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Height Of Fashion

From bracingly crisp to suavely complex, Spanish sherries are the ideal partners for tapas.

August 04, 2004|Jordan Mackay | Special to The Times

With critics on both coasts crowing about the newest releases from Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Priorat, Spanish wine couldn't be more au courant. But in the middle of summer, who wants a big, oaky red? Imagine instead a glass of cold fino sherry -- bracing and crisp like a dip in the pool, yet bone-dry and clean like the breeze that warms you when you get out.

Sadly, sherry has largely been forgotten, having been shelved the last couple of generations as the tipple of fuddy-duddies. That view misses the boat: Sherry is in fact one of the most complex and versatile wines in the world.

Though it works with all kinds of food, sherry is wonderful with tapas.

"I just got back from Spain a few months ago, and people there drink it all the time," says Terry Simons, wine buyer for Cobras and Matadors, the Silver Lake tapas restaurant with an exclusively Spanish list. "Here it's not an easy sell, but when I can get the staff excited about it, they'll sell it out." At the Cobras and Matadors on Hollywood, Simons offers a selection of sherries by the glass from Lustau, one of the top houses, from fino to oloroso. Its original restaurant on Beverly Boulevard doesn't have a liquor license, though the wine shop next door has 12 sherries diners can buy and bring in. But, says Simons, customers rarely do. "People just aren't that familiar with it. I think they've forgotten how good sherry really is."

The affinity between sherry and tapas isn't surprising, because they originated in Andalucia, the region that sits at Spain's southern tip.

And it is from there that sherry still comes today, centered on the town of Jerez (whose name, corrupted centuries ago, gives us the word "sherry"). All sherry comes in two sweeping styles, fino and oloroso, each made from the same rather featureless grape, the palomino fino. Finos are light and crisp, while olorosos are darker, richer and full-bodied.

The difference between the two is in how they are made. In a rather unusual winemaking situation, at the beginning of the process known as the solera system, it is unknown whether the initial wine will become a fino or an oloroso until it has been fermented and put into barrel. The wines that are destined to become finos spontaneously develop a creamy surface layer of yeast called flor, which protects the wines from oxidation and affects the development with a sort of biological maturation that is unique to sherry. This wine is then fortified with grape spirit up to about 15% alcohol, a perfect environment to maintain the flor. The wines that don't naturally develop much, or any, flor are fortified to around 17% (to kill off any flor) and left in barrel for the long, oxidative maturation that enables them to become rich olorosos.

Finos are almost always left dry, whereas some amontillados and olorosos (particularly those for export) are sweetened with sugary wine from the Moscatel or Pedro Ximenez grapes.

The complicated solera system of aging and fortification means that sherries are blended over the years for consistency. Consequently, there are no vintages to consider (or worry about). Another happy result is the progression of styles of sherries -- these can take you all the way through a dinner, from hors d'oeuvre to dessert.

Perfect for the first half of the meal are the flor-influenced finos, which can be broken down into the three sub-categories of manzanilla, fino and amontillado. The former two are always served chilled, while the latter can be served cold or at room temperature (I prefer them on the cool side).

A manzanilla is a fino made specifically in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda. With cooler temperatures than those in Jerez, the flor grows more abundantly in Sanlucar, protecting the wine from oxygen and keeping it light and fresh. Thus manzanilla is the lightest of body, the tangiest and palest of all sherries, with a tart, crisp and salty flavor reminiscent of the sea -- an ideal match with anchovies, calamari or clams sauteed in olive oil with garlic.

One of the best manzanillas, with a briny tinge atop a delicately fruity base, comes from the house of Lustau and is called "Papirusa." Another great is "La Gitana" from Hidalgo, with its breezy, faintly salty tinge. Osborne's manzanilla is light and elegant, with hints of lemon rind and salty sea breeze.

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