Sherry. Your nan's favourite, right? Crofts or Harvey's Bristol Cream, served warm in a tiny glass, usually at Christmas time. Sweet and a bit musty, probably been hanging around at the back of the cupboard for several years. Dug out at Christmas, and then forgotten for the rest of the year.
The truth is that Sherry can be totally transporting, and not just because of its high alcohol content. Not only is it delicious, it's also diverse, fascinating and bloody good value. Here's why...
Super saline Manzanilla from Sanlucar, punchy Marmitey Fino, and hazelnut Amontillado make up the drier styles of Sherry. Then you go via Medium Dry Olorosso with a hint of sweetness all the way to a 400 grams per litre Pedro Ximenez that tastes like Christmas cake. John Black will have a fit at Christmas if I don't order at least a half bottle of PX to accompany his mince pies and gout onset. I can't think of anything I'd rather have than a chilled glass of Manzanilla with salted almonds and big gordal olives on a hot summer's day. Something for everyone (or at least two members of the Black family).
The way Sherry tastes is all down to how it's made, which is where it gets really interesting because...
Sherry breaks all the usual rules of winemaking. Made from a dull grape variety, it's blended during an extended ageing period in barrels that aren't even full. It's a complete anomaly.
- The Solera system: Sherry is bottled once or twice a year, depending on the style, from a Solera. The solera system is made of many layers (or criaderas) of barrels filled with wine of different average ages. So, the first criadera will have wines of an average age of about 1 year, the sixth might be 4.5 years, the second 8 years and the solera (the final layer) 9-10 years. Every time there is a bottling, the winemaker can draw up up to 1/3 of what is in the solera and must top up each layer with the same amount of wine from the previous criadera. Phew. Here's a picture:
- The benefit of this constant blending is twofold. First, sherry is released ready to drink as it has already spent many years ageing. Don't make grandma's mistake - it's not made to sit in a dusty cupboard! Second, as a non-vintage product, rather like Champagne, it should be very consistent. So you can pick up your bottles of La Gitana or Tio Pepe and know that you're going to get the same thing year after year.
- Ageing: there are broadly two categories of Sherry made from Palomino. The first is aged biologically, the second oxidatively. Both start off as fortified wines made from Palomino, and both are aged in a complex solera system, but they end up as very different kettles of fish. Biologically aged sherries such as Manzanilla and Fino are fortified up to 16% abv and aged in soleras under a layer of yeast which grows on the wine called flor. This is why these wines, and Fino in particular, can have a hint of Marmite about them. Fino tends to be bottled at least twice a year, and the disturbance this causes means the nutrients in the wine are more active. This keeps the flor alive. Oxidatively aged wines like Amontillado are usually bottled just once a year. They can start off with a layer of flor too, but as they move further through the solera the flor dies off due to lack of nutrients and the wine becomes exposed to oxygen. This transforms the wine so it's beautifully nutty, caramel and toasty. It can trick your nose into thinking that it's sweet, but on the palate it's the most dry and refreshing thing you can imagine. Bliss with a plate of cheese. Anyone else hungry?
You're unlikely to crack open a Fino for the really special occasions in your life, no matter how much we try to persuade you, but the comparison with Champagne pricing is stark. Remember: they are both non-vintage wines that are blended and aged for long periods of time.
Valdespino's single vineyard Fino Inocente is a wine with an average age of about 10 years. It retails at about £18.50 a bottle. Let's compare that with Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Reserve, which is also a non-vintage wine with an average age of 10 years. Charles Heidsieck retails at almost £50 a bottle. And once you've popped that cork you can't keep it, whereas sherry will keep in the fridge door for a couple of weeks, and longer for those oxidised styles. Just please, don't be grandma.
The same is true at the cheaper end of the scale. Tio Pepe Fino, a very widely-distributed sherry, costs between £10.99-£13.99 a bottle. Its average age is probably around 4 years. It's Champagne equivalent is Moet. Moet can be found very cheaply, but it's rare that you'll see it on the shelf for less than £20.
So yes, while you might not think of Sherry as a substitute for Champagne, it's worth comparing the relative value of the two.
4. Fuel of adventure
Some of the first conquistadors took Sherry on their long voyages across the Atlantic to the Americas. Much like the Brits who would take spirits for hydration, the Spanish took their salty Sherries on the high seas. The first recorded shipment of Sherry to the UK was completed by mega pirate/explorer Sir Francis Drake, who nicked over 3000 casks of Sherry and took it back to the UK. Never paid for it either. What a lad.
So next time you knock back a chilled glass of fino, manzanilla or amontillado, do so with a spirit of conquest, smug in the knowledge that you've bagged an amazingly well-crafted wine that's a complete bargain.