Andrew Polmear

Sherry – but not as we know it

Ask a group of wine writers what they think is the best value for money in wine buying today and the chances are they’ll say sherry. So why do we drink so little of it? I think it’s partly because it’s seen as old fashioned and bourgeois, and partly because the most well-known names are sweetened and blended for a supposedly anaemic British palate.

To understand what’s going on you have to understand how sherry is made. Most sherry is made from the palomino grape, which doesn’t taste of much. It’s matured in oak barrels only 5/6th full of sherry. On top of the sherry, protecting it from the air, forms a layer of yeast called flor. This, and the oak barrel, are what give sherry its distinctive nutty flavour. The longer the sherry is kept in barrel the darker it gets and the deeper the flavour. If bottled early it comes out golden in colour with an incredibly dry, almost salty tang and it’s called Fino or, if it comes from Sanlucar, Manzanilla. Leave it for a few years and the flor dies. The wine is darker, with more intense flavour, and it’s called Amontillado. If you ferment the wine without a covering of flor it partially oxidises, becoming darker and more complex and it’s called Oloroso. All of these sherries are dry and all are fortified with different amounts of wine spirit, as a preservative and to encourage, or inhibit, the flor according to the type. The final glory of sherry is the magnificent sweet sherry made with the Pedro Ximénez grape. The grapes are sun-dried before fermentation. The sherry has the texture of treacle and tastes sublime.

SherryThis brings us to why some of the commercial sherries we’ve been drinking all these years have fallen out of flavour. I have no quarrel with the supermarket Finos, like Gonzalez Byass’ Tio Pepe or Elegante or Domecq’s La Ina. They are the real thing. And the supermarkets also have excellent dry Amontillados and Olorosos. It’s the sweetened mixtures produced for the British palate that I find so disappointing. They are blends, as though designed to smooth out all traces of personality and produce a product, every bottle of which is the same. Harvey’s Bristol Cream is a blend of Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. Croft Original Pale Cream is a blend of Fino and sweetened Amontillado or Oloroso. They aren’t bad, just boringly the same. And why go to all that trouble to make an exquisitely dry Fino only to sweeten it?

So, next time you are thinking about the wine to go with a meal, how about a chilled Fino to go with the starters, an Amontillado or an Oloroso with the cheeses and a Pedro Ximénez poured over vanilla ice cream, with the rest in a glass by the side, to finish? But perhaps not all in the same meal.


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