Americans have a stereotyped idea of sherry. It features Grandma, content in her rocking chair, sipping cream sherry to pass time until dinner. We seem to have collectively decided that sherry is a sweet wine past its time, with no special distinction to merit our attention.
I discussed that misperception recently as I tasted and talked sherry with Lucas Paya, wine director for Jose Andres' ThinkFoodGroup of restaurants, and with Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng, the husband-and-wife team behind a number of Washington's fine watering holes, including the sherry-themed Mockingbird Hill.
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Sherry for every tasteFrom lightest to heaviest, a short primer on styles of sherry:
Fino and manzanilla are the driest and most common types of sherry. Their pale color and nutty flavor come from the flor, a layer of yeast that develops over the wine in cask and protects it from oxidation.
Finos are produced inland, in Jerez de la Frontera, while manzanillas hail from the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, where the sea air off the Atlantic Ocean supposedly gives the wines a delicate saline character. Served well chilled, these wines are marvelous aperitifs, and they pair well with salty and briny foods such as olives or shellfish.
Amontillado is an aged fino fortified to at least 16 percent alcohol, a level that kills the flor and exposes the wine to oxygen. The wine turns slightly amber and develops more complexity. Pair it with mildly flavored fish, chicken or pork dishes.
Palo cortado falls between amontillado and oloroso in style, sort of a misfit that matures into something wonderful. It is quite versatile with food, as it straddles the two styles.
Oloroso is fortified to about 17 percent alcohol, a level that prevents any flor from developing and exposes the wine to oxygen. It is therefore darker and fuller-bodied than amontillado. Olorosos feature pronounced flavors of hazelnuts and dried orange peel, and they match well with spicier foods and soy sauce-based dishes.
En rama is a new designation for wines bottled without filtration or fining. They have a "vintage" year noted on the label to note when they were bottled, the idea being that the wines are best consumed young. These can be lively and vibrant, though they may clash with some foods.
Cream sherries are indistinctly sweet. Not really for dinner, not quite dessert, either. They're sipping wines.
Sweet sherries, either from Pedro Ximenez or muscat grapes, can be rich and honeyed, and expensive.
"That medium-sweet style of sherry is perfect for the afternoon by the fire, and who does that? Your grandma, so maybe she was right," Paya said. "But today most producers are leaving that middle ground and concentrating either on the very dry sherries or the sweets."
Paya was a sommelier at El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain, before coming Stateside six years ago and joining Andres. He lists sherries at the company's four Jaleo restaurants (three in the Washington area, the fourth in Las Vegas) and at Bazaar by Jose Andres, in Los Angeles and Miami Beach.
"If you consider how rare and unique these wines are, how much time they spend in the cellars, and their complexity and quality -- these should be among the most expensive and sought-after wines in the world," he says.
If sherry catches on in this country, it will be people like Brown and Tseng who make it happen.
"The first time we had sherry was about 10 years ago, and it was a love affair from the start, like that song that gets stuck in your head," Brown says, mixing metaphors as easily as cocktails. "We've been plotting how to revitalize sherry ever since."
To do that, they needed to "correct the errors," Brown says. "No, your grandmother didn't drink this one. No, this one isn't sweet. Part of the fun of drinking sherry is saying, 'What the heck is this?'"
Dry sherries range from crisp, saline fino and manzanilla to fruity amontillado and rich palo cortado and oloroso. All are made using the solera system, in which wines of various ages are blended to achieve consistency and render vintage irrelevant; their styles vary depending on the extent of their exposure to oxygen during the aging process.
When the couple opened Mockingbird Hill last summer, Tseng had about 50 sherries on her list. Today she offers more than 90. That's a dizzying array, considering that most retail shops stock a desultory one or two labels. Some retailers have even asked Tseng where they can find sherries after her customers have stopped in their stores and asked for them.
Tseng offers small bites such as nuts, olives, berries and ham to intrigue her customers with sherry's food-pairing possibilities. "Sherry has an inherent way of enhancing whatever food you pair it with," she says. "Think of walking down the same street past the same doors day after day, and suddenly you notice a new detail. Sherry has a lot of details."
Paya demonstrated the wine's versatility emphatically on a sherry-infused restaurant crawl through D.C. At Jaleo, we sipped manzanilla with jamon and amontillado with pepper-and-anchovy-stuffed olives, a combination that unleashed Paya's Spanish romanticism.
"The amontillado brings all the elements together," he gushed, "like an expert dancer who sweeps a novice off his feet."
After tuna seviche and fino at Oyamel and octopus with manzanilla at Zaytinya, we ended at Daikaya, where a bowl of ramen offered the ideal remedy to winter's chill. Paya's European formality seemed to melt into the hearty broth and the wok-smoked vegetables.
"You don't want beer with ramen," he said, looking around the crowded cubbyhole of a restaurant as though each diner was a lost opportunity. "You want palo cortado, or oloroso."
• McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: dmwine.