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Sweet Mystery Of Sherry 

Drink it while it's young and fresh

Chances are you've got a bottle of sherry stashed somewhere in your kitchen. You know the one: you bought it two years ago, used some in a recipe and left the rest to rot in the back of the cupboard. Perhaps you've been wondering what to do with it. Here's a hint: take it out of the cupboard, pour the contents down the sink and recycle the bottle.

I'm not saying your sherry sucks, I'm saying it's too old. Sherry doesn't improve with age and tastes best while it's fresh and young. If this surprises you, you're not alone. To most Americans, sherry is a mysterious sweet beverage sipped only by stuffy ascot-wearing Brits. If you share this tragic opinion, it's time for a sherry primer.

To put it simply, sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes (usually Palomino Fino). The wine gets its name from the historical English pronunciation of "Jerez," the town in Southern Spain where sherry originates. The region is known for its chalky soil, scorching weather and lack of rainfall, which help give sherry its special characteristics.

There are three main styles of sherry, ranging from bone dry to super sweet. Pale fino sherry is the lightest and driest type. Amontillado sherries are more full bodied and may have a touch of sweetness. The richest sherries are the olorosos, which can be blended with sweet grapes to make cream sherry.

Sherries are made the same way as regular table wines, until their fermentation process is complete. After fermentation, sherry wines are fortified with grape-based spirits such as brandy and left in casks. While they're maturing, a yeast called "flor" develops on the wines' surface, which helps prevent oxidation. The thickness of the flor determines the style of sherry each cask will produce. The thicker the flor, the drier the sherry will be.

Next the sherry is added to a solera for blending. In a traditional solera system, several rows of small oak barrels are stacked on top of each other, with the oldest wines on the bottom. When it's time to bottle, about a third of each barrel on the bottom row is removed. The winemaker then replaces the missing wine with sherry from the row immediately above it. This process continues until a complete transfer is made from top to bottom. In this way, consistent character and quality can be achieved from year to year.

Now that you know how sherry is made, it's important to know how to drink it. Here's how to get the most out of your sherry:

* Drink it as soon as possible after opening (within a week for finos; four-eight weeks for everything else).

* Finos should be served very cold. Amontillados and olorosos are best at just below room temperature.

* Sherry is OK by itself, but it's even better with food. Fino is great with tapas, seafood and soups. Amontillado goes well with spicy foods, nuts and desserts. Serve sweet sherries with rich desserts.

* Recork the bottle immediately after serving to preserve the wine's freshness, and store it upright in the refrigerator.

REVIEWS

To showcase sherry's style differences, I tasted three varieties from the same producer (priced $12-15).

Sandeman Don Fino

This pale sherry has a pleasant, sweet smell but tastes bone dry. Sip it with almonds and salty cheeses like Manchego. ***

Sandeman Character Sherry (Amontillado)

Richer than the fino, this has a nutty smell, with yummy caramel and orange accents. It's smooth, slightly sweet and refreshing. **** 1/2

Sandeman Armada Rich Cream Sherry

The sweetest of the trio, this is like an intensified version of the Character sherry. If you like port, you'll dig this. ****

Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com, mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF. *THE WINE LIST

BISTRO 100 100 N. Tryon Street, will host its 2nd Annual Morel Mushroom Festival dinner featuring wines from Cakebread Cellars on May 23 at 7pm. Cost is $98 per person. Reservations are suggested. For more information call 704-344-0515.

CAROLINA WINE CLUB Morning classes run from 10-11:30am. Evening classes run from 6:30-8pm. All classes are held at the Mint Museum of Craft + Design. Upcoming: May 28, Building A Wine Vocabulary; June 4, The Three Faces of Pinot: Noir, Gris and Blanc; June 11, Super Tuscans of Italy. Cost is $100 for any four sessions or $30 per individual session. For more info or reservations call 704-344-8027.

FUZION BISTRO located in Shops on the Green in Cornelius hosts wine tasting sessions the last Wednesday of every month from 7-8pm with a different speaker each Wednesday. Light fare will be served along with the 4 sample wines to be tasted. $20 per person. For more information call 704-895-6656.

TONIC 1427 E. 4th St. has free wine tastings every Wednesday. The evening begins at 8:30pm and runs till 2am. Entry and tastes are free. For more information, call 704-347-2582 after 8pm or visit www.withtonic.com.

THE WINE GALLERY 8020 Providence Road, offers wine tastings every Thursday, 6:30-8:30pm. Cost is $5 per person. Call 704-544-2455.

WINE TASTINGS AT REID'S 7TH ST. WINE SHOP Every Wednesday night at the Wine Bar from 5:30-7:30pm, very informal. Three wines will be tasted each week. Cost is $10 per person. Call 704-513-7014.

Wine tastings, classes, or other wine-related events will be listed at the discretion of the editors. Send information to Creative Loafing one of three ways: Fax to 704-944-3605; email to molly.mckinney@cln.com; or by regular mail at 6112 Old Pineville Rd. Charlotte, NC 28217. All events must be received at least two weeks in advance.

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