Not Your Grandmother’s Sherry

Paul Blow

A couple of weeks ago, sherry received a nice plug on the radio show Marketplace. The story was about the difficulty of marketing sherry and the creative means that the Seattle firm Creature was going about doing it (such as building this Secret Sherry Society website). And that about sums up the challenge facing sherry these days: When the topic comes up, you never hear, “Wow, have you had a good fino lately?” More likely it’s, “How is sherry ever going to break its image as your grandmother’s favorite tipple?”

Well, have you had a good fino lately? Because the first step in dissociating sherry from the sweet, viscous liquid that Grandma drank at 5 p.m. on the dot every day is to acknowledge the different kinds of sherry. And if there’s one kind of sherry that can attract the hordes of free-spending, thirsty under-35s that all wine producers want, it’s one of the least understood: manzanilla.

Manzanilla is a subcategory of the fino style that is golden in color and dry. The other style category is oloroso, the nutty, amber-colored version that ranges from very dry to very sweet, a.k.a. Grandma’s favorite. (Amontillado is a ’tweener, displaying characteristics of both fino and oloroso.)

Why might manzanilla appeal to new sherry drinkers? For one, served chilled, manzanilla is the very definition of refreshing. A sip of it wipes clean the surface of your mouth. The sensation on your tongue is like getting out of the ocean on a hot day and finding yourself completely dry in minutes. Manzanilla is also light, nutty, briny, and everything else that you’d want at the end of the day and the beginning of a meal.

Fino sherries start their life as wines made from the Palomino grape. They spend most of their life before bottling in barrels, from three to as long as eleven years for some styles. The wine sits under a layer of yeast called the flor. The flor slowly feeds on the bits of the wine that the basic fermentation yeasts don’t get to. It also protects the wine from oxygen, keeping the wine lean, dry, and fresh.

This yeast thrives in the balmy, Mediterranean expanses of Andalucía. At a relatively inland site like the town of Jerez (the word sherry is a bastardization of Jerez), the layer of flor gets stressed during the hotter months, thins out, and may even disappear for a short time. But in the cooler seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the flor grows thick and husky, interacting longer and more intensely with the fino. This is why the fino made in Sanlúcar is unique and is entitled to its own name: manzanilla.

What I like about manzanilla is its poignance and delicacy. And, because of its greater time under flor, its flavors are also a little more of primary fruit than fino from Jerez, which is bigger, rounder, and nuttier. Of all the sherries, manzanilla is the most like a traditional white table wine, which is why I think it would be attractive to beginners. Often, it even effuses the gunflint and smoke notes found on some of the sexiest white Burgundies. And it pairs brilliantly with light summer fare as well as fall and winter’s shellfish and crustaceans like Dungeness crab, oysters, and razor clams. Because manzanilla is so tight and bright, it’s also a perfect foil for foods rich in garlic, like that perennial favorite, Caesar salad. I can find something to drink it with year-round.

Another beautiful thing about manzanilla (and sherry in general) is that it’s cheap. Tragically cheap, considering the length of time it ages. La Gitana from Bodegas Hidalgo is the gold standard of manzanilla. Aged between five and eight years in the barrel, the wine is intense with pear and apple notes to go along with hints of almond and that haunting whiff of the sea that no other wine can match. It usually retails for around $16. There are other good brands, though. San León from Bodegas Argüeso is a personal favorite, as is Solear from Barbadillo. Serve them all chilled.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.