This week, in collaboration with our expert friends at Mimo Food, Journy is exploring one Spanish cuisine's most prized ingredients: sherry
It's time you got to know sherry. Not those dusty bottles of saccharine Bristol Cream Sherry but proper sherry. Sherry as it's made in the Jerez region of Spain's southern Andalucia province. Sherry as that dry and nutty wine you sip alongside addictive tapas on vacation in Seville. That sherry.
It's been a long time coming for that sherry. The first mention dates back to the 1st century BC when Greek geographer Strabo described how in 1100 BC the Phoenicians brought grape vines with them to Xera, modern day Jerez. "Sherry" is actually an anglicization of Jerez. When the Moors took over the Peninsula in 711 AD, wine continued to be an important product for the region, even though the Quran forbade alcohol consumption.
After King Alfonso X of Castile took control of the Peninsula in 1243, sherry also became an important export for the region and was frequently traded in exchange for English wool. Over the centuries, the English developed a taste for the tart wine. When Shakespeare mentions sherry, he's not referring to the sweet versions, but to the dry styles. As British traders brought sherry back home, their wives wanted to enjoy some of the exotic drink as well, but tended to find its strength off putting. To make it more palatable, they cut it with simple syrup, creating the sweet so-called cream sherries still popular in Britain today.
Exports continued to grow along with Spain's empire and eventually included not just Europe, but also New World colonies. Around the fifteenth century guilds devoted to producing sherry began to arise, paving the way for more the codified methods of production that would become denominacion de origen decree in the 20th century.
Spain pursued DO appellations for sherry after the British began to produce imitation beverages under the name "South African Sherry" and "Australian Sherry" to capitalize on the Brits' love for the sweet, tart beverage. The DO ruling limits sherry production to the so-called Jerez triangle, which includes the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Outside of this area, sherry is no longer sherry, even if it produced according to the same procedure. In 1933, DO confirmation was given to the entire region of Jerez, limiting the production to towns within the area.
Later, additional protection was given to the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, ensuring that the production of manzanilla sherry was limited to that area. According to wine makers, the combination of scorching summers and cooling breezes from the nearby Guadalquivir river provides the optimal conditions for producing sherry, meaning that products from elsewhere will no doubt taste inferior.
But for those of us who didn't grow up with sherry, figuring out just how it should taste remains a bit of a mystery. Let's clear up what sherry is not: it’s not a regular wine, it doesn't have cream and it's not super-sweet. Rather, sherry is a distilled wine that is aged in oak barrels, depending on the specific grape and type of sherry being made. It ranges in flavor from dry and yeasty fino to dark and nutty oloroso. Cream refers to a type of sweetened sherry made from a mix of different styles.
Going to a bar and asking for a sherry is a bit like going in and asking for a glass of wine or neat whiskey; the logical response is what type? There are several varieties of sherry, all of which are made with white wine grapes. What makes them different is how long they're aged for, what type of yeast is used and whether or not they're exposed to oxygen. These differences create a vast array of colors and flavors.
The lightest type of sherry is fino, which is aged under a cap of flor yeast to prevent contact with air. It's also one of the driest varieties, with a pale, straw color reminiscent of white wine. When sherry is aged under yeast but then exposed to air it's called amontillado, which is still dry but has a darker color and fuller flavor than fino. Manzanilla looks and tastes similar to fino, but is produced in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. "Manzanilla" literally translates to chamomile and is so called because its hue and flavor is supposedly reminiscent of the tea. It can be aged up to 30 years, though periods between five and ten years are more typical.
Things start to get sweeter with oloroso, which has an alcohol level ranging from 18% to 20%, compared to 15-17% for fino and amontillado. Although it has a rich and nutty flavor, it's still technically a dry sherry, though it's frequently used as a based for sweet, fortified sherries.
Palo cortado is similar in appearance and alcohol content to oloroso, but starts as aging in a process similar to fino or amontillado, giving it an aroma that is simultaneously rich and crisp. Then there's Pedro Ximenz, also called PX. It's the richest of the bunch and has a high sugar content thanks to the fact it's made from overly ripe grapes. All of these richer varieties undergo oxidative aging, meaning they're exposed to air during the process.
Sherries are aged in old, damp rooms and distillers do everything they can to encourage a vibrant, moldy environment. They'll toss water on the floor and open the windows for bracing cross breezes. This is supposedly reflected in the taste of the sherry and accounts for the reason why the beverage is DO protected.
Since age impacts sherry production, most companies tend to be older. Some even have English names as a leftover from when merchants were in the region as traders. Yet, there are a handful of companies that are innovating. Bars are slipping it into cocktails, a new generation of owners are redesigning labels and trend-conscious companies are producing vermouths made with sherry.
While you surely can just pop open a bottle and pour yourself a glass, it will soon become apparent that drinking sherry isn't the same as sipping on Chardonnay. Sherry is stronger and, especially for dry varieties, is best served chilled. Consequently, when shopping for sherry at the liquor store you won't find it grouped in with Spanish wines, but usually in refrigerated or temperature controlled cases, frequently near Port or Madiera.
Some sherry fans will argue that the wine pairs best with tapas-style plates of nutty jamón ibérico, salty anchovies and grassy olives. But anything with heady, salty flavors will stand up well to rich, complex sherries. Try pairing sherry with everything from simple salads to comforting hot dishes!
While more sherry bars are popping up in cities around the world, there's nothing quite like getting sip at the source. Seville is the largest city near the Jerez triangle and the city's tapas bar are just as likely to have sherry on tap as they are beer on tap. For a traditional experience, head to El Rinconcillo, which has been sating hungry Spaniards with homestyle dishes since 1670. For something more modern, opt for Bar Americano in the recently restored Hotel Alfonso XIII, where Ernest Hemingway drank when he was in Seville.