When I ask friends if they’ve ever tasted Fino sherry, a blank look spreads across their faces. Most have heard of sherry, of course, but images of English ladies of a certain age sipping the sweetish libation before dinner is what usually comes to mind. The blank look soon turns into a curled lip.
Even more disconcerting, most restaurants in the U.S. (even Spanish ones) don’t bother to include sherries on their wine list. I hope this will change in the near future – because in my book, sherry is one of the most downright delicious and intriguing wines there is.
Sherry is produced only in Jerez, in southwestern Spain, around the towns of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Jerez de la Frontera and Puerto de Santa Maria. Founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC, Jerez is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in Spain. Which means it’s endured a tumultuous history of wars and invasions, punctuated by countless economic cycles of boom and collapse. Considering all this, it’s remarkable that the elaborate process of making sherry has survived so many centuries.
There are many styles of sherries – from thick and sweet to bone-dry – but today it’s dry sherries that I want you to experience. These wines, called Finos (or Manzanillas, if they’re produced near the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda), are as dry as a wine can get. But they’re also exquisitely complex and offer nothing short of a revelatory tasting experience.
The resilient and versatile Palomino is the grape of choice for making sherry. Once the grapes are pressed, the free-run juice is fermented just like any other white wine. But after fermentation has taken place, the wine selected for Fino is fortified to an alcoholic strength of about 15%, just enough to encourage the growth of a native yeast called flor (at higher levels of alcohol, the precious flor would simply perish).
To promote flor growth, barrels are filled only partially with the fortified wine. The head-space left in the barrels provides the oxygen that the flor needs to grow. The yeast will also feed on the alcohol and glycerine in the wine, and eventually form a foamlike film on the surface of the wine. This “blanket of flor” protects the wine from oxidation and helps it develop the distinct yeasty, nutty flavor of Fino sherry.
But that’s not all! Sherry is unusual in that it is blended from many different barrels: the young wines are combined with older ones in a complex system called solera, or fractional blending. Without getting too technical, suffice it to say that solera is what allows Bodegas (wineries) to produce sherries that are consistent in style, year after year.
Which brings me to Bodega Valdespino. This medium-sized Bodega has been making sherries since 1264 – imagine that! By 1883, Valdespino was supplying the Royal Houses of Spain and Sweden with their exquisite sherries. In 1999 the Bodega changed hands. It is now run by Grupo Estévez. Fortunately, the new owners haven’t cut any corners; they have preserved both the house style and the high standards that Valdespino has always been celebrated for.
Let’s taste two of Valdespino’s best dry sherries.
Valdespino Inocente Fino
Producer: Bodega Valdespino
Region: Jerez D.O.
Grapes: 100% Palomino
Price: $25 (375ml)
This unique Fino sherry is made with grapes grown from a single vineyard, Macharnudo, one of the highest-altitude and best sites in the region. There, the grapes spread their roots in the distinct, highly prized albariza soil (a white, chalky-looking soil with high limestone content) that produces the most delicate wines in Jerez. The sherry is then fermented in American oak casks and aged for over 8 years (most Fino sherries are aged for only 3 to 5 years), giving it tremendous depth and complexity.
The result is a unique sherry that saturates your nostrils with aromas of almonds and citrus peel, along with whiffs of herbal, floral and mineral notes. The wine is alive, fresh and perky.
In the mouth, everything you inhaled expands with gusto! Lemon peel, almonds and green olives jump out while delicate green-herbal notes follow. The wine is mineral-y, salty, briny, sharp. The yeasty notes from the flor imbue every molecule of the wine without overpowering it. The mouth salivates and begs for one more sip, yet the finish is so long you want to hold back and savor.
Valdespino Deliciosa Manzanilla
Producer: Bodega Valdespino
Region: Sanlúcar de Barrameda D.O.
Grapes: 100% Palomino
Price: $18 (375ml)
The town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda is famous for its gentle sea breezes, mild temperatures and humid air. These conditions enable the flor to grow all year long and form a thicker layer on the wines. The result is a sherry that matures more slowly, with slightly lower levels of alcohol and a bit more acidity.
From the very first sniff, Valdespino’s Manzanilla lives up to its name – the aromas are indeed “deliciosas”. It’s more delicate on the nose than the Inocente but still, intense notes of unripe peach, citrus, almond, yeast, saltiness and fresh herbs emanate from the glass.
On the palate, the citrus notes are mellow while the nutty notes become more pronounced, evoking toasted hazelnuts. The yeasty flavors are delicate, with a bready character. The Deliciosa Manzanilla feels fuller, rounder, more viscous in the mouth than the Inocente Fino; yet it’s crisp, delightfully refreshing, and brimming with a minerality that makes you dream of the salty air coming off the Sanlúcar coast.
Both these dry sherries are ideal aperitif wines. Their refreshing character makes them perfect companions to salty nibbles, like Marcona almonds and meaty green olives, delicate seafood dishes and even sushi. But if you really want to show off these exquisite wines, serve them with tapas (see link below). I recommend opening several different Finos and Manzanillas and making at least 4 to 5 different dishes to complement the wines. Your taste buds will be in for quite a treat.
Where to buy
You’ll be able to find sherries from large Bodegas such as Lustau in almost every boutique wine store in the U.S. But if you want to sample hand-crafted Finos from smaller Bodegas, and you live in New York, try 67 Wine & Spirits in Manhattan. Their selection is superb and their staff are very knowledgeable. (In the process of researching sherries for this article, I bought several Fino sherries with the expert guidance of the lovely Melissa Sutherland.) If going to their store is not an option, then peruse their website. I can only urge you to explore and call the store if you need some guidance.
(212) 724-6767 or (888) 671-6767
179 Columbus Ave. New York, NY 10023
List of current sherries at 67 Wine & Spirits
Disclaimer: As always, my point of view is my own. I do not accept samples, and have no commercial relationship with any product, food or wine company.