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The sommelier suggests… Sherry by Christopher Bates MS

We invite a leading sommelier to pick a go-to, favourite grape variety or wine style.

Christopher Bates is a Master Sommelier and co-owner with his wife Isabel Bogadtke of FLX Hospitality – a family of hospitality-focused businesses, including F.L.X. Wienery, F.L.X. Table and Quincy Exchange, as well as wineries and breweries, including Element Winery, Colloquial Wines and F.L.X. Culture House. In 2012, Bates won Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’ Best Young Sommelier of the Year competition, and won the TopSomm national competition the following year.

Let me tell you a secret… Sherry may be the most food-friendly, versatile, diverse and delicious wine in the world. Want something to sip on before a meal to get the juices flowing? Sherry (fino). Something for lighter first courses, raw fish, snacks and shellfish? Sherry (manzanilla). Roast chicken, pork, root vegetables and anything fried? Sherry (amontillado). Richer meat and game dishes, braises, stews and mushrooms? Sherry (oloroso). Fruit- or cream-based puddings and desserts? Sherry (Moscatel). Chocolate, caramel or rich desserts? Sherry (cream or PX). A nightcap after dinner? Sherry (the extremely old Sherries known as VORS). Alongside Champagne and Riesling, Sherry is one of the few wine styles that can pair through an entire menu so gracefully.

So, the time has come to drop the stigma and see past the name – it’s time to treat Sherry like a wine and not a spirit, or worse ‘a fortified wine’. Sherry is so much more than that.

A little on the geeky side: Sherry comes from southern Spain, near Cádiz, and is a wine defined by its place, from the chalky, barren white albariza soils to the hot, dry Levante wind blowing from inland Spain, to the cool, humid Poniente wind bringing oceanic influence. It’s made (nearly entirely) from an often overlooked white grape called Palomino. Much like Champagne, though, these wines really come into their own through their winemaking. The story of most great wines starts and stops with the grape variety(ies) and where it was grown, yet when we talk about Sherry (and Champagne), that’s only the beginning of the story.

Explore the styles

There are three major styles of Sherry: dry white (fino and manzanilla), dry mahogany (palo cortado and oloroso) – yes, I said dry – and sweet, dessert wines. All three are ‘fortified’, but don’t think of it as a fortified wine… these wines are meant for the dinner (and lunch) table! The dry white style usually sits at about 15% alcohol – along with many Californian, Australian and Spanish table wines – and the other styles are only a few degrees higher.

Unlike most wines, Sherry is stored for years, decades even, in large barrels that aren’t filled to the top, creating a surface area that is directly in contact with oxygen. Because those destined for fino and manzanilla are only fortified to 15%, a blanket of flor (yeasts) forms on the surface of the wines, protecting them from oxygen, keeping them light in colour and enhancing their youthful flavours. These white wines are among the world’s driest, saltiest, most savoury and yeastiest wines. With aromas of green apple, Marcona almond, chalk, white flowers, bread dough, sea spray and crushed shells, these wines define the power of yeast.

Those wines destined for the richer mahogany styles (palo cortado, oloroso) are fortified to a higher alcohol level, at which flor cannot survive, which means the wine can breathe in the oxygen, deepening the colour and giving darker, richer, nuttier flavours. These are deep, roasted, powerful wines that smell of baked pears and quince, pecans and walnuts, caramel, leather and old wood. Giving voice to the influence of oxygen, these embody the passing of time.

And then there is amontillado, gracefully exuding the best of both styles, a wine that spends the first half of its life protected by flor, and the second half unprotected, exposed to the influence of oxygen.

And, for those who like a wine with sweetness, PX is unforgettable… a wine squeezed, literally, from raisins – the Pedro Ximénez grapes shrivel in the hot, dry sun before being pressed and fermented. Beyond unctuous, it offers flavours of treacle, dried fruits and spice, making it one of the world’s most individual dessert wines.

Great-value wine

So, grab a bottle of fino or amontillado and open a tin of sardines or anchovies, grab a bowl of nuts and green olives, open a bag of potato chips (no, really…) and invite friends over. Pour it into proper wine glasses, and pour like you would a white wine: 125ml pours, so, five or six glasses to a bottle. And finish the bottle – it’s a wine, not a spirit.

One last reason to buy? Well, Sherry may also be the world’s most undervalued wine. These wines spend five, 10, 20 even up to 30 years or more in barrel, developing and concentrating, and are delivered to you, ready to drink and in their prime, for prices that often equate to less than two dollars (or quid) per year spent ageing in barrel… You won’t find wines of this age, at this price, from any other region.

Discovering Sherry: Bates’ top picks

Let’s start with one of the most important finos in the world, Tio Pepe (widely available). Aged for an average of four years in the solera system at Gonzalez Byass, this fino is light, fresh, salty and yeasty: the perfect aperitif. Then, to better understand the styles, the best thing to do is try them side by side, from the same producer.

From Valdespino, grab a bottle of Inocente Fino (£19-£22.99 via independent merchants) and Tio Diego Amontillado (similarly available) – these are the same wines, aged for 10 years side by side. The only difference is that whereas Inocente ages under its yeast flor for the entire 10 years, in Tio Diego the flor is extinguished after about five years, letting the wine interact with oxygen. When you are ready to splash out, grab a bottle of VORS (‘Very Old Rare Sherry’ in English) from the ranges offered by Bodegas Tradición, Gonzalez Byass or Lustau, and see what these different styles become at 30, 40 or 50 years.

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