Until, well, about 2013, sherry had gotten a bad rap as an oversweet digestif drunk by stiff-necked elders. That's because we've been served the wrong kind. The pure (meaning no sugar added) manzanillas, finos, and amontillados are dry, complex wines that can hold their own in a big glass and be served with dinner – not just after dinner. "People have discovered that sherries, with their balance of acidity, saltiness, sweetness, and nuttiness, are incredibly versatile food wines," says Patrick Cappiello, wine director of Pearl & Ash in New York City, which carries a number of top-notch sherries. These are distinctive and intricate wines that are higher in alcohol (15 to 20 percent) but also easy to drink. "They are complex and intense, but at the same time, there is an element of comfort with them," says Cappiello.
Most sherries are made using the palomino white grape indigenous to Andalusia, in southern Spain. After fermentation, neutral spirits made from grapes are added to the wine to boost its alcohol level. There are many categories of sherry, but the two most versatile and widely available are fino and manzanilla. These are the driest, crispest kinds, thanks to a naturally occurring film of yeast, known as flor, that prevents oxidation, which would make them sweeter. They are also an excellent match for seafood because of a briny quality in the wines. Then there's amontillado, a sherry aged under flor and then exposed to oxygen, so it has a slightly nutty character and a little more sweetness – just right for poultry and meat, as well as spicy foods. If you are looking for something richer, higher in alcohol – between 18 and 20 percent – and sweeter for, say, dessert, skip the "sweet sherry" brands (which have sugar or unfermented grape juice added) and pick up the naturally sweet Pedro Ximénez.
The list of possible food and sherry combinations is as long as any pairing menu you would find with other great dinner wines, but with sherry, simpler is frequently better. Take one of Cappiello's favorite sherry pairings: olives, almonds, and amontillado. "It's a magical combination," he says.
Five Bottles to Try
Fino NV Emilio Hidalgo La Panesa Especial
Thanks to extended aging (15 years, versus three to five years for most finos), this is a unique sherry that is a solid choice to serve as a dinner wine. [$45]
Amontillado El Maestro Sierra
This sherry, from one of Spain's most venerable houses, was aged 12 years, putting it at the savory end of the spectrum for the somewhat sweeter amontillados. [$29]
Fino Tio Pepe
This is a light, easy-sipping sherry that makes an excellent aperitif. [$16]
Manzanilla NV Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa en Rama
A smooth, supremely elegant sherry, this manzanilla is aged five years and great for pairing with tapas or salty dishes. [$17]
Fino Equipo Navazos La Bota de Fino #35
A very mellow, graceful fino, this would be a good accompaniment to shellfish and other seafood. [$40]