Drinking Sherry: Why This Underrated Wine Is a Great Value

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Sherry is something of a well-kept secret among savvy wine drinkers. Largely unknown or misunderstood, sherry is not just for cooking and old ladies. It offers a marvelous diversity of styles and flavors -- and is one of the best values on the market.

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Sherry, or Jerez, is a fortified wine that comes from in and around the town of Jerez, in southwestern Spain. There are two overarching categories of sherry. The unoxidized style starts off as white wine made from local grape varieties. It's fortified with grape-based brandy up to about 15 percent alcohol. Sherry barrels are filled only three-quarters of the way, so a yeast crust, called flor, can develop on top, forming a barrier between the wine and the oxygen in the barrel. If the flor is weak, the wine is further fortified, up to about 17 percent alcohol, killing off leftover yeast cells. The wine turns brown and changes flavor because of the contact with oxygen; this is oxidized sherry.

The unoxidized wines, which remain clear and yellowish, are called fino and manzanilla. These wines are very dry and savory, with notes of brine, almond, and bread yeast, and pair excellently with seafood, fried foods, and salty snacks. The oxidized wines, called amontillado or oloroso, are dry with flavors of caramelized nuts and tart dried fruits. These brown sherries pair very well with hearty soups, stews, and cheeses. The sweet style of sherry known as Pedro Ximenez, which also falls under the oxidized category, is lusciously sweet with flavors of figs, dates, and honey. Cream sherry, a blend of an amontillado or oloroso with Pedro Ximenez, is also pleasantly sweet, with delicate flavors of vanilla and sugared nuts.

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Part of what makes sherry such a good value is an aging system called a solera. Under this system, no more than one-third of a barrel can be bottled at a time. Once a bottling has taken place, the barrels are topped off with wine from younger barrels of the same style. Because the barrels are never fully emptied, a tiny bit of the wine in every bottle of sherry is as old as that particular solera or winery. The average age of the wines is usually a minimum of 10 years, and likely somewhere around 30 for oxidized sherries. The flavors that develop are exquisite and complex, yet prices start at about $15 a bottle.

Sherry also gives drinkers more for their money in a practical way: Because sherries are so rich and have such a high concentration of flavors, along with higher alcohol content, the serving sizes are smaller. A glass of sherry is typically 2 to 3 ounces rather than 5 or 6, which brings down the cost per serving. About $3 is typical for mid-level sherry, and it delivers a lot more history, flavor, and pairing possibilities than a bottle of "regular" wine at the same price.

To the slight dismay of the Jerez producers and chamber of commerce, people still don't drink a lot of sherry. To the delight of those who do drink it, prices are kept low to incentivize more sherry purchases. As the holiday season approaches, look to sherry for value and flavor at just a few dollars per serving -- and put the savings toward a bigger cheese plate.

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