Sherry is back in fashion, but Christine Austin says forget the decanters and those daft glasses

There was a time when no self-respecting sideboard would be without a decanter of sherry. Sweet, sticky and usually labelled “cream”, it was poured to the brim into thimble-sized glasses and sipped, usually as an aperitif before lunch. Then sales of sherry hit the buffers and those decanters became dusty and unused and have remained so for decades.
Fast-forward to today and sherry has become fashionable once again, but with a difference. It rejoices in its proper names of manzanilla, fino, amontillado and oloroso and words such as “en rama” and “almacenista” are signposts to styles and quality. Even better, those ridiculous glasses that allowed no room for swirling and aromas have been – or should have been – consigned to the charity shop to be replaced by small white wine glasses that allow the sherry to be swirled and aromas appreciated.
Even better, the whole ceremony associated with sherry has gone. No longer reserved for aged aunts, the sherry decanter has disappeared from the sideboard and bottles are now kept within easy reach while lighter styles are in the fridge, consumed within days, not months.
img_6577Sherry comes from Spain. It used to masquerade as coming from South Africa, Cyprus and even Australia but the name is now protected – like Yorkshire Wensleydale. Its name defines its source since “sherry” is a verbal corruption of the name of the main town of the Andalusia region where the grapes are grown and the wine made. Jerez, (pronounced Hereth) is at the heart of the region and is home to the lofty bodegas where most sherry is matured.
Palomino is the main grape of the region, producing light, clean, fairly innocuous wine. Two other grapes, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, are also grown for specific sweetening and blending purposes, but Palomino provides at least 95 per cent of every bottle of sherry produced – of all styles. It is the way sherry is matured that defines whether it eventually becomes fino, amontillado, oloroso or that rare gem, palo cortado.
Making sherry is a long process. The grapes are picked in August and made into a still white wine, then comes the fortification process on which the whole development of sherry styles is hinged. Fortify it lightly, store it in a cask with a headspace and a white, brie-like coat of yeast develops, protecting the wine and keeping flavours fresh. If those casks are matured close to the sea in Sanlúcar de Barrameda you end up with manzanilla, a wine so fresh and tangy it almost has the taste of the sea in it. Age the casks for longer and the flor gradually disappears, and the wine becomes amontillado. Age it even longer, at a slightly higher alcohol level, and the richer flavours of oloroso develop. In all cases, the casks are refreshed in a solera system that sees some wine drawn off from the oldest casks and replaced by younger wines.
Note that at this point all the wines are dry, and many remain so right through to bottling. If any sweetness is added to the final product it is done just before it is bottled, usually by adding PX, a dark, treacly wine made from Pedro Ximénez grapes that has been matured for decades, but the best styles of sherry are dry.
While the whole process of maturing sherry, with its focus on yeasty flor, the solera system and casks, has become the defining factor in describing sherry, the vineyards have largely been forgotten. But just like the vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, the vineyards of Jerez have an important influence in shaping the quality of the final wine.
The soil is a brilliant white “albariza” made of soft, chalky limestone that can soak up rainfall in winter months, but then bakes hard in sunshine, retaining traces of moisture to sustain the vines during the heat of summer. There are some vineyards that are better than others and the pagos of Macharnudo and Carrascal are the best.
The holding company that owns Valdespino has been steadily buying quality vineyards and is now the largest owner of vineyards in the area, with 800 hectares of vines across the region including 18 hectares forming a single vineyard at Macharnudo Alto. This raised piece of land catches the breeze and is the heartland for its fino called Inocente, a wine that is aged for 10 years, much longer than most finos. The result is a wine that retains its characteristic freshness and tang, but has layers of deeper complexity. Find it at around £8 for a half bottle at Halifax Wine Co, Grassington Wine, Martinez and Harvey Nichols. Once opened, keep it in the fridge and try to polish it off within a week to capture the best flavours.
While Valdespino is part of a large producer of sherry with thousands of sherry casks maturing in its cellars, there is now a resurgence of interest in small cellars such as Fernando de Castilla. It is owned by Norwegian sherry fanatic, Jan Pettersen who has worked in the industry for several years. He bought and revitalised an old small bodega and has acquired 20 hectares of vines within a sister company. The bodega is nothing like the vast cathedral-like structures of the big sherry names. Here the casks are stacked just
four high and they lean against a curving wall, each one identified by a series of
chalk marks to indicate its contents and age.
These are sherries that hark back to an era before modern industrial processes such as clarification, cold-stabilization and filtration that most commercial sherries now go through. The result is a range of sherries that pack more complexity and subtlety than any others I have tasted. They also sometimes throw in a slight sediment which just proves they have not been over-filtered.
The Antique range from Fernando de Castilla is possibly the best sherry I have tasted, in particular the Amontillado (around £26.40 for 50cl at Field & Fawcett, Winearray) which is silky and elegant with nutty, orange peel and herbal notes. This is a wine to be sipped and savoured, with jamón, cheese or even lightly spiced foods.
Step up to Antique Palo Cortado which is a true version of this style (£31.99 for 50cl from Harrogate Fine Wine) for fresh tasting, toasty hazelnuts and almonds with hints of raisins.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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