Why Sherry (and Old Love) Makes Me Sad
Meticulously-aged and history-dense, this dry and delicious fortified wine is dying. Can wine nerds save it?
I recently watched a Netflix documentary series about true love. Episode 1 of My Love features retired maple syrup farm owners Ginger and David Isham who have been married for over 60 years. Over the course of the hour-long episode, you get a glimpse into a year in the life of the Ishams through the lens of Vermont’s distinctly beautiful four seasons. You get to know Ginger and David as they do everyday things like scavenging free samples at the local cheese shop, making memories with their many children and grandchildren, and engaging in their extremely cute nightly ritual: a tight embrace before bedtime. In between those mundane, daily moments, we witness the more grim side of aging as the Ishams finalize their wills and discuss burial plans with their family. There is something about old love, simple love—love that has endured the test of time, but is now evidently dying before my eyes—that makes me sad. Why am I telling you this? Well, I felt an eerily similar overwhelming sense of sadness while recently tasting a delicious lineup of dry sherries. Let me elaborate.
What even is sherry? A fortified wine hailing from vineyards neighboring the city of Jerez in Andalusia, Spain, sherry might conjure memories of your grandma sipping sweet versions of this high-alcohol beverage back in the day. While there are still sweetened cream sherries floating around, sales of these styles have largely declined. We’re going to focus on the dry styles, those with less than 5 g/L of residual sugar. Dry sherries are all made from palomino, a grape that thrives in the dry, sunny climate of Andalusia. The base wines are fortified with 96 percent alcohol grape spirit that is completely neutral in flavor and color.
When it comes to sherry, the magic is in the maturation. Sherries can undergo biological aging, oxidative aging, or a combination of the two. In the former, the wine matures under a layer of flor yeast that protects it from oxygen, keeping the wine pale lemon in color and adding notes of bread dough, almonds, and saline. This is how Fino and Manzanilla sherries are aged. Oxidative aging, on the flip side, will produce a richer wine, deeper in color, dominated with tertiary aromas of walnut and caramel. Oloroso sherries are oxidatively aged. And, to bridge the two maturation methods together, some sherries, like Amontillado and Palo Cortado, display qualities from both biological and oxidative aging. Regardless of the style, all wines are aged in their own solera system, a method of fractional blending aimed to produce a consistent and complex wine year over year.
Sounds pretty cool right? To wine nerds like me, this shit is fascinating. Especially while blind tasting, I get giddy. Ah, yes, Mary. I am indeed getting those signature acetaldehyde aromas of bruised apple and hay on this Manzanilla. Understanding the history of Jerez, the deep-rooted culture of winemaking in the region, and all of the effort that goes into a single bottle of high-quality sherry does indeed make me appreciate it more. But to the everyday drinker, what gives? Do they even care about the complicated maturation process of solera system aging? Do they care about the bodegas construction, specifically designed to create ideal conditions for flor yeast to thrive? Do they care about the small oak butts in which the wine is exposed to a slow and controlled, gentle oxidation over time? I’m not sure they care about butts.
So, as we tasted through these beautifully-made, textbook-perfect sherries, I became sad. The wines were intriguing with no shortage of complexity nor length. Everything I’ve studied in my WSET Diploma D5 Fortified Wines course was evident in these glasses. And while I did truly enjoy these wines, I struggled to place them into my lifestyle. Where would I drink them? With whom? Would my friends even like these? What might I pair with these? And most importantly, in what situation would I actually choose to drink a sherry over another wine, one that’s lower in alcohol, more refreshing, and just generally easier to drink? These questions saddened me. Sherry saddened me. Mostly because, like Ginger and David, I feel I know sherry’s fate.
Don’t get me wrong. Sherry will definitely outlive Ginger and David, and even me and you. But in a millennial and gen-Z market where low-alcohol, organically-farmed, and low-intervention winemaking is the way forward, these wines are simply out of fashion. Changing consumer palates, coupled with convoluted naming conventions and aging styles, make sherry difficult to appreciate and understand. But who knows, perhaps a new generation of heroic young wine nerds will emerge, save sherry, and prove my juice-box-millennial-butt wrong. Time will tell.
Four Dry Sherries to Make You Cry (JK)
Tio Pepe Fino En Rama - $21
Fino sherries spend their whole lives under a layer of flor yeast, producing a fresh-looking, lemon-colored wine. Classic biological aging notes of yellow apples, sea salty brine, savory olives, and bread dough dominate; the finish is bone dry. While there is no legal definition for the labelling term en rama, it typically means that the wine is unfiltered and unfined, giving the consumer a wine that’s “like drinking from the cask itself.” At 15% alcohol, this is the lightest style of sherry, begging to be enjoyed alongside tapas like salty almonds and olives.
Amontillado sherries will have spent time in both biological and oxidative solera systems. Pardon my nerdiness but that’s completely evident here with bountiful notes of toasted almond, dough, and saline (all biological) and butterscotch and toffee (both oxidative). Slightly fuller in body, deeper in color, and higher in alcohol than the Fino, this Amontillado displays impressive complexity and length for a wine of this price!
Perhaps the easiest to remember via alliteration, Olorosos are oxidatively-aged, giving this wine a deep amber color and prevailing tertiary notes. Delightful roasted walnuts, burnt brown sugar, and caramel taunt my taste buds and leave me wondering, does this count as dessert?
Palo Cortado is the most difficult sherry style to locate (production is smaller) and to define as it follows no specific winemaking and maturation requirements but exudes qualities from both biological and oxidative aging. These wines typically start out in a Fino solera system before being tasted, analyzed, and deemed too intense to become a Fino. “Peninsula” is rich and full bodied with decadent but balanced notes of chocolate covered raisins and salted caramel tart.