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Ask a Somm: Where Do I Start With Sherry?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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Both sherry and vermouth are having a moment, and the team behind Los Angeles' new Moruno are taking notice. After debuting its takeaway window over the summer, the Spanish-inspired newcomer is finally fully up and running, with a snacky Mediterranean menu and a serious look at both fortified wines. In fact, the eatery's aptly named rooftop lounge Bar Vermut is still to come in April. Here now, managing partner and wine director David Rosoff dives deep into sherry-land.

Q: I've been seeing more and more sherry on wine lists lately, and even mixed into cocktails. I'm new to sherry and curious. How would you recommend I start tasting to understand the wine? And can you recommend some great bottles at different prices?

Rosoff: A representative from one of the top bodegas in Jerez, Spain (sherry country) recently said something that sounded like a pure piece of salesmanship in the moment, but upon further review was actually spot on. During a discussion about food and wine pairings, he proclaimed that, "Sometimes sherry is not just a thing, it’s the thing." While I truly despise rules and absolutes, and think far too much fuss is made about wine pairings, in this case he is right. At Moruno we have anchovies and olives and peppers all over our menu, and a fino or manzanilla sherry is indeed the thing for those dishes. Other wines may work, but never as well. They just can't. Fino and manzanilla handle acidic, briny ingredients with grace, and can also cut the bottom end of fattier foods.

"Sometimes sherry is not just a thing, it’s the thing."

Sadly, sherry is so wildly unfamiliar to diners, and there is such scarce demand for them, that they are seldom featured on wine lists. If consumers are never given a chance to taste them with food, nor taught how to decipher the labels and categories, you can hardly expect them to demand more. That said, I don’t think I am wrong in saying that I can sense a tiny, but growing, ripple of support for sherry. Perhaps most interesting is that it is coming from both the sommelier and mixologist community, which is a rare and welcomed example of those two camps rallying around one beverage. At Moruno, we offer five different sherries by the glass, and also feature it on our cocktail menu in our riff on the classic sherry cobbler.

So, how to get folks to embrace this wondrous beverage? It starts with a tiny bit of education and a whole bunch of demystification. While reading the labels may not be as straightforward as those that scream CABERNET SAUVIGNON – NAPA VALLEY, it’s not as complicated as it may seem. Excluding the sweet versions for the purposes of this exercise, there are three types of sherry: those produced without exposure to oxygen, those produced with exposure to oxygen, and those that get a bit of both. The process is what dictates the style. It’s all made from the same grapepalomino.

The first category includes fino and manzanilla, the name simply indicating which town the wines were aged in. The protection from oxygen comes in the form of a milky layer of yeast called flor that develops on top of the wine. The flor not only keeps the wines safe from oxygen, but it gives them an ethereal, indescribable aroma, which I can only describe as fresh baked sourdough slathered in walnut butter. Manzanilla is from closer to the Atlantic, so it picks up more of the sea air and is a bit leaner and brinier. Fino typically has broader shoulders, but this is really splitting hairs. Just know that these are the ones you want with anchovies and olives. They are the perfect wine with which to start a meal. That said, in one sitting, I have enjoyed fino with everything from raw tuna to grilled, rare steak. They go with everything. Really.

Amontillado and oloroso can be some of the most shockingly complex beverages in the world.

In some cases, the flor dies or is killed off by the addition of neutral grape spirit. The wine then spends the rest of its time in barrel without the layer of protection, fully exposed to oxygen. This is my favorite style, and it is called amontillado. You get the best of both worlds. The penetrating freshness of fino/manzanilla, with a bit of the body and complexity found in the oxidative style called oloroso. There is another in-between category called palo cortado, which can be delicious, but the definition is so abstract and confusing we should leave that one alone.

Amontillado and oloroso can be some of the most shockingly complex beverages in the world. In spite of their complexity, they have a nervous energy that keeps them fresh and alive in the mouth, and they cleanse the palate like tiny scrubbing bubbles. It's hard to imagine a single sip providing so much pleasure, but they do ... at least the good ones do.

Here is a small list of the good ones and few more names of terrific producers to look for. They may not be easy to locate, but with any luck, the tide will turn and there will be a greater demand for these incredible, food-friendly wines.

  • Fino: Bodegas Tradición ($30)
  • Manzanilla: La Cigarerra ($12)
  • Amontillado: El Maestro Sierra 12 year old ($28)
  • Oloroso: Fernando de Castilla "Antique" ($32)

Other very good sources:

Have a wine-related question you'd like answered? Hit the comments.

Moruno

6333 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90036

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