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Sherry, the underdog of wines has a unique taste

Every time I go to my favorite BYOB Japanese restaurant I’m surprised by how afraid people are to drink wine with their sushi and opt for beer instead. I understand, though, as pairing wine and sushi can be very difficult to do. You’ve got a hodgepodge of flavors to work with — a mix of raw fish, vinegar in the rice, saltiness from soy sauce, and a fierce wasabi kick — all of which don’t necessarily work well with every wine.

Sean Diggins, sherry specialist of Gitane, a Basque restaurant and bar in San Francisco, shows off the broad range of styles and colors available in the popular fortified wine.

Yet, like wine, sushi is a favorite among college students. My friends and I go out for sushi often, and each time there’s always the lingering unanswered question of what form of alcohol will be the most compatible with our dinners. Picking up a six pack of some not-so-terrible beer on the way is always an easy option, but being the wino that I am, I’d rather pick up bottle of wine instead.

When looking for an interesting wine that also enhances the complex flavors of sushi, I always turn to sherry, a wine I have grown to love. The first time I tasted sherry, it was strikingly dry, unlike the sweeter wines I was used to drinking. After just a few more sips, however, the light but distinctive nutty flavors and aromas grew on me, and I became more intrigued by the wine.

For being one of the most food-friendly wines, sherry is easily the most misunderstood and underappreciated wine there is. It’s barely even heard of in the United States, and what most people do know about it isn’t very good. The low-end, falsely labeled, so-called “cooking sherry” found on grocery store shelves shares nothing in common with the real thing. And then there are the overly sweet, syrupy cream sherries that were marketed decades ago to people my grandmother’s age.

Real sherry comes from Andalucia, a region in southern Spain, and is made from palomino grapes. Further complicating its image, the straw-colored wine doesn’t really fit into either category of red or white wine. It’s a fortified wine, one that has had neutral spirits added to it to stop the fermentation process. The result is an increase in alcohol content, which is also helpful for aging. Sherry has a distinctive, complex taste with razor-sharp musty and slightly nutty flavors that you won’t find in any other wine.

What distinguishes sherry so greatly from other types of wine is the process in which it’s made — the clever aging method known as the solera system. Barrels of the same kind of wine, all with different harvesting years, are stacked on top of each other, oldest on the bottom and youngest on top.

When it comes time to bottle the sherry, only one-third of the bottom barrels are used. The bottles are then filled with wine from the barrel in the above row until all the rows have completed the process. The solera system helps ensure a consistent quality in each year of sherry while simultaneously leaving a tiny trace of history in each and every bottle. With this method you get both the freshness of the young wine mixed with the complexity of the old.

Another unique aspect to the process of aging dry sherries is the remarkable naturally occurring yeast found in barrels called “flor,” which is Spanish for “flower.” It literally forms an intricate veil around the young sherry as it ages, serving as a protective blanket between the wine and the barrel. The presence of flor reduces oxidation and keeps the flavor and the color of the oak from seeping into it. However long the flor survives determines what kind of sherry it is destined to become.

When a sherry ages entirely while in contact with the flor, it becomes a Fino, the freshest and lightest kind. Fino is also the driest sherry, which means it is basically the least sugary kind of wine there is. Finos are clean and crisp, pale in color and have an alcohol content of up to 15 percent — a far cry from the sweet sherry my dear old grandmother sips.

Essentially the same thing, a Manzanilla is a Fino that is made in a specific area, near the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda, which sits alongside the Guadalquivir River. The flor from this area is said to contain some saline due to its location on the coast of Spain, giving a saltier taste to the wine, which cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Darker, flavorful and richer in body, Olorosos are sherries that are never given the chance to develop flor. After the fermentation process, they are fortified to 18 percent ABV. Such high alcohol content doesn’t provide a friendly environment for the yeast to survive, and because the flor is what consumes all the sugar, Olorosos tend to be a bit sweeter than a Fino or Manzanilla. They are popular among younger women, the same crowd that loves to drink sweet Moscato.

Then there are the golden-colored Amontillado sherries, which have deeper, nuttier flavors. They are an aged Fino in which the flor has been allowed to die off, exposing it to air during the aging process. A friend of mind once explained that an “Amontillado is simply just an Oloroso sherry trying to be a Fino,” and there is some magical happy medium between the two.

The best way to learn about the intricate flavors of sherry is by tasting it with a variety of foods. Spanish tapas-style dishes, of course, pair perfectly with them, but Finos and Manzanillas also complement fried foods and difficult-to-pair-anything-with sushi. Amontillados and Olorosos work well alongside a range of meats and cheeses. The higher alcohol content of a sherry means that it won’t spoil quickly, which gives you the opportunity to try the same bottle with several meals.

A comeback movement for this Spanish wine has been fermenting for a while now, and it is now being targeted to younger wine drinkers. Last year, the governing group for the region where sherry wines are produced, the Consejo Regulador, aimed to reintroduce the wine to Americans. Sherry is being pushed to wine drinkers in their early 20s not only as a wine to drink with a variety of food but also as a friendly ingredient in cocktails like the easy-to-make “Sparkling Sherry,” a combination of Fino and Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine.

While sherries have long been believed to be just a cheap cooking wine or part of Grandma’s outdated liquor cabinet, there’s no reason not to embrace them now, especially the next time you’re fretting over what wine to drink with your sushi.

Recommendations:

These sherries are all available in Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits stores. Local tapas restaurants like Tinto, Jamonera, and Bar Ferdinand also have extensive lists full of interesting selections that you should try.

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Extra Dry Sherry

Jerez, Spain, $15.99

15 percent ABV

Made by one of the best selling sherry brands, this Fino is pale in color, very fresh and dry with nutty aromas and lasting dried fruit flavors.

Pedro Romero Aurora Manzanilla

Jerez, Spain, $10.99

15 percent ABV

A classic, dry Manzanilla that comes in a slightly smaller bottle (only 500 mL), but its rich pear aromas and savory tastes of salted almonds make up for what it lacks in size.

Pedro Romero Amontillado Dry Rich Sherry

Jerez, Spain, $10.99

18 percent ABV

Deep amber in the glass with rich aromas of caramel and sweet hazelnut flavors, this Amontillado is delicate yet elegant.