Chill out, it’s sherry time

Fino and manzanilla sherries are aged for years in barrels.

Fino and manzanilla sherries are aged for years in barrels.

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Christine Austin puts a bottle of fino and manzanilla alongside some nibbles in the fridge as high summer approaches.

I was stuck at Madrid airport for five hours recently, waiting for my connection home but just this once, I didn’t mind a bit. The reason I was quite happy whiling away my time in this newly built, British-designed confection of steel, marble and a wavy wooden roof had nothing to do with architecture, nor even the vast array of shops I could have spent my money in. I was happy because I had a ticket that entitled me to sit in the special lounge, and that is where I found the quarter bottles of manzanilla sherry. They were in the fridge, already chilled, and there were individual dishes of salted almonds nearby. My five hours’ wait just flew by.

And that is the key to enjoying sherry in the summer. The wine should be chilled, the bottles should be small enough to polish off in a sitting or two, and it should be accompanied by savoury nibbles – nuts, Serrano ham, a few olives and maybe a freshly peeled prawn or two. Bite-sized pieces of chorizo sausage, anchovies, manchego cheese with piquant peppers and small crispy fried salt-cod fishcakes are other good accompaniments.

And just to be clear, the kind of sherry I am taking about is not the sweet sticky stuff that might arrive in a bottle labelled cream or medium. The sherry I love in summer has the same effect as a waft of sea-breeze or the quick-chill sensation you get when you dive into an open-air swimming pool. It is refreshing, lively, palate-cleansing and accompanies so many foods that it can take you right through from early evening until bedtime.

This is the dry end of the sherry spectrum – manzanilla and fino – and they both have a lively, tangy taste as well as weight and persistence on the palate. Serve chilled they are summer’s best drinking secret, and even if you are not in the special lounge at Madrid airport, they are an absolute bargain. If you last bought a bottle of sherry when great-aunt Edna came to stay, you have probably forgotten all you ever knew about sherry, so here is a bit of background on these wines.

All sherry comes from Spain. You may think that Cyprus, South Africa and other places also churn out sherry, but that was before the name became protected – like Wensleydale. Sherry comes from the area around Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain. This city gave its name to the product – so “Hereth” as it is pronounced, became sherry in English.

All styles of sherry start off the same way. The vineyards around Jerez are rich in chalk – some are so chalky they gleam white in the sunshine. The real advantage of this soil is that it soaks up rainfall like a sponge, and then the surface bakes hard in the sunshine which means that the vine’s roots can dig down to find moisture all summer long. The main grape variety is Palomino which produces huge bunches of flavourless grapes that are fermented into equally dull and flavourless wine – but the clever bit is yet to come.

Sherry is a fortified wine which means that pure wine alcohol is added to it after fermentation to bring the level up to around 15 per cent and then it is aged in barrels in tall, airy warehouses. The barrels are not quite full and while that would be a disaster for most wines, in the yeast-filled air of Jerez something strange happens. A creamy white film grows on the surface of the wine, rather like the mould on a camembert. It spreads out over the surface, creating an impermeable blanket that shuts out oxygen and allows further flavour changes to take place. Trapped below the blanket, known as “flor”, a tangy dry character develops in the wine. The barrels remain in the bodega for at least three years, refreshed from time to time by younger wines while the “flor” stays intact protecting the wine.

The process for making manzanilla is exactly the same, but instead of being matured in the lofty warehouses of Jerez, it is transported to the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. There, cool sea breezes affect the growth of the flor which gives the wine a strangely salty taste. There are some who believe that the saltiness comes from the sea air – which it may do, but it is more likely that the flor works in a different way at a lower temperature, giving that saltiness of flavour.

Those little bottles that I found in Madrid airport are almost impossible to find in shops, but a half bottle is the ideal size for two. I prefer to finish a bottle of fino or manzanilla within a week to get the freshest of flavours so if you have last year’s bottle still lurking at the back of the cupboard, throw it out, or at least tip it into soup, gravy or fish stock.

La Guita is the manzanilla that 
captivated my taste buds in Madrid and it is available, in big bottles only, at £15.99, from Czerwik’s in Brighouse. If 75cl is too big a challenge to finish off in a week or so, then head to Waitrose and their Alegria from Williams and Humbert at just £5.29 for 37.5cl. This shone out at a recent 
tasting for its vibrant, lively salted, savoury notes.

Majestic has the remarkably good La Gitana manzanilla from Hidalgo at the fantastic price of just £7.99 (for 75cl) on multi-buy. Widely available at our independents is one of the best fino wines around, Valdespino’s Inocente (around £8 for 37.5cl from Halifax Wine Co, Martinez Wines and Grassington Wines). Aged for an astonishing 10 years under that protective flor, it is still crisp and savoury yet with enough weight to accompany smoked salmon or oysters.

Make sure you have the right glassware for your sherry. It is best enjoyed from a tulip-shaped white wine glass, filled one third full, so you can swirl it around and capture those aromas. Both fino and manzanilla should be served chilled, so keep a bottle in the fridge, and if you decide to sit outside then put it in an ice-bucket.

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