For many of us, our first thought, when it comes to sherry, is that dusty bottle of a dark, sweet liquid in the cupboard at Grandma’s house.

There’s a good chance that it was a cream sherry that she took for medicinal purposes only (of course).

With all due respect to Grandma, sherries are serious wines that come in a variety styles, with most dry and some very sweet. They are the perfect match with many types of food, but also are very misunderstood by consumers. In the mid-20th century, sweet sherry became popular in the U.S., while denizens of the U.K. have known the pleasure of drinking complex and dry styles of sherry for centuries.

So now, it’s time that we finally give sherry some of the respect it’s due.

What Is Sherry?

Sherry is a fortified white wine that is produced in southwest Spain in three sun-drenched towns: Jerez, Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Palomino and Pedro Ximénez (PX) are the two main grape varieties used in sherry production. Palomino seems to be good for making one wine, and that wine is sherry. It grows best in the chalky soils of Jerez. Pedro Ximénez is grown on lower lying vineyards in sandy and dark clay soils. Most often, the PX grapes are left in the sun to dry on grass or plastic mats. This concentrates the sugars and these wines are used for sweet sherries or for sweetening purposes.

The Solera System

There are two main styles of sherry, Fino and Oloroso. After the grapes are harvested and fermented, the winemaker will take samples from each barrel and decide which style it will be. The more delicate wines will become Finos, and the richer, heavier offerings will become Olorosos.

For Fino, the wine is fortified to about 15.5% alcohol by volume (abv). For Oloroso, the wine is fortified to about 17.5% abv. While in the barrel, air is allowed to contact the surface of the wine; at this point, in the 15.5% abv barrels, a dense layer of yeast, called flor, forms on the surface, protecting the wine from oxidation. Since alcohol levels over 15.5% prevent the formation of flor, wine in the 17.5% abv barrels oxidizes, producing a darker, heavier and richer wine.

The solera system is a fractional blending system used to age sherry that ensures consistent style and quality. The barrels are arranged in different groups or tiers. Each group or tier contains wine of the same age from the youngest to the oldest. The oldest tier is called the solera. When wine is taken from the solera, it will be replaced with the same amount of wine from the previous tier, which is the one that is slightly younger and typically less complex. This, in turn, will be filled with wine from the tier previous to that, and so on.

Next, the top tier holding the youngest wine is topped off with new wine. Throughout the process, the younger wines take on the qualities and characteristics of the older ones. In turn, the younger wines rejuvenate the older wines.

By law, sherry must average three years of age before it can be sold; but, in reality, most are much older than that. Wine aged in a solera is a blend of many vintages. Wine from a solera that was started 10 years ago has wine that is 10 years old blended with wine that is 9 years, 8 years and so on, down to 3 years old.

Styles of Sherry

Fino: Pale, very dry and light bodied, with a distinctive nose of almonds. The alcohol is about 15.5% abv, released at between 5 and 10 years of age. It’s delicious when it’s served with cured meats, olives and Spanish almonds.

Manzanilla: A fino from the cool coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Here, the flor grows year-round and the wines have a slight, salty note. The abv is also about 15.5%. Great with shellfish and tapas.

Amontillado: Fuller and darker with a nutty flavor, aromas of hazelnuts and a touch of sweetness. Starts as a fino, but loses its flor due to extended barrel aging. The abv is 16% to 18%, and it’s released at about 15 years of age. Amontillados are great with oily fish and Mediterranean chicken dishes.

Oloroso: Full-bodied, dark and rich, with intense aromas and flavors of walnuts and caramel, but not sweet. The finish is long and dry. The abv is about 20%. It’s ideal served with rich meat dishes or with Manchego cheese.

Palo Cordado: A very rare sherry that starts out as a fino, but loses its flor quickly. Has the nose of an amontillado, and the color and flavor of an oloroso. The abv can be as high as 21%.

Cream: Very sweet, made by blending oloroso with Pedro Ximénez. Great alone, but try it with blue cheeses, dates, figs, nuts and pumpkin pie.

Pedro Ximénez: Made from 100% Pedro Ximénez grapes, very sweet, dark and viscous. Wonderful as a dessert wine, but don’t be afraid to pour it over ice cream.

A Few to Try

Hartley & Gibson Fino: Pale golden color, light and very dry. Serve chilled. Priced in the low teens.

Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado: Medium amber color with notes of hazelnut, dates, orange citrus and honey. Priced in the upper teens.

Lustau East India Solera Cream Sherry: Dark amber color with complex aromas and flavors of brown sugar, toffee, maple syrup, raisins and baking spices. Priced in the upper $20 range.

It’s time you tried some sherry for yourself. The sweet ones are delicious and easy to drink, but don’t pass up the dry ones (especially with food). Cheers.

Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, and holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].