Sherry Is The Best Wine You’re Not Drinking
Wildly underrated — and shockingly affordable — the fortified Spanish wine deserves your full attention.
Sherry may be the most versatile wine for pairing with food. Take a closer look and you’ll find a universe of flavors that range from bone dry to dessert-wine sweet and all points in between, a sensory trip from crisp acidity to salty umami to rich and woody complexity that will wow any wine-loving foodie. But with so many different types within the spirits category — Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, and Oloroso, to name a few — it’s hard to know where to start.
“Everyone has heard about Sherry, but nobody knows about it,” says Lucas Paya, a Sherry educator whose prior posts include wine director for José Andrés and sommelier of the legendary Spanish restaurant, El Bulli. Paya now runs his own wine consulting company, and he developed a Sherry certification program with The House of Lustau that has trained more than 400 people globally since its launch in 2017. Paya believes that Sherry is the most underrated wine in the world. “If it were French, it would cost 250 Euros a bottle,” he says.
At the most basic level, Sherry is a wine produced in the Jerez region in Andalusia in Southern Spain. The primary grape used in making Sherry is Palomino Fino — often shortened to Palomino. (Though sweet sherries use Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes.) Sherry is commonly aged using what is called a ‘solera’ method, where barrels are stacked from oldest on the bottom to youngest on the top, and the younger wines are gradually added to the older ones over time. Though Sherry is fortified — meaning neutral grape spirits are added — Sherry experts like Paya stress that it should be thought of like wine.
“Sherry can be the driest wine in the world or the sweetest, and everything in between,” says Paya. “If you combine everything: variety, soil, terroir, and aging methods, you have a universe of profiles, and that’s why we say this is the ultimate food wine.”
At El Bulli, Paya says Jerez was the only region they could pair with an entire 30 course menu. While this full-Sherry pairing was rare, every guest who came to El Bulli was offered a glass of Fino or Manzanilla as an aperitif, “to start their culinary experience.” But you don’t need to be at a Michelin-starred restaurant to experiment with Sherry pairing. Paya suggests trying combos like a burger with Oloroso, pizza with Amontillado, and Mac n’ Cheese with Manzanilla.
“People’s minds are blown when they pair the right Sherry with right food,” says Brandon Underwood, General Manager and Beverage Director of the Spanish restaurant Estadio, in Charleston, SC. Underwood curates a Sherry menu on a gradient from light and crisp to dark and rich to suit the range of food on his menu. He recommends Fino or Manzanilla with delicate food such as crudo. With something saltier and sharper like Iberico ham, he’ll move on to an Amontillado, and for comfort food, he’ll suggest a richer Oloroso––always pairing “like intensities.”
Underwood says that what shocks people most is the realization that Sherry is not sweet. When talking about Sherry with newbies, he focuses exclusively on Dry Sherries: Fino, Manzanilla, Palo Cortado, Amontillado, and Oloroso. To make it relatable for most people, he talks about Sherry like any other wine. When he’s facing a whiskey lover, however, he nudges them to something that has had more barrel contact, like an Oloroso, to make it more relatable. He will often give people a free glass of Sherry when they’ve ordered something he knows it will pair well with, just to see their faces light up when they experience the combination.
10 Excellent Bottles of Sherry to Try
Dry Sherry can be viewed as a spectrum from the lighter Fino and Manzanilla to more aged and oxidized Amontillado and Oloroso. The varieties of sweet Sherry like Pedro Ximénez are a bit like cousins with a separate flavor spectrum and a totally different appeal. You should drink them all in a white wine glass, with a fridge chill on Fino and Manzanilla and a slight chill on the rest.
Light, dry, and best served chilled, Fino is what the Spanish drink during their spring festivals. Fino and Manzanilla are aged “biologically” under a naturally occurring protective layer of yeast, called Flor, that prevents exposure to oxygen. Because it hasn’t yet been oxidized, it needs to be consumed within 3-5 days of opening, so consider a half-bottle size. “As the Spanish say, if you don’t have time for a half bottle, you don’t have time for lunch,” says Underwood.
Produced by a bodega founded by a master carpenter in 1832, this Fino is aged 6 years in American Oak under a protective Flor, and is best enjoyed quickly after it’s opened and as soon after it was bottled as possible. Its 15% ABV is not much higher than other wine, and it’s a perfect companion for lighter food because it won’t overpower delicate flavors.
Made from grapes grown in a single vineyard on 50-year-old vines, this Fino is aged 10 years aged under Flor in the solera style. It is delicate and complex, with a roundness on the palate and a lingering mineral aftertaste owing to the chalky vineyard soil. Perfect to serve with oysters or light, grilled seafood. 15% ABV.
Manzanilla is a style of Fino Sherry from the town of Sanlúcar de Barrambeda. The unique climate of the town allows the Flor (yeast layer) to grow year-round and create a uniquely delicate Sherry with a salty sea influence in its flavor. Like Fino, Manzanilla should be served chilled and enjoyed within 3-5 days of opening.
Bodegas La Cigarrera has been aging Sherry since 1758. This Manzanilla is aged four years, fortified to 15% ABV, and is best served very freshly bottled and freshly opened. La Cigarrera also makes an incredible 20+ year-old Manzanilla Pasada that, if you can find it, is a bit pricier but is a truly exquisite Sherry experience.
From a bodega founded in 1792 that has been passed down from father to son and owned continuously by the same family ever since. Dry, crisp, and delicate, with the saline notes typical of Manzanilla, this is an ideal companion for seafood and salads, or to serve an aperitif.
After aging “biologically” under protective Flor like Fino and Manzanilla, Amontillado is then aged “oxidatively” and allowed to mingle with the air. It is richer than Fino and darker in color from oxidization, it has a slightly higher alcohol content, and it can therefore stand up to richer food. Because it has already been exposed to oxygen during the aging process, it also lasts a few weeks once opened. It should be served slightly chilled, not as cold as Fino.
Made with estate-grown organic grapes by a bodega founded in 1795, this Amontillado is dry and woody with a savory complexity that will pair well with a variety of food. After five years of biological aging under protective Flor, it gets 12 years of oxidative aging, for a total of 17 years of age before bottling at 18% ABV.
Aged four years under Flor and a minimum of an additional 8 years of oxidative aging, this versatile Sherry has a woody richness and amber color from time spent in contact with American Oak, and pairs well with charcuterie, hard cheeses, and nuts. Fortified to 16.5% ABV.
Aged entirely oxidatively, Oloroso has more oxidization time than Amontillado which gives it a darker color and a higher level of glycerin. That naturally-occurring compound gives it a richer and rounder mouth feel. Oloroso is less dry than any of the Sherries above, but it’s still not sweet. It also lasts a month or more once opened since it has already known oxygen all its life.
Made from hand-harvested and estate-grown grapes, this Oloroso gets 17-20 years of oxidative aging in casks that are not topped up with younger Sherries—leading to a gradually richer flavor with savory depths as water is lost and the alcohol content strengthens to 18% ABV. Serve at a cool room temperature and pair it with stews and grilled meat, or even a burger.
Produced by a bodega originally founded in 1765, this slightly sweet Oloroso is aged for 18 years, during which time it acquires a deep and woody complexity, and is then bottled at 18% ABV. It has a medium level of sweetness, with notes of roasted hazelnuts and toffee, and would pair well with a cheese course or with dessert.
Palo Cortado Sherry
Palo Cortado is a rare Sherry that occurs through a happy accident: it begins aging under Flor, but then unplanned conditions cause it to lose that protective layer and it’s then aged oxidatively like an Oloroso — with the finished wine having properties of both Amontillado and Oloroso. It’s best served slightly chilled and lasts a few weeks or more after being opened.
César Florido Peña del Aguila Palo Cortado – Aged for an average of 40 years in solera by a bodega founded in 1887, this extremely rare Sherry normally kept by the bodega’s owners for special occasions and only sold in limited releases. It is dry and complex and would appeal equally to wine and whiskey-loving foodies. Bottled at 19% ABV.
For those who want more of a dessert wine Sherry, this is made using Pedro Ximénez grapes and comes in far sweeter by design. It is best served slightly chilled and lasts a month or more after opening. Paya recommends drizzling it over vanilla ice cream or sipping it with blue cheese or dark chocolate.
Once picked, the Pedro Ximénez grapes are laid out in the sun to raisinate, and then the fermentation is stinted to preserve more of the natural sugars, leading to a decadently sweet Sherry. Aged oxidatively for 12 years and fortified to 17% ABV, it possesses a rich essence of figs, dates, and raisins that make it an ideal holiday Sherry.
One Great Sherry Cocktail To Make
Sherry is a dazzling component for cocktails, both for the savory and umami flavor profiles that it can add to a classic cocktail, and for its versatility in low ABV drinks. The Adonis is a simple but classic Sherry cocktail that anyone can make easily at home.
The Adonis Cocktail
- 1.5-ounce Fino Sherry
- 1.5-ounce Sweet Vermouth
Directions: Stir in a mixing glass and serve in a chilled coupe glass with an orange peel twist.