Wine is more than a beverage. It can quench thirst and usher in bliss or great remorse, but it is more than that. I dare say that it is even more than the sum total of the terroir that produces the grapes that produce the wine. Besides all of that, it encapsulates history, culture, and work. No wine that I know of transmits these intangible attributes as well as sherry. When I want to taste the subtle nuances of terroir, I open Selbach-Oster or Zind Humbrecht. When I want to taste history and culture in a glass, I pour myself a copita of sherry.
Before or after a meal sherry is divine, and truly the most underrated beverage in the wine world. During a meal, with food, it is so undiscovered and underutilized that it can't even be considered underrated. It is simply forgotten (here in the U.S., that is.)
What makes it so great with food? Well, for starters, the range is so vast. To say that sherry is good with food is nearly akin to saying that wine is good with food. Sherry can be light, crisp, fresh, and white or it can be thick, black, unctuous, and sweet with a number of styles in between.
The lightest and most delicate sherries are the fino and manzanilla. The latter is actually a subset of the former, but let's avoid details. These are light, crisp, salty, bone-dry wines that are fantastic with seafood and light dishes.
They are born and bred ocean-side. As both vines and wine they breathe salty air. The sea is in their blood, one might say, and this kinship with food from the sea is undeniable when paired with dishes such as clams braised in manzanilla with olive oil, parsley, and garlic or shrimp quickly sauteed in olive oil loaded with garlic and some red chili. Slices of Serrano ham or grilled vegetables are equally as great. Because these sherries are the most delicate, they are also the most important to buy from good shops where they won't sit on the shelves for years and years. Two labels to try are "La Gitana" from Hidalgo and "La Cigarrera" from the eponymous label.
Amontillado, palo cortado and oloroso are the next styles. (The first two are actually aged finos, but again, trying to avoid too many details.) These sherries are more robust, rich, and complex. They have a flavor profile that is nutty, earthy, and a little bit sweet up front with hints of caramel and caramelized fruit as well as dried fruits, yet they are sharp, dry, and very long on the finish. They match up with everything from salads with dried fruits and nuts to braised pork belly to vegetable stews to heavy soups to rich meat stews. Their versatility is truly amazing.
Emilio Lustau is a good producer to look for, he produces a wide range of sherry and also bottles some special artisan wines under Almanecista labels, plus he is widely distributed and easy to find. For a special treat, try to find one of the Vinos Viejos (old wine) bottlings of El Maestro Sierra, these will NOT be cheap, but the character and length of these wines is extraordinary. They are the type of wines that cause complete silence upon tasting and dominate discussion for hours, or days, afterwards.
Moving on in richness and also sweetness, we have sweet olorosos, or cream sherries, and Pedro Ximenez. These wines are more rich, caramelized, and nutty and the finish is sweet. They are excellent with dessert, or for dessert. A sweet oloroso or cream sherry with a sticky toffee pudding cake, like the one currently on the NOPA dessert menu, is delightful. Pure Pedro Ximenez looks like motor oil in a bottle and is intensely sweet and is perhaps best simply poured over vanilla ice cream.
Two things to note in conclusion: one, I have avoided the details here for lack of space, but for me, sherry is in the details. The laborious production, the specific climates, the history and culture that are as intertwined and as complex as the flavors themselves - this is where the magical transformation from a beverage to a soulful experience occurs. And two, sherry is the single best value wine in the world, period.
Posted November 23, 2008 • Filed under Spirits
This post originally ran on Tablehopper.com. Thanks to Marcia Gagliardi for permission to reprint.
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