Few wines offer as much refinement, complexity and sheer drinking pleasure as a good Spanish sherry. At under $10, and often less, sherry may be the last legitimate bargain among the world's great wines.
Sherries come in a wide range of styles, but the two that seem to work best at this time of year are the finos and the far rarer manzanillas. Bone-dry and tangy, when served well-chilled they are ideal summer aperitifs.
Both wines start life the same as other sherries. After a frothy, often violent fermentation, the new wines are unceremoniously dumped into large, 500-liter barrels called butts. At that time, small amounts of spirits are added to fortify the wine. Then, through a process that is not quite as mysterious as the sherry bodegas would have us believe, some vats develop a harmless mold called flor, sealing off the sherry beneath and allowing it to develop without the oxidizing effects of the surrounding atmosphere. The pale, delicate wine that results is a fino.
Sherries that don't develop flor are known as olorosos. While olorosos, like all sherries, are fermented to complete dryness, most oloroso is later sweetened or incorporated into cream sherries. Though rarely seen outside of the sherry region, dry olorosos do exist, and can provide equally refreshing, if less refined sips than a fino.
Manzanilla is essentially a fino produced in the seacoast town of Sanlucarde Barrameda. The moist sea air isusually credited with providing the characteristic salty tang of a good manzanilla. And indeed, young wines from Sanlucar de Barrameda aged in the sherry capital at Jerez soon revert to ordinary finos. A well-made manzanilla is perhaps the most delicate and refined sherry of all.
The best accompaniments to sherry may be the traditional tapas and raciones -- spicy shrimp, chorizo sausage, baby sole, smoked fish and other piquant delicacies -- served in the ramshackle bars that dot the sherry region. For the less ambitious here, however, it's worth noting that olives are also thought there to harmonize especially well with the salty tang of manzanilla.
Since most all sherry is produced by the solera system, whereby new wine is continuously blended with older wine to maintain a consistent style, one needn't worry about vintages. Also, an open bottle will last for weeks if recorked and stored in the refrigerator (though I have found that the better finos and manzanillas lose some of their "attack" within the first few days).
Listed below is a broad range of finos and manzanillas available at area shops, in my order of preference. All are available for under $10, and some for less than $5 (prices vary and are approximate). Note that even the lower-ranked wines offer good value.
Tio Pepe (Gonzales Byass; $8.50): Tio Pepe is the textbook fino. Tangy, complex, and well-constituted, with a long, satisfying finish, Tio Pepe was neither the flashiest nor the most powerful sherry in the group. Rather it demonstrated exceptional balance, the common denominator of all fine wines.
La Ina (Pedro Domecq; $9): Light, delicate and fruity, this may be the fino for those who think they don't like dry sherries. The color is light straw pale with a chablis-like green tinge, and the vibrant bouquet has nuances of fresh cut peaches and other fruit. Relatively lightly fortified, La Ina is bone-dry, lively, fresh and absolutely charming.
Averys Elizabetha ($6): Darker in color than the two wines above, with an intense, almost earthy bouquet, this is a richer, more powerful style of fino that would be a good choice to serve with more pungent tapas.
Double Century Fino (Pedro Domecq; $5): More classicly styled than its stablemate La Ina, though less complex, this sherry is well-balanced and flavorful, with a soft finish. An excellent value.
Delgado Zuleta Manzanilla "La Galvana" ($6); Delgado Zuleta Fino ($5.50): Both are darker in color than the other sherries, and exhibit a nutty taste that suggest that they've received some aging. The fino is a little broader on the palate, but the salt-tanged, aromatic manzanilla would get my vote on charm.
Wisdom and Water Fino ($5): A sweet nose, smooth flavors and good balance make this a fair value, though it lacks the tangy "edge" of the better finos.
Duff Gordon "Fino Feria" ($7): Darker than many finos, Duff Gordon has a pleasant, nutty bouquet, and thought it's a bit clumsy for an over-$5 sherry, it is nonetheless a respectable effort.
Savory and James Fino; Savory and James Manzanilla ($4.50): The fino is straightforward and well-made, uncomplicated but refreshing. The manzanilla has a bit of the characteristic tang, but lacks intensity.
Perfecto Fino; Perfecto Manzanilla (Garvey; $4): The manzanilla is light and pleasant, but the fino seems overly fortified and somewhat coarse. Bear in mind, however, that these are merely the budget offerings of the well-respected Garvey firms.
As it has for the last 160 years or so, New Zealand has once again beaten France in the race to produce the first "nouveau" wine of the year. Of course, it doesn't hurt that New Zealand's southern hemisphere vineyards are harvested a full six months before those of Beaujolais. The 1986 Corbans Blanc de Blanc Nouveau ($4), introduced at a New Zealand Embassy reception on May 28, is hardly going to give the French much cause for concern, but it's lively, slightly off-dry, and fun to quaff.
For those who like the pop of a cork after dinner, Moet & Chandon, producer of Dom Perignon and other champagnes, has introduced Petit Liquer, which it claims is the world's first sparkling liquer. Packaged in a miniature (200 ml; $5) version of the Dom Perignon bottle, with a slightly nutty, chocolate and anisette flavor, Petit Liquer is lightly carbonated ("petillante") and worked quite well with sweet dessert. Traditionalists, however, might prefer to try instead the all but forgotten demi-sec (semi-sweet) champagnes, including those made by Moet, Napa's Schramsburg, Mumms and others, which are also delightful after dinner sparklers.
Values continue to abound in the $5-$7 price range. Domaine St. George's 1985 Chardonnay is easily the equal of its 1984, exhibiting even more intense, ripe chardonnay fruit and spicy oak in the classic California style. If your tastes still run to the more austere, elegant French style, but you refuse to pay the $7 or more now demanded even for many mediocre ma cons these days, consider a Loire white. The 1985 muscadet from the Domaine de La Fruitie re ($4-$6) is a well rendered, classicly crisp and refreshing muscadet, with a delicate bouquet and good length.
Comeback cha teau of the year? My nominee is second growth Cha teau Rausan Se'gla. In cash, the 1983 clearly outclassed the excellent, though more loosely structured 1982. But would Rausan Se'gla's past sins, over filtration and under selection, once again be visited on the bottled product? Credit new mai tre de chai Michel Bruzaud for assuring they were not. The 1983 Rausan Se'gla ($13-$17), now arriving at area shops, is superb -- dense, dark and richly perfumed, and in the context of the current overheated bordeaux market, a bargain.
Italian wine lovers take note. A&A Liquors has reopened on Wisconsin Avenue just below Calvert under the ownership of Italian wine expert (and former manager at the prior location) Tom Hanna. It is perhaps the most beautiful wine store in the city. Along with Mayflower Liquors on M Street, it establishes Washington as one of the best cities in the country to experience the rich diversity of high-quality Italian wines -- and along with Pearson's, almost across the street, puts the upper Georgetown/Glover Park neighborhood among the premiere wine shopping districts in the city.