FOOD & DRINK: Sherry is not just for Christmas

This month, our wine expert DAVID CLAY considers the delights of sherry.

THERE is a triangle of land in south west Spain in the province of Cadiz, a delightful place to spend a holiday with lovely Atlantic beaches, the great nature reserve of Coto Doñana, the historic cities of Seville and Cádiz, the rugged mountains and superb seafood, and of course Jerez de la Frontera at the centre of the sherry industry.

I have a friend who has a glass of sherry — Amontillado — every day but generally sherry suffered a decline and is only now coming back into fashion.

The wines go back to Roman times but it was Sir Francis Drake’s raid on Cádiz in 1587, when he seized the equivalent of 110 gallon barrels, that established sherry in England.

There are three different types of soil, the most highly rated being the dazzling white albariza, mostly chalk with some sand and clay.

The main grapes used for sherry are the Palomino for drier wines such as Fino to Amontillado and Olorosos. Pedro Ximénez is mainly used for sweet dessert wines.

The special character of sherry is that it is matured in casks with air space above the liquid which, especially near the sea, develops a ‘flor’ of yeasts on the surface of the liquid stopping oxidation and leaving the characteristic flavour of bitter almonds.

This is thickest with finos and manzanillas which must not be fortified over 15 per cent to retain the flor. Fuller-bodied sherries are fortified immediately to at least 18 per cent to kill it.

Then there is the unique method of ageing by the solera system where long rows of oak butts, anything from five to 14, contain the same wine but of different years. When wine is taken off it is from the butts containing the oldest wine, then the butt is topped up from the next oldest butt and so on. This gives a consistent house style.

Manzanilla, a Fino made in Sanlucar de Barrameda on the coast, is usually dry, crisp, delicate, nutty with a slight salty note. Terrific with seafood. Serve cold:

Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla 50cl 15pc (Sainsbury’s £8, Waitrose £11.19) Crisp and fresh with a salty tang.                                                                                                                  Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana NV Hidalgo (Majestic £12.99, Waitrose £13) An intense nose of apple skins and nuts leads on to a palate with classic notes of almonds, orange peel and a salty twang.

Fino is great with savoury nibbles, olives, fried fish, ham and tapas, an ideal aperitif, but won’t keep when opened so keep in fridge for three or four days maximum:

Fino Tio Pepe, Gonzales Byass 15pc (Majestic, Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco £10-£11) Clean, bone dry, crisp. The first shipment reached Britain in 1844.

The Society’s Fino, Sánchez Romate 15pc (The Wine Society £6.95) Terrific value. Crisp, bready, appley and dry.

Amontillado is an aged Fino. It undergoes a double solera ageing process, firstly biological under flor and then allowed a bit of oxidation. It is dry or medium dry, and at least eight years old. Great before or during a meal, usually with nutty aromas, tobacco, aromatic herbs:

Harveys Amontillado 17.5pc (Sainsbury’s and Tesco £10.50) Rich, smooth, nutty and elegant.

Amontillado Napoleon Hidalgo La Gitana 17.5pc (Lightfoots £17.25) Bone dry with intriguing nutty flavours, slightly oxidised with a mouthwatering, pungent, yeasty tang.

Olorosos have higher alcohol so have no flor in cask. The darkest and most complex sherry with much more concentration. Intense and nutty. I hope Morrisons The Best Oloroso comes back into stock soon. Made by Emilio Lustau this was terrific value:

Williams and Hulbert 12-year-old Oloroso 37.5 cl (Waitrose £8.79) A bright amber coloured sherry with classic aromas of dried fruit, walnuts and almonds. Rich, dry and smooth with a beautiful soft smokey oak aftertaste.

Cream sherries are Olorosos with a little sweet Pedro Ximenez added.

Palo Cortado is a rare type of sherry. No one quite knows its origin. It originally appeared by accident. It has “Amontillado on the nose and Oloroso in the mouth”. Whatever its origins it is difficult to reproduce so is a minute section of the whole sherry industry. It is now quite fashionable:

No 1 Torre Del Oro Palo Cortado 19pc (Waitrose £11.99) Elegant and complex with a nutty richness made from the Palomino grape. Lovely.

Pedro Ximénez is sweet, chocolatey, nutty.

Taste the Difference 12-year Sweet Pedro Ximenez 50cl (Sainsbury’s £8) Exceptionally sweet. It’s also syrupy, rather like crushed sultanas. Great poured over vanilla ice cream.

Pedro Ximenez Triana Hidalgo 15pc (Majestic £14.99 mixed six) Aromas of raisins, molasses, figs, toffee and nuts. Intense sweetness and length.

TioToto Pedro Ximenez (The Wine Society £13.95) Dry figs and sultanas, lusciously sweet but with a fresh finish.

Besides the ones mentioned earlier, sherry goes well with salmon, cold meats, especially ham, later with the cheeseboard and its accompaniments. So don’t just think of sherry at Christmas.

Above are just a few of the stunning great value sherries available for before, during and after a meal. Try some.

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