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Sherry: An Olive's Best Friend


Olives, often served with lightly salted and toasted almonds, are a favorite afternoon snack in the traditional Spanish home, but a mandatory pairing is a glass of a well-chilled dry Sherry, preferably a fresh Fino Sherry.

Too bad it's so difficult to get good Fino .

First, let's get one thing straight: the best Sherry is from Jerez in Spain. In fact, Sherry is a corruption of the pronunciation of Jerez.

Second, real Sherry can be excellent and reasonably priced, a fact that often confuses people. Most people believe great wine must be expensive.

True Sherry has gotten a bad name over the decades--from other countries appropriating the name and making dull imitations that have none of the finesse or charm of the real thing. Sherry is made in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Great Britain, but rarely with distinction.

Spanish Sherry comes in many styles, from steely dry Fino to motor oil-thick Pedro Ximenez (called PX by the cognoscenti). PX, a single grape variety, generally produces an unctuous, near-cloying dessert wine that is black in color and is the closest thing to chocolate sauce.

Fino or Manzanilla are the lightest Sherries and the ones that retain more of the delicate nuances of fruit that are found in the Palomino grape used for them. These appear to be best with olives--green, black or any other color, in part because the saltiness, oil and the distinctive pungency of the olives is both matched and tempered by the austere nature of the wine, its treatment in barrels (which gives it its unique nut-like component) and the fact that it should be served chilled, yielding a crispness on the tongue that helps to integrate the flavors and the oils of the olives.

Almonds or hazelnuts also complement Sherry because of the nutty character of the wine.

The best Fino Sherries are those lowest in alcohol, generally 15.5%. These are wines that are fortified with a tiny amount of brandy, the barest minimum, to retain the freshness of the wine's fruit and its companion flor yeast.

Unfortunately for Americans, the widest-selling Fino -type Sherries, La Ina from Domecq and Tio Pepe from Gonzales Byass, are both fortified at a higher level (above 17%) to withstand the rigors of sea travel and the vagaries of handling by U.S. merchants (which usually isn't very kind). Another reason is that the U.S. government requires the word "light" to appear on all Sherry that is less than 17% alcohol, and major producers would rather not use that word.

Moreover, the major commercial Fino Sherries are fined and filtered, even though such practices can strip a wine like this of essential character. An importer told me that Americans want pristine, crystal-clear wine, and that anything with sediment wouldn't sell, so the wines are filtered.

One good Fino Sherry that is minimally processed and still light and crisp, not as heavily fortified as some, is from the house of Emilio Lustau ($10). But it too can suffer from improper handling. Try to find bottles recently shipped.

The best Fino I have tasted in the last two years is from Vinicola Hidalgo, a small producer in the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. It is a Manzanilla called La Gitana, designated "Guadalquivir Especial." It was aged for three years in a solera (a tiered-barrel system), and some people feel the marine atmosphere gives the wine its slightly salty finish.

This wine, which sells for $10 for a 375-milliliter half bottle, is not fined or filtered. Aiming to make the wine as fresh as possible, Hidalgo fortifies the wine to the minimum 15.5% alcohol, then bottles it in tiny quantities weekly and air-freights it to the United States.

Hidalgo's lower-priced Manzanilla La Gitana ($6/half bottle) is shipped by sea about four times per year and is fresher than most better-known Finos .

Finos are best served from half bottles because unfinished full bottles deteriorate as quickly as--if not quicker than--white table wine. Also, good, lighter-styled Fino Sherries are best consumed within a year of bottling. Wines from the Common Market now usually have on them a code that begins with an L followed by a number that signifies the month and year of bottling. (Thus L1192 would mean the wine was bottled in November 1992.)

Higher-alcohol aperitif wines such as a dry Madeira, a dry white Port, Muscat de Baumes de Venise and Pinot de Charente also work well with olives and nuts.

Heavier, richer styles of Sherry would also work with olives, but they should be dry. Among the better rich-style Sherries I like are two from the house of Ivison. One is called simply Solera 1840 ($11). The other is an old Oloroso Secco called Matusalen ($13).

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