you can still find loads of wines, usually on the cooking aisle by the balsamic vinegar, that are labeled as “sherry” or “port,” these wines are misleading because they do not come from either Spain or Portugal. Recently, the Fedejerez has partnered with winemakers in Oporto and in Champagne to more aggressively protect the term “sherry” as wines that must come from the Sherry triangle in Spain. Real Sherry comes from a very specific place in southern Spain, just like real Champagne comes from the Champagne region in France and real Port wines come from Portugal and not from, say, a manufacturing plant near Modesto.

That sherry wines face marketing threats from imposters is only half the problem: the bigger issue is consumer confusion about authentic sherries, which range from delicately pale and saline finos to caramel-inflected olorosos to syrupy-raisin dessert wines made from Pedro Ximénez that locals pour on ice cream. Absolutely no other wine-producing region in the world is quite as maddening to master and yet the rewards are considerable. (Most wine geeks love sherry, and I myself have transformed into a zealot over the years.) Most sherry wines start out from palomino grapes, which thrive in the chalk-choked soils and searing climate of southerly Cádiz. This limestone and calcium-carbonate soil is called albariza, which is bright white in color and which has a remarkable ability to retain water like a thirsty sponge. Similarly, the ameliorating winds from the nearby Atlantic are key to the region’s viticultural traditions and to its cuisine.

Sherry wines taste best with seafood because they are “brought up,” or aged, in casks in bodegas where the air is saturated with the distinct saline tang of the Atlantic.

Unlike wine-producing regions where grape-to-glass philosophies mean that the winemaker does little to impact the transformation of grape juice to wine, sherry wines are very much man-made wines with a history of production dating back to 1100 BC when the Phoenicians first brought viticulture to the area. (The city of Cádiz itself is considered the most ancient in all of Europe.) That these wines have endured centuries of political upheaval is a testament to both the ingenuity and perhaps to the unslakable thirst that mark Iberians. Got moldy-looking yeast stuff persistently forming on top of your fermenting grape juice? Elsewhere, this might spell disaster but in Jerez, they call it kismet and consider it a virtue. This naturally occurring cap of yeast film is called flor and it is utterly unique to the microclimate of this area and to the production of certain delicate types of sherry which I personally love, especially the manzanillas from Sanlúcar de Barrameda which are one of the world’s great wine treasures. Got some fairly generic, bland grape juice to work with? Tossing in some brandy to jump-start the party and seeing what happens is essentially how the workhorse palomino grape is transformed into legendary Sherry products. The famous “solera system” of interconnected, stacked casks is another example of Iberian ingenuity in winemaking, an invention that allows both for consistency of house style and for continuity of product availability within a given Sherry bodega. Lastly, that these peculiar wines have survived is also due to the their inherently sturdy nature, as fortified wines could better withstand the vagaries of sea transport. Christopher Columbus brought Sherry with him to the New World, and Magellan spent more on Sherry wines than on weapons when budgeting for his global circumnavigation.

Times have changed since those early days of explorers, whose courage was itself fortified with generous amounts of Sherry. Nowadays, American consumers interested in exploring these wines themselves can find superb examples of Sherry made across a range of styles at prices that are ridiculously low for the quality inside the bottle. Like light-bodied whites like pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc? Try a lightly-chilled bottle of fino next time which pairs beautifully with grilled shrimps, salted almonds and other simple nibbles that are the hallmark of Spain’s tapas culture. Like aged tawny port wines or small-batch bourbons to sip on after dinner? Look for sherry wines labeled amontillado, which is a dry style that offers plenty of alcohol and layers of smoky, vanillin notes. Like most wine products worth discovering, wines from this region require both curiosity and sophistication so I heartily encourage you to uncork some bottles and do some reading – your palate and your dinner guests will thank you for it.