Sherry. It’s one of those things that comes out at Christmas. Either that or it’s what you buy Granny when you go down the pub for Sunday lunch. It’s not something for young people, it’s sweet, sickly, but because it’s quite alcoholic it does the trick.
No. NO NO NO NO!
Sherry is one of the finest wines on the planet. But that sentence does not really cover it, because I should say that the wines of sherry are among the best in the world, they are so diverse and so good with such a variety of foods, but are lost on so many. You see the thing is, Sherry has a very bad press and sadly, for once, it has nothing to do with winemakers telling us lies, it is all our own fault.
Many moons ago, we had a little fight with the French. Unfortunately for us, they were quite good at fighting and also quite good at making wine. Seeing as we picked the fight, they refused to sell us any more wine (understandable really), so we set forth in search of an alternative. This was provided by the Portugese with their high alcohol sweet wine, Port. We got a taste for this and when the wines of Southern Spain around Jerez came to our attention we wanted more of the same. So they added sweet grape juice to their wines to sweeten them and make them more appealing to us.
That’s why we have things like Pale Cream and Bristol Cream Sherry. The former is a lovely, crisp, dry, apple and lemon flavoured drink that has had a job lot of high sugar content grape juice chucked in. The same can be said of the brown version – an Oloroso sherry which would have been beautifully nutty, savoury and complex, is turned into a teeth-rotting shadow of it’s former self and aids the afternoon nap.
I know it seems like I’m being unfair and perhaps I am to those people who like Pale Cream and Bristol cream. If that is what you like then that’s fine – personal choice is key in wine, my point is that everyone thinks that is where it stops.
Sherry comes in a myriad of colours, flavours and styles and we barely scratch the surface. The driest of the lot is Manzanilla, a super-dry sherry which is matured right on the sea-front and picks up a salty tang. This has a really high acidity and very clean fruit flavours. It is simply brilliant with all kinds of finger-food and hors-d’oeuvres. Olives, tapas, tiger prawns, it works with them all. Quite apart from anything else it is very refreshing and totally different from most people’s idea of Sherry.
This and the other great pale wine Fino, are made in a rather weird way. They start life as dry white wines, made from the Palomino fino grape. They are then fortified by adding distilled wine (brandy), then filled into oak casks known as Butts. In these butts they remain as a yeast grows on the surface. This yeast prevents oxidation occurring and imparts flavour to the wines, which is why they taste different from white wines, but remain light yellow in colour. Sherries which do not have this yeast are still matured in Butts, but they turn brown because they oxidise, giving them a nutty, savoury flavour. These are known as Oloroso sherries. There is a third style called Amontillado, where the yeast forms but eventually dies off, leaving you with a lighter brown version of an Oloroso.
There are a variety of other styles, but I’m not here to write a book on Sherry and it does get a mite confusing, so I’m going to deal with proper sweet sherries. These are made using a different grape variety called Pedro Ximinez and are again very different from Bristol Creams – they are proper dessert wines. The best description I can give you of a PX wine is if you can imagine buying a big packet of raisins, liquidising them, then adding some really rich demerera sugar, you begin to approach the intensity of flavour in the better examples. I have yet to meet anyone who has not been impressed by the depth of flavour found in good PX sherry and the thing is they are really quite cheap.
Sherry is not something to buy once a year to trot out at Christmas and far from being a poor choice it is in fact a connoisseurs choice. We are lucky in the local area to have some shops which supply some of the best wines available. Laithwaites carry the fantastic Lustau range – half bottles of some of the best fortified wines in Spain. Oddbins also have some Lustaus while both Sainburys and Waitrose carry excellent own-brand ranges and the really sticky Old East India Sherry. Almost all of the own-brand wines are made by excellent bodegas, which is more than can be said for most supermarket own label wines at the same price. So what to buy and what to pair it up with this Christmas?
Manzanilla La Gitana by Hidalgo – this stuff is matured right next to the sea, so picks up a salty tang, meaning it is a superb bet for those pre-turkey vol-au-vonts, or if you’re not feeling adventurous then it will work with the smoked salmon.
Gonzales Byass Tio Pepe – This is ubiquitous, but for the very good reason that it is excellent. As a Fino sherry, this is a little smoother and a little less aggressive than a Manzanilla, an ideal aperitif drink and a superb pre-cursor to your lunch. Serve with olives and salted almonds.
Lustau ‘Los Arcos’ Dry Amontillado – This is a fantastic Port alternative with your cheese course, but also works well with Christmas cake. It is rich, nutty and full flavoured, but as it is dry it also works as an aperitif.
What to have with the Christmas pudding? Well here you have a number of options, all of which are excellent. Essentially you need Pedro Ximinez and most of the major retailers do them. Ones to look out for are Gonzales Byass 1847, Lustau Old East India Sherry and probably the best value is Hidalgo’s Viejo Napoleon. All of these are rich, unctuous, full of raisin and sultana fruit – spot on with Christmas Pud and custard.