Originally published 01 September 2016 by LUCAS PAYA @lucaspaya on www.sherry.wine
International Sherry Week is fast approaching and what better way to celebrate than to host your own Sherry wine tasting with great friends, delicious food, and spectacular wines! Follow these top tips from ex-El Bulli sommelier Lucas Paya to put on an event with Andalucian style and flair.
Call up your best friends
Sherry is a most unusual type of wine, subject to complex production processes and unique natural influences that produce some of the most extraordinary wines in the world. In my opinion, Sherries (and any great wine) must be ideally enjoyed in good company and with fine food. If you are planning to serve an array of wines from the beautiful region of Jerez, then you should invite those whose friendship you value highly – a good number of guests for a wine tasting is between 6 and 12, ideally with a similar level of knowledge about wine. Challenge yourself to become a great host and deepen your friendships, all framed in a one-of-a-kind celebration.
Deciding on the wine selection
The vast diversity of Sherry styles produced ensures that you can find a wine to suit every occasion, and type of food. For this reason, I would suggest obtaining a widely varied assortment to sample during your wine-tasting. This will allow you to appreciate, as a group, the huge differences between the wines that coexist under this very unusual appellation: a Manzanilla, a Fino, an Amontillado, an Oloroso, a Palo Cortado and a sweet version, either Cream or Pedro Ximénez (PX). Once you’re more familiar with the different profiles, you can then decide to delve deeper into a more specific type of wine; for example, a tasting of only Finos – of varying age, producer, subzone, etc. Another good excuse for setting up more gatherings! Note that this southern Spanish region, referred to as the “Sherry Triangle,” offers a huge range of wines that may fall between the main above-mentioned categories, in terms of grade of oxidation and sweetness. You’re just getting started!
Getting the wines
(AND SOME QUALITY INFORMATION ABOUT THEM)
Making sure that you acquire the wines from a reliable source is key. Sadly, Sherry Wines aren’t (yet) the type of wine that flies off the shelf of your local wine store. Global consumption data tells us that most people are still not fully aware of the magical character of these wines, made from extended aging processes and with remarkable personality. Still, devoted sherry lovers all over the world have for many years been sharing their passion with their friends, often wondering how come these unparalleled wines are not more popular. That said, no one wants to drink a bottle of wine that has been sitting on a warm shelf for years, so turnover is important. Ask the specialized sherry wine import companies about retailers near you with regular sales. Do a little research and collect some handy background information on the wines so you feel prepared for the occasion.
Storing the wines yourself
Alright: let’s not jeopardize the countless, painstaking processes undertaken by dozens of people over lengthy periods of time in order to produce these Sherries and get them to you. You have got the wines and they look awesome. Sherries are commonly sold in several volume formats: 375ml, 500ml or 750ml (magnums are true “unicorn” bottles). Note that screw-capped bottles are not a sign of a low quality product. The labels, some of which are extremely beautiful, will give you useful details on the producer, style of wine, who is the distributor and the level of alcohol (remember these are fortified wines). Don’t get mad looking for the vintage, as most of the wines are blended in the solera system. This consists of the precious liquid being regularly transferred from barrel to barrel, by row from top to bottom, until the oldest wine container has a proportion of its content taken out and bottled. Occasionally, the solera’s debut year, the bottling date (or the actual vintage, if you happen to come by a rare añada wine), may be shown on labels. Handle the wines with care and store them in a cool, dark place (a cellar is ideal) or wine-storing device.
Order of service
So the long-awaited day has finally arrived, you are ready to roll and friends are on the way. Much like in the case of other wines, Sherries should typically be served in order of lightest to fullest in body. This suggested approach, which would generally involve moving from light manzanilla to Fino, and then Amontillado followed by Palo Cortado and finally Oloroso (the most robust of the dry Sherry styles), helps assess the wines in a progressive and constructive way. Take into account, though, that it all depends on the particular wines involved – some greater bottle-aged or less filtered wines from supposedly lighter styles, would more appropriately be served after a technically fuller wine that has been otherwise heavily filtered. Broadly, younger, easier and less oxidized wines should be served before old, concentrated and complex ones. As for the sweet styles of Sherry, serve them in ascending order of sugar content. While this is of course very subjective, I don’t recommend you to start off your meal with a glass of sun-dried Moscatel!
This topic is often misunderstood or even ignored by many wine drinkers – some legendary wines such as champagne, port and Sherry have historically suffered from inappropriate or downright wrong glassware use. A wine glass simply needs to be a tool that effectively fulfills its purpose of allowing the enthusiast to enjoy its content. To appreciate the aromas, any piece of stemware with a relatively generous bowl (say, a standard white wine glass) is my preferred choice for Sherry, but I encourage you to experiment with a variety of options. Poured in different glasses of random shapes and capacities, you may find that each major style of wine responds in a very distinct manner, and that is surely part of wine enjoyment. In any case, make certain your glassware is both odorless and spotlessly clean before the party starts, as taking these key ceremonial steps seriously should enhance everyone’s experience.
While the temperature at which Sherry Wine is served plays a crucial role in its enjoyment and the overall tasting perception, there should not be strict rules about this. Again, the ideal serving temperature can vary greatly according to personal preference. However, the vast majority of the influential Sherry community more or less agrees on the proper serving temperatures for each of the main styles of wines. I typically like them as follows: finos and manzanillas chilled (around 45°F), although, as with any good-quality white wine, excessively low temperatures will very likely harm their more delicate hints. (It is also important to note that older and more complex versions of these will benefit from slightly higher temperatures.) I enjoy drinking Amontillados, Olorosos and Palo Cortados at around 55°, much higher than that and they will become unbalanced and/or too pungent. I also tend to like the sweet wines rather cool; the younger the PX the colder I normally enjoy it. As you already know, no warm wine is ever good.
Offer as much varied food as possible
I honestly do not think that any other wine region in the world comes close to Sherry’s versatility at the table. The rich diversity of these wines means they can accompany almost any dish. Many experts also believe that Sherry often needs to be paired with food to show its best. Personally, I am not keen on the idea of a wine for dining only versus one suited just for sipping, but I would have to agree in this case – Sherry’s multiple layers of flavor come alive when paired with food. Rather than trying to convince you with just words, I suggest that you and your guests become active participants in this test. Do you cook? If so, terrific; if not, buy as many diverse ingredients as you can think of to try with your Sherries: olives, cured meat, dried fruit and nuts, cheese, shellfish and fish – raw or cooked in any way – canned food in vinaigrette or escabeche, salty food in general, artichokes, asparagus, eggs prepared however you like, soups, white and red meats, poultry, mushrooms, game… a burger or pizza? If that doesn’t sound varied enough, go for Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian cuisines… wait, and don’t forget your best-loved desserts for the sweet wines!
Regardless of Sherry Wines’ exceptional affinity with food, you might just as well choose to first taste the wines without it. Moving on to pairing, I would always suggest keeping certain ground rules, at least at the beginning. Finos and manzanillas are well regarded as phenomenal aperitifs, and they can certainly be treated much like white wines – savory and lively, they will prepare the palate for more robust wines and richer dishes to follow. Amontillados and palo cortados, the intermediate styles, should cover a lot of in-between ground. The particularly concentrated olorosos can definitely replace any full-bodied red wine and so, they may be best enjoyed later on. Clearly (to me), sweeter content wines should be left to last. But that is just the point with Sherry – I never cease to come across wonderful, unexpected marriages involving wine and food. Founded on these basic principles, begin to mix and match. Gradually interchange pleasing combinations by adding some other wine, for example: you liked jamón ibérico with fino? Try it now with dry oloroso. Or, if oysters with manzanilla worked fine, why not with amontillado? And so on.
Drinking water and drawing conclusions
How are you feeling? Isn’t this how culinary paradise is supposed to taste? You bet! I was lucky enough to be born within a region and family where wine is considered an indisputably essential gastronomic ingredient. I have also had the tremendous honor to work in some of the world’s most highly-acclaimed restaurants at which Sherry was seen as a commodity, heavily stocked and widely offered. Coincidentally, Jerez was the first wine region that I visited professionally more than 15 years ago and I have no doubt that these adventures have made my life more entertaining and rewarding. I sincerely hope that you also find this an enjoyable way to delight your spirit and entertain your friends. As the frenzy simmers down, I would suggest drinking some chilled water (I don’t usually drink water while I eat, but rather before or after), and refocus on your experience.
Canvas your guest’s opinions – if this has been a positive experience, then the final question is: when is the next tasting?
Lucas Payà is a shining star of the wine world – after working as sommelier with the legendary Ferran Adria at El Bulli, with a two-million-euro wine inventory, this award-winning professional was the Wine and Beverage Director at Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup in the US. Now working as an independent consultant to top wine companies, who better than an International Sherry Week Ambassador and winner of Best Sommelier at Copa Jerez to offer his 10 tips on how to plan and host your own Sherry tasting?
Want to personally meet Lucas Payà and become a certified Sherry Wine Specialist granted by the Regulatory Council in Jerez? Click on the image below to register for the July 12th, 2017 course.