I had the opportunity to travel to Jerez this past September, and throughout the five days we spent exploring the Sherry-producing districts of Southern Spain’s ancient Andalusia region, one thought kept on creeping into my mind: I cannot believe I never drank more of this fantastic wine before.
This was one of those paradigm-shifting trips that not only opened up my eyes to Sherry in particular, but that also forced me to reconsider what I thought fermented grape juice was capable of.
The best wines, as producers and connoisseurs have understood for millennia, are firmly rooted to a specific geographical location. And, indeed, the classifications and appellations of Europe are based on the idea that the same grape variety can be harvested from two neighboring villages, for example, and express themselves in completely divergent ways as a result of the differences in the geology of the vineyards and the micro-climatic shifts from one place to the other.
In Jerez, however, things are a bit different. Travel to Bordeaux or Burgundy, by way of contrast, and you’ll hear the constant drumbeat of the importance of the land; great wines, they tend to say, are made in the vineyard. In Jerez, however, we were told time and again that the best wines, while requiring good fruit and vineyard sites, are generally made in the winery and over the years in the barrels as they age and evolve.
Unlike dry wine, most of which is sold year after year in vintage-designated bottlings, Sherry is the result of the region’s famous solera system. Put simply, the solera system facilitates the progressive blending of new wines and older ones, which layers the flavors and aromas, adds depth and nuance to wines as the blends accumulate, and results in a finished product that is as intimately--and literally--tied to the past as any wines in the world.
The success of these fortified wines--the fact that they can be produced at all, in fact--is a result of the unique geographical location of the legendary Sherry Triangle and the nature of the grapes that grow there, as well as of the specific strains of yeast that flourish and the flor that results. (For specifics on the region, the solera system, flor, and why real Sherry can only come from here, visit www.sherrycouncil.com, the excellent web site of the Sherry Council of America.)
Over the course of my time in Spain, we had the chance to visit nine bodegas and to taste dozens of samples both on their own and during meals. And perhaps more than anything else, I was flat-out astounded by how well Sherry pairs with food.
Some of this success at the table is a result of the range of styles in which Sherry is produced, from dry, supremely refreshing fino and more caramelized but still lithe amontillado, to rich, structured oloroso and the dessert-in-a-glass Pedro Ximénez. (There are other styles too--my favorite, in fact, was the rare, mysterious palo cortado.)
But more important than the range of Sherry styles is the nature of the wines themselves, the unexpected flavor profiles with which they frame the foods they’re being sipped alongside. For even though differences between, say, a fino and an oloroso are vast, Sherry has the ability to handle a range of ingredients that precious few other wines do. Over the course of our week in Jerez, we paired various styles of Sherry with everything from sardines on tomato bread, to garlicky, nutty baby eels, to steak with mushroom, to foie gras, and even notoriously wine-unfriendly artichokes, and Sherry made easy work of them all, highlighting the flavors we wanted, minimizing the ones we didn’t, and making every dish not only more delicious than it otherwise would have been, but also a flavor and texture odyssey as enjoyable on an intellectual level as it was on a sensory one.
And while Sherry is not yet as widely consumed on this side of the Atlantic as its unfortified cousins, more and more of it is being imported and loved. So seek it out and stock your cellar with a broad enough range of styles and producers to start the process of learning more about Sherry, one of the most interesting, delicious, food-friendly wines around.
Brian Freedman is a food, wine, and travel writer and wine consultant. He writes for John Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, Philadelphia Style Magazine, and the blog www.UncorkLife.com for Wine Chateau, among others. For more information on his work, or to contact him regarding consulting or speaking, please visit www.BrianFreedmanPhiladelphia.com.
While in Jerez, we visited the following producers. Despite differences in style and philosophy, every one of them was a standout for one reason or another. Here they are, in no particular order. Look for them and taste--you’ll be thrilled you did:
Bodegas Grupo Estévez
Bodegas Sánchez Romate
Bodegas Williams & Humbert
Bodegas González Byass
Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana