Sherry has had a somewhat unenviable and entirely mistaken reputation, in the UK at least (the Spanish know better), of being rubbish sweet wine drunk only by old ladies. I have asked a few people in my work about sherry and they grimaced and say oh no not that horrid sickly sweet stuff my nan used to drink.
Many people still associated it with British “sherry” (which in my view is an abomination and a crime against wine). You know it’s the stuff that a slightly eccentric spinster great aunt (think Hinge and Bracket) might sip from a schooner glass (another heinous wine crime) and which is likely to strip the enamel from your teeth in 10 seconds flat.
Thankfully (due to the EU) the “Denomination of Origin” (DO) system means that that truly ghastly and awful stuff was banned many years ago from calling itself sherry and must be referred to, I believe, as British fortified wine (or as, I know it, drain cleaner).
Real sherry, by which I mean sherry from the Spanish towns of Jerez de la Frontera (pronoun the ” j” as a gutteral “h”) and El Puerto de Santa Maria and manzanilla ( “z” is pronounced as “th” and “ll” is pronounced as “y” – I do so love the way the Spanish language works) from Sanlucar de Barrameda, is an entirely different and delightfully diverse drink. I have always regarded manzanilla as different from sherry as it has its own DO and is quite unique in its aromas and flavour, but had an interesting debate on twitter on the subject whilst writing this piece and it is fair to say that the “it is sherry” argument won.
It ranges from bone dry lightly coloured finos and manzanillas to the raisiny pitch black and unctuous Pedro Ximenez (the later being not only a great sweet wine, but is also fab poured on vanilla ice cream). In between you have amontillados and olorousos.
For me they all have their own individual merits and sherry (I include manzanilla in this generic term) really is one of the best value (on a price to quality basis) wines around . You nearly always get a lot of wine (quality wise) for your money and even the really big producers make very high quality products (Gonzalas Byass makes some truly stellar wines, for instance).
Sherry has certainly tried hard to shed its unfair reputation in the UK and really has turned the corner, being now very trendy with multiple sherry bars in London. My personal favourite is Bar Pepito near Kings Cross station, a tiny hole in the wall joint with a small but perfectly formed list of sherries and great cold tapas.
The ones Mrs. SF and I tasted this weekend were a manzanilla, a amontillado and a Oloroso dulce (sweet).
Wine 1 – Domingo Perez Marin “La Guita” Manzanilla – Costco £4.38 (37.5cl bottle)
Manzanilla is made only in Sanlucar de Barrameda on the south-west Atlantic coast of Spain using the Palomino grape. Produced in large sherry butts (big barrels that, unlike in the normal wine production process, are not filled to the top) with a layer of flor (mould in the form of a type of yeast that protects the wine from the effect of the air in the butt caused by it not being filled to the top ) forming on the surface. Before you go “ewwww” mould, remember yeast is an essential part of any fermentation process (and you eat bread don’t you, which is made using yeast).
It is one of my favourite aperitifs and goes really well with nibbles such an olives, salted almonds, jamon serrano and anchovies (the ones in vinegar not the salted ones). It should be drunk chilled (at around 7c) so keep it in the fridge.
On pouring the La Guita, the colour in the glass (please use a proper wine glass not a schooner) was a lovely pale straw.
The initial nose was of almonds (Mrs. SF said frangipane), with iodine (that nice smell of the seaside). Curiously I also caught a whiff of baked apple after giving the glass a good swirl ( Mrs. SF said I was talking rubbish). All in all very pleasant.
On the first slurp it was lovely and fresh ,with a nice briney flavour, almonds again and a subtle but pleasant hint of dried herbs.
Despite it being 15° alcohol it was very easy to drink and for me a lovely aperitif. It would also be great with shellfish – a chilled glass with a nice plate of freshly cooked prawns would be bliss (especially if by the seaside at the time). For the price it is, I think, a bargain. I got this wine from Costco, but a very good alternative is La Gitana which most major retailers stock.
As manzanilla is not (due to the flor) exposed to the air, once the bottle is opened it is a case of drinking up pretty sharpish. As a result, unless you are having a few friends around so can polish off a whole bottle, try to get a half bottle.
This wine is a very good introduction to the joys of sherry. It also has the added benefit of going well with both asparagus and artichokes (both of which are notoriously hard to match wine wise).
Marks & Spencer Very Rare Amontillado – £7.99 (37.5 cl bottle)
This wine is made exclusively for M&S by the respected producer Emilio Lustau, maturing in barrels in the town of El Puerto de Santa Maria.
It is made from the same palomino grape as the manzanilla, but with the production process differing. The wine here is exposed to the air for a time and the resulting oxidation gives the wine a darker colour and dramatically different aromas and tastes.
In the glass, this wine had a lovely golden honeyed hue and the aromas coming off it were a mix of baked oranges, citrus zest and spices. Truly gorgeous on the nose.
On tasting there was nutty almond, which in the mouth turned to baked biscuit (biscotti/amaretti biscuits). The wine had great length, lingering on the palate for an age. I really liked this wine.
There was a fair hit of alcohol, with it being 18.5°, but it was well integrated. Serve this wine as you would a good white , not too cold. As it has been exposed to the air already it does keep a while, but I still tend to buy it in a half bottle as a little goes a long way (remember it is 18.5°).
We had this with some manchego for which it was a very good match (as it would be with any hard salty cheese).
This is a really fine wine and part of a very good range of sherries on sale at M&S (who really have upped their game wine wise). At £7.99 for a 37.5 cl bottle it is by no means cheap, but for the price you get a very, very good wine (comparable quality whites from elsewhere would, in my view, be a lot more).
Wine 3 – Gonzalez Byass – Matusalem – 30 year old sweet oloroso (37.5cl bottle) – between £14.98 and £20.
Saving the best till last here, the Matusalem really is a stellar wine. It is a sweet oloroso, where Pedro Ximenez grapes are added to the palomino grapes. It is aged for 30 years in casks where it is exposed to the air. It is a heavy hitter alcohol wise, being a full 20°. Mrs SF, on being told this, asked if I was trying to get her drunk. Guilty as charged M’lud.
The colour is a gorgeous rich mahogany and on the nose there was caramel, fig (actually those fig roll biscuits) and Christmas cake. It had a truly heady and beguiling aroma. On tasting, it was not as sweet as you would expect from the nose. It started off with luscious fig and raisins flavours, which developed intriguingly into roasted coffee beans (espresso to be precise). It stayed on the palate for an age and I savoured every second.
We had this with cheese and with blue cheese (tricky to match wine wise) it is sublime. Move over port, this stuff is the new cheese course daddy.
I absolutely loved this wine.
At between £14.98 (at Costco -a bargain – buy it, really do, at this price) and £20 for a half a bottle, this stuff ain’t cheap. However, when you think it has spent 30 years in the cask maturing and how truly lovely it is, it is actually a bit of a steal. How much would other wines so aged and of such quality cost? I’ll tell you, an awful lot more.
I think you can tell I love sherry and these three were excellent and totally different examples of how good it can be. Forget any preconceptions you may have and go out and buy this stuff.
Would I buy these again? Most definitely yes. Each are great wines in their own way, but the Matusalem really is breathtakingly good stuff.