“The boom for sherry was in the 1970s. Then, the sherry barons sat back on their laurels,” Jane Ward, export manager for Lustau, told me when I recently visited Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the spiritual and geographic home of sherry. “They missed out on a few generations.” By some estimates, the market for sherry in the United States has dropped nearly 75 percent since the 1980s.
But perhaps the cocktail is the way to win back the hearts and minds of consumers? Perhaps like the two cocktails I mixed for this week’s Spirits column, the Smoked Palomino and The Dunaway? The sherry producers I spoke with seem to think cocktails were the solution. Said Lustau’s Ward: “If you had asked us 10 years ago, ‘Is the cocktail scene of any interest?’ we’d have said, ‘Oh, no. We’re purists.’ But now, it’s just the opposite.”
Personally, I really enjoy sherry as a wine, and when I recently visited the town of Jerez, I was struck by the many different forms that sherry can take. “The first hurdle is to understand that sherry is not just one wine,” Ward said.
Many of us remember only the sweet “cream” sherries, like Harvey’s Bristol Cream, that were popular several decades back. Those sweet sherries, as Javier Hidalgo, winemaker at La Gitana puts it, “still give the image of granny and the priest taking cream sherry after Sunday service.” Some sweeter styles such as Pedro Ximenez or East India work in cocktails.
The sherries, however, that are most exciting are the drier finos and manzanillas, and my absolutely favorite style is the slightly longer-aged amontillado. Fino and manzanilla are essentially the same — the only real difference is that manzanilla comes specifically from the town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, where the sea breezes off the Atlantic Ocean are said to impart a special saline or briny character. Amontillado is essentially fino or manzanilla that has been aged longer, to the point of oxidation.
“The best way to introduce people to sherry is through food,” Ward said. I agree, especially when it comes to fino and manzanilla. Served chilled, these sherries, with their complex nutty flavors, cry out for food. They’re the ones I most often substitute for vermouth.
No matter what style you prefer, an important thing to keep in mind is that sherry is a wine, and therefore will spoil quickly — even more quickly than vermouth. Finos and manzanillas need to be consumed within a week of being opened; amontillados maybe 2 to 3 weeks; olorosos and creams within a month or two.
Some brands to look for include Tio Pepe (in particular for its fino), Hidalgo La Gitana (in particular for its manzanilla and amontillado), Lustau and Gutierrez Colosia. Even Harvey’s and William and Humbert (which made the Dry Sack, another 1970s favorite) may be putting more focus on the drier styles for the American market.
“Sherry is a way of aging wine more than anything else,” said Carmen Pou, of Gutierrez Colosia, refering to the unique solera system. This is a system of stacked casks, in which young sherry is added to the casks at the top, and then transferred lower as the sherry ages, with the oldest wines at the bottom. The younger wine therefore takes on characteristics of the older wine, and the older wine retains a liveliness and vitality.
But aging is only part of sherry’s story. “In the end what gives the distinct flavor to the wine is the yeast,” Pou said. This yeast — called the “flor” — forms a protective blanket around young sherry in the barrel.
Folks in Jerez are pretty passionate about their yeast. At some point on every tour of a sherry bodega in Jerez, visitors are shown a cut view of a barrel, with fino sherry resting inside its yeasty flor. When I was shown the flor at Harvey’s by Teresa Aumesquet, the commercial manager, and Eugenia Herrera Garcia, the public relations manager, the two women went nearly into a rapture about the yeast.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Eugenia.
“It’s a perfect yeast,” said Teresa.
“It’s a miracle of the wine!” Eugenia said.
“That’s why it’s called ‘flor.’ It’s a beautiful flower!” Teresa said.
“Well,” I said with a laugh. “You really seem to love your yeast here.”
“This is our culture,” Eugenia said.
“It’s in our blood,” Teresa said. “I’ve been brought up with sherry, and so I feel it.”