I had an elderly aunt who seldom drank and, on the rare occasions when she did lift a celebratory glass, it was filled with sherry.
The tipple of old ladies, the comfort of dons, though, on one occasion when she had been lured into taking a second glass, my aunt was sufficiently overcome by exuberance to send a silver tea tray flying across the room.
Perhaps, I thought, sherry was not as innocent as it seemed. Nevertheless, I left it to an earlier generation and moved on to sterner stuff.
It was some years before I discovered the truth of what Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, "the second properties of your excellent Sherris, is, the warming of the Blood . . . The Sherris warmes it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extremes."
When the weather turns cold, there are few things as soothing as a glass of sherry, its warmth spreading to "the parts extremes." It is a pleasure that should be shared with friends.
Alexis Lichine, in his New Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (Third Edition, Borzoi Books, 1981), gives descriptions of the various sherries that should make it easy for you to decide which ones to offer at a sherry party:
"Fino--A pale, light gold wine: the lightest in color of the sherries. The nose of the wine is not pronounced but characteristic, like the scent released by a freshly picked apple. There is a hint of almond too . . . Once bottled it may keep up to two years . . . but it will not improve at all and will eventually lose its freshness . . . Fino should be bought shortly before it is to be drunk, and from a supplier who can be trusted not to have kept it too long on the shelf. Once opened, Fino is inclined to fade away.
"Manzanilla--This is the palest of the Finos, a fresh, incredibly light, tart wine . . . It is the unchallenged favorite of many Spanish people.
"Palma--A name used for a distinguished, delicate Fino in Spain, Palma has recently come into use in export as a brand name.
"Amontillado--A darker-colored sherry, from one to three degrees stronger in alcohol than a Fino . . . They may have Fino or other wines blended in, although there must be some Amontillado or the characteristic nuttiness of flavor will disappear. Generally speaking the nuttier the taste, the truer the Amontillado . . .
"Oloroso--A more full-bodied wine than Amontillado. As its name implies, the wine is strong in bouquet--nutty and pungent in the finest bottles. But its most distinctive characteristic is gordura, a rich vinosity and opulence that can literally be translated as 'fatness.' Oloroso leaves a lingering sensation of richness on the palate which produces an illusion of sweetness.
"Palo Cortado--This is a rare type: an Oloroso with the characteristics of the Fino group . . . A true Palo Cortado is a vintage wine, very rare in sherry, and something that simply 'happens'--it cannot be achieved by blending.
"Amoroso--A sweetened Oloroso, of a dark color . . .
"Cream Sherry--A heavily sweetened Oloroso . . .
"Tio Pepe--This is not a type, but a brand name for a dry sherry, just as Dry Sack is for a medium sherry.
"Most sherry wine is served at room temperature; but a dry Amontillado can be slightly cooled and Finos and Manzanillas may be chilled."
To serve with the drier sherries, do what the Spanish do and offer Tapa, a collection of appetizers -- onions, olives, shrimp, sardines, or for the sweeter sherries, adopt the habit of that earlier generation and serve biscuits.