If you know your cream ales from your quadrupels and your Sidecars from your Sazeracs, there’s no reason you can’t learn your Burgundy from your Barolo, too. In this series, we’ll demystify the world of wine—because Denverites deserve to enjoy the spirit of the grape as much as they do those of the grain.
Until very recently, Denverites had a decent excuse for their disinterest in sherry: Very few restaurants and bars bothered to carry it. But with a wave of Spanish cuisine finally breaking on our, um, shores, there’s no better time to take the plunge.
Hailing from the Jerez region of southern Spain, sherry is an unusual wine in a number of respects. For one thing, it’s fortified, or infused with a spirit. (Yes, that means it’s higher in alcohol than table wine, which is why sherry pours tend to be two to three ounces rather than four to six.) For another, it’s typically nonvintage (or, more accurately, multivintage): Most bottlings contain a blend of wines of different ages, obtained from a complex aging system called “solera” (for details, here’s a quick primer). For a third, like Champagne and other sparkling wines, sherry is made in a wide array of styles: It can be dry or sweet, and it can also be oxidized, which is to say deliberately (but carefully) exposed to oxygen to produce aromas and flavors reminiscent of nuts, dried fruits like figs and dates, and even truffles.
If all that sounds complicated, rest assured you don’t have to know any of it to appreciate sherry. All you have to do is sample a flight of different styles with a cheese platter, mixing and matching as you go, to experience its exceptional pairing powers. Just ask restaurateur Beth Gruitch: Having made it a focus of the bar program at Ultreia, even she’s regularly “surprised by how versatile it is. We tell people to try it with everything—it is one of the most amazing food wines.”
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll cover the dry styles here and the sweet styles, along with other dessert wines, in a future column.
The lightest dry styles are fino and its variant manzanilla. Properly drunk when chilled like a white wine (which is, after all, what sherry is), fino is known for its delicate almond, bread-y, and floral notes, as well as its elegant yet refreshing tang. “People that like dry martinis would like [fino sherry],” promises Corrida wine director Jenica Flippo.
That tang is even more pronounced in manzanilla, which comes from the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and accordingly evokes the sea breeze for many, including Gruitch. Noting its “bright, briny” quality, she keeps it on tap at Ultreia in the hopes of “starting off everybody who comes here with a little sherry. I love to talk people into it, especially at lunch, to recreate that experience of being in Spain, relaxing near the fountain and enjoying some small plates.”
Try it: Take Gruitch up on that offer by pairing a glass of the Bodegas Yuste Aurora Manzanilla with a snack that highlights its saline edge: olives, nuts, Spain’s famous ham, and of course seafood dishes like the trucha curada (cured trout). Or try the Valdespino Fino Inocente (that Flippo compares to a white Burgundy) with Corrida’s calamares en su tinta (squid in its own ink).
Also dry, but richer and full-bodied enough to accompany main courses, are the oxidative styles. Whereas fino sherries develop entirely under a natural layer of yeast called “flor,” amontillado continues to mature after the flor breaks down; the resulting exposure to air gives amontillado what Flippo describes as “a nutty, lush character” that makes it “probably the most approachable style, the gateway to understanding sherry.”
Oloroso, meanwhile, is oxidized from the get-go, making for a dark, complex wine whose luscious aromas of toasted walnuts, raisins and other dried fruits, orange peel, and sometimes toffee or caramel contrast its dryness on the palate. And then there’s what Flippo calls the “unicorn” of the bunch, palo cortado—historically a sort of accidental amontillado that lost its flor prematurely to age more like an oloroso. The result shares characteristics with each style.
Try it: Barcelona Wine Bar general manager Devan Johnson—who plans to start hosting sherry 101 classes soon—is a font of pairing recommendations. For instance, the Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos is “a great palate cleanser” for Barcelona’s hummus but also works alongside the farro arugula salad with feta and pickled onions; the Lustau Palo Cortado Península “pairs really well with fatter, richer food” like duck in balsamic reduction and New York strip in cherry pepper chimichurri. Flippo also likes oloroso with steak.
Sherry In Cocktails
Still not ready to dive in? “If I find someone who’s really hesitant to try sherry, I’ll suggest a cocktail first,” says Johnson. In fact, Barcelona, Ultreia, and Corrida all make at least one sherry-based concoction—and El Five has several, including the gorgeous Femme Fatale with manzanilla, gin, lavender-infused St. Germain, grapefruit oil, and an edible orchid.