When's the last time you had a glass of sherry, that sweet Spanish wine with an old-fashioned reputation? For me, it was a complimentary goblet served nightly at a fusty bed-and-breakfast in Columbia, South Carolina — more than 10 years ago.
But sherry is indeed making a comeback, among millennials and cocktail enthusiasts alike. Wine Enthusiast's Michael Schachner writes, "Sherry, for ages one of the most tradition-bound, staid and ignored wines in the world, is surging in popularity. A new generation of wine drinkers is embracing this idiosyncratic, fortified product from Spain's deep south."
The wine itself has a storied history that goes back centuries. Sherry was born in a port town, Jerez, on the Andalucian coast of Spain. Thanks to Phoenicians and Romans bustling about during high times of trade and commerce, vineyards were planted in the region.
The preferred drink of conquerors
Following sea captain Sir Francis Drake's attack and raid against Spanish naval forces at Cádiz, sherry became popular with the British. (Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich Collections [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)
Soon the Moors came along and brought with them the art of distillation. Later, grape brandy was added, making it a fortified wine. This not only upped the alcohol content, but also its shelf life, which was crucial during the days of long sea voyages.
Wallace Levy McKeel explores sherry's history in Food Republic, writing, "Columbus notably lashed casks of sherry to his ships as ballast, and when Ferdinand Magellan embarked on his journey to circumnavigate the globe, he spent more money on sherry than on weapons."
Sherry begins as a dry white wine. Once fermented and with grape brandy added, the wine is left to age in a solera, a complex system of casks that allow for fractional blending — meaning different ages of sherry are blended together to produce the final product. By law, sherry must reach an average age of two years before it can be sold.
The solera system
Sherry is aged through a complex system of casks called a solera. (Photo: Anual [CC by SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Like some wines, sherry is a bit high-maintenance. The Evening Standard notes: "Like Champagne, there is only one place where it can be produced: in the vineyards in southern Spain, where the extreme heat and soil create perfect conditions for sherry grapes to thrive."
If your interest has been piqued by this storied spirit, consider a tasting of its various styles. Though some sommeliers insist there are as many as 11 types of sherry, we'll narrow it down to the main six. It's suggested you begin with the driest and work your way up (or down) to the sweetest, which in this case would look like this:
- Fino: The driest, most acidic sherry. Excellent with salty snacks like Marcona almonds; serve well-chilled.
- Manzanilla: Also light and refreshing; good with seafood. Bring on the tapas!
- Amontillado: Oxidized and brown in color, with an umami taste. Good with white meats.
- Oloroso: Also oxidized, can be sweet or dry depending on the grape. Same pairing as Amontillado.
- Palo Cortado: Considered the "wild card" of sherry and best enjoyed on its own.
- Cream/PX: Probably what your grandma sipped on. No actual cream involved, but excellent as a dessert wine.
With an alcohol content similar to wine, sherries are wonderful pairings for food, though purists may sip it straight, out of a copita (a tulip-shaped sherry glass). If you'd like to ease into the sherry stream slowly, consider a sherry cocktail. With its myriad styles and flavors, sherry can be the modifier or base for a refreshing cocktail.
Schachner says, "Sherry is making a comeback among the mixology set — driven in part by the revival of historic libations." Indeed, sherry cocktails are not just a modern millennial invention. Consider the Sherry Cobbler, a late 1800s classic made with sugar, citrus, sherry and "cobblestone ice" (its namesake) and topped with a fancy fruit garnish.
If you need further convincing, drink magazine PUNCH cleverly notes that none other than Charles Dickens himself gives a shout-out to the drink in his novel "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit":
"Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop. 'This wonderful invention, sir,' said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, 'is called a cobbler. Sherry Cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.'"