Wine Tip: Not Your Grandmother's Sherry

The distinctive wines of the Jerez region of Spain have come back in fashion. This summer, discover the dry, refreshing fino and Manzanilla styles
Wine Tip: Not Your Grandmother's Sherry
Emilio Lustau's cellar master, Sergio Martínez, samples his Sherry. (Courtesy of Emilio Lustau)
Jun 6, 2017

Note: This guide originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "Spain."

As we enjoy the summer months, there's likely one thing in most of our wineglasses: rosé. The popularity of the pale, dry pink stuff has exploded among U.S. consumers in recent years. The wines are fresh and thirst-quenching without delivering too much oomph—a necessity when basking under a hot sun. I can't argue with the choice, but I would proffer another option: Sherry.

Sherry doesn't deliver the uncomplicated charm of rosé. It's a bit more serious, usually with a bone-dry texture and salty tang. If you like a flavor profile that is bracing and mouthwatering rather than simply breezy, you should give Sherry a try.

Sherry, made primarily from the Palomino grape, comes in a wide range of styles, though they can be grouped into three general categories. First are the dry and light finos and Manzanillas. Second are nutty, oxidized, medium-bodied versions labeled as amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso. The richest and sweetest are dessert bottlings, often viscous and heady in feel, labeled as Pedro Ximénez and cream.

The winemaking techniques are complex, distinctive and traditional, involving the presence (in finos) or absence (in olorosos) of flor, a protective layer of yeast atop the wine as it sits in barrel, and the use of the solera system for aging, which blends older and younger wines to create a consistent style.

I tend to prefer the medium-bodied oloroso and dessert versions in the fall and winter months, while the fino and Manzanilla bottlings are ideal in summer; this report focuses on these dry Sherries, which represent about half of my reviews overall.

Finos are bracing and austere, but pleasantly so when you develop a taste for them. Manzanillas are finos aged exclusively in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. The two types are similar in style, but differ in flavor profile. Sanlúcar's proximity to the sea allows the flor to remain constant year-round; bodegas located farther inland are subject to wider swings in seasonal temperatures, and there the flor diminishes in summer and winter.

"It's these different climates and their influence on the way the flor develops on the surface of the wines that determine the character of each wine," explains Sergio Martínez, cellar master at Emilio Lustau. "Manzanilla is a wine of fine personality: fresh, with predominant hints of yeast. It is sharp, with sea-breeze scents and chamomile aromas. The yeasty character is also noticeable in fino, but it is not as delicate; the freshness is replaced by bakery and almond notes that give the wine a powerful and pungent character."

The Emilio Lustau Manzanilla Pasada Sanlúcar de Barrameda Almacenista Manuel Cuevas Jurado NV (91 points, $25/500ml) is an aged Manzanilla that has developed lightly browned butter, singed almond, dried orange peel and walnut notes, while still ending with a taut, dry finish. A more textbook fino would be the Emilio Lustau Fino Jerez Almacenista del Puerto José Luis Gonzalez Obregón NV (90, $25/500ml), delivering brisk and salty jicama, dried lemon rind and star fruit notes.

Not surprisingly, these wines pair best with the light, tapas-style cuisine of Spain. Put out plates of jamón Ibérico, olives and salted almonds for starters, but don't be afraid to try these wines with slightly more ambitious fare.

"Sushi without wasabi, deep-fried fish, delicate ceviches," says Jesús Barquín, co-owner of Sherry producer Equipo Navazos, about his preferred food pairings for Sherry.

The Equipo Navazos Manzanilla Pasada Sanlúcar de Barrameda La Bota 70 NV (94, $115/1.5L) is an eye-opening wine, with dried chamomile, orange blossom and bitter almond notes, backed by hints of dried quince, walnut and peach pit. It has both zip and weight, along with a distinctive smoky backdrop. Equipo Navazos bottles all of its wines directly from cask without fining or filtration, a technique referred to as en rama. You may see the term on some producers' wines; however, because all Equipo Navazos wines are en rama, they leave the identifier off their labels, instead using a different La Bota number to designate each new release.

En rama bottlings tend to show a plumper texture, with more weight and mouthfeel than regular, filtered bottlings. You can do an easy taste test with the widely available Tio Pepe bottlings from Gonzalez Byass. The Fino Jerez Tio Pepe En Rama NV (88, $26) has extra hints of wet straw and lemon curd, while the regular bottling (88, $20; last reviewed in 2015) is squeaky clean, with streaks of blanched almond and fleur de sel.

Other producers worth tracking down include Bodegas Tradición, Williams & Humbert, Bodegas Barbadillo, Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín and Bodegas La Cigarrera.

Serve your finos and Manzanillas chilled; an opened bottle will stay fresh in the refrigerator for a week or two. The wines check in at around 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol, so they're best served in and sipped from small glasses.

As these are non-vintage wines bottled on a semi-regular basis, it helps to check the lot number or bottling date, which is often noted on the back of the bottle. This number or date might be next to the term saca, which refers to when the wine was drawn from cask. In general, the more recent the bottling, the better. However, if you like a more rounded, mature feel, those that have aged a year or so can be interesting.

Once you've got your beak wet on fino and Manzanilla Sherries, move up to the next two categories of this distinctive wine. But we can wait until fall to get there.

A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all Sherries tasted for this report is available.

Fortified Wines

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