Some thoughts on how best to enjoy the wines of Jerez and Sanlucar.
Where to start – absolute beginners. I have been asked more than once which wine I would recommend to someone who has not yet caught the sherry bug. It is pretty clear to me that the best place to start is with a wine with at least a little oxidative ageing, but not too much. On the one hand, the pure dry, mineral character of a fino or manzanilla with all the sugar and glycerin stripped away can seem alien; while on the other hand the extreme concentration and astringency of the very old oxidative wines can be too much for anyone.
For me the wine that turned me on to Jerez and Sanlucar was la Bota de Palo Cortado Nº34 by Equipo Navazos – right in that sweet spot of complexity but elegance – although maybe more punch than I would recommend to an absolute beginner. On balance, I would always recommend starting with a 12 -20 year old amontillado or palo cortado or similar (something like Valdespino’s Tio Diego, Williams & Humbert’s Don Zoilo Amontillado, Lustau’s Escuadrilla or Peninsula, Gonzalez Byass’ Viña AB or Leonor, or the Fernando de Castilla Antique, for example). Once you get the feel for those wines I think it is easier to work outwards towards the edges – to the finer finos and manzanillas at one extreme and the superheavyweights at the other.
Where to start – wine lovers. An alternative approach to the above is to start with the unfortified white wines that are, thankfully, increasingly common, or even just the musts or base wines (if you are visiting a winery, say) and from there try to work your way through the variations, from young finos or manzanillas to mature finos and manzanilla pasadas, amontillados and palo cortados and olorosos. It was the format on probably the best ever winery visit I was fortunate to attend – at Emilio Hidalgo – and was fascinating stuff.
Temperature – a lot of possibilities – generally speaking only the youngest finos and manzanillas below 10 degrees C. Everything else is at least a full bodied white so should be served in the arc of 12 to 20 like any other serious wine. I have mine stored at 12 degrees C because as I was once told – you can always warm them up in your hands.
Glasses. Whichever of these wines you are drinking the golden rule is that you must not, under any circumstances, use sherry glasses (aka “catavinos”), the little stubby thimbles or old fashioned schooners. These are wines with complex and interesting aromas and flavours that deserve a big, fine glass (a decent white wine glass should be ok). An exception can be made in a very few cases, but even the modern, high quality stemware manufacturers get this wrong more often than they get it right. I consider it my duty to ask for a normal glass whenever I am served something in a catavinos and if we all do surely we can put an end to this scourge.
When to drink them Frankly I think you can drink these wines whenever you feel like. The cliché has it that finos and manzanillas are aperitifs – and it is true that they are refreshing, cleansing and, with their salinity, appetising. Equally, popular wisdom would tell you that there are amontillados, palo cortados and olorosos that you can sip away at after dinner or with a good book (or cigar – some of them even taste like cigars).
More importantly, though, these wines can be great on the dinner table, as explained ad nauseam here and here. There is an old saying that to determine pairings, if it swims, fino, if it flies, amontillado and if it walks, oloroso. It is a good start, although the reality is much more complex and in reality the combinations are endless. For example, the sweeter wines can be surprisingly versatile – cream is a great pair with traditional spanish jamon – and finos and amontillados can be an excellent accompaniment for desserts with anything nutty in them (recently tried with a roscon de reyes).
Decanting/Airing – we are generally not worried about sediment here (although with the older unfiltered wines you can get a murky final glass or so from the bottle), but I find that these wines sometimes gain a lot from a swirl around in a decanter before serving, and sometimes improve day after day after opening (within reason).
Storage – until opening, store sherry like any decent wine – keep in the cool, out of the light, cork moist etc. Once opened, a cool thing about these wines is that once open you can just put the cork back in – any oxidation that may take place is probably a bonus.