Sherry is an underappreciated wine, that’s for sure. If sherry is thought of at all, it is usually thought of in terms of cooking. Truth be told, however, sherry has a long and quite distinguished history, and really it should be considered one of the great wines of all time. The great irony of sherry is that it is typically thought of as an unassuming wine daintily brought up to the lips over lace doilies by elderly women with names like Agatha or Gertrude, whereas the reality is that it is a daily tradition for many Spanish bullfighters with names like Cesar and Antonio. Yes, that’s right, sherry is a manly wine drank by manly Spanish men. So why does it have the reputation of being the Ned Flanders of the vineyard? Difficult to say, since the average alcohol strength in a typical bottle of sherry is anywhere from 5 to 10 percent higher than most other wines.
The skinny on sherry is this: it’s made primarily from three different types of wine-producing grapes: muscatel, palomino and Pedro Ximenex. Probably the less than stellar reputation of those muscatel grapes is partly responsible for sherry’s low standing among winos-er, that is, wine connoisseurs. (There’s a difference, there is a difference.) Another problem with sherry’s reputation is that it is a wine that has no fewer than seven different styles that pretty much align under an umbrella of two categories. There is the fino-type sherry, and there is the oloroso-type sherry and the difference between the two can be boiled down to light versus dark and dry versus sweet. The most famous, or infamous, of the fino-type sherries is the amontillado, which literate readers will recognize as the bait by which a victim in a short story by E.A. Poe was led to his doom. The famous oloroso-type sherry is, well, oloroso.
Sherry could become even more unpopular today if more people knew it possesses a strong connection to Islam. While European Christians were sinking further and further into the darkness brought about the fear of the Catholic Church of anyone actually acquiring knowledge outside the Bible, the Moors were gaining control of a goodly portion of modern day Spain. Now, a lot of people who put their faith in Christian nations won’t want to hear this, but the city of Cordoba, ruled by a Muslim caliph of the same stripe as Saddam Hussein-secular in nature-became the very first European city to have lighted boulevards, a working sewer, hospitals, schools and libraries. It is a testament to the laxity of this particular Muslim caliph that the wine produces by the grapes in the area-sherry-was of such outstanding quality that the traditional rules against drinking by members of the faith were pretty much ignored.
Much like champagne, sherry is best served in a particularly shaped glass. In fact, the flavor and alcoholic qualities of both champagne and sherry are significantly heightened when they are served in glasses known as a copita. A copita is simply your traditional kind of champagne glass, small and shaped like a tulip with a very tiny stem. But even this rule has a rule within it; sherry reaches its peak perfection only when poured so that glass is three-quarters full before the first taste. The temperature at which sherry should be served is dependent upon the kind of sherry; amontillado and the other fino-types are best when chilled, while the oloroso-types are best served at room temperature.
And finally, the real confusion comes down, as it almost always does, to America’s penchant for keeping the name of the good stuff even when it’s made from the bad stuff. Consider balsamic vinegar, for instance, which in its pure state is considered more of a wine sauce than just another wine vinegar. True balsamic vinegar can cost as much as a bottle of wine, in fact, and it is the same thing with sherry. What is known as cooking sherry in America really has little to do with true sherry from Spain. In fact, it would behoove those who desire to cook with sherry to simply toss out the bottles they have been using and take it up a notch by using sherry vinegar made from the same Spanish area that the wine comes from. Sherry vinegar is much like its cousin, true balsamic vinegar and will provide a far better flavor to your cooking that you are going to get from the overheated caramelized concoction being sold as cooking sherry.